Sailing Seasons in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean:
The View from Rasulid (13th-14th Centuries) Aden

by Daniel Martin Varisco

[This is a lecture presented at the Red Sea Trade and Travel Study Day of the Society for Arabian Studies at the British Museum, October 5, 2002, and subsequently published in Yemen Update. For Part 1, click here.]

Monday, 13 Rajab, 691 (June 30, 1292)

Bismillah al-rahman al-rahim. I, Ibn al-Mujabbir, begin this diary full of hope, a pilgrim sure of his destination, not a lost soul adrift. Who but God in his indescribable mercy could have provided a calmer sea and more willing wind to our sails than our good fortune holds aboard this ship, Hut Yunis. As Jonah was saved in God’s good time, so I trust in that very God to set foot once again in my homeland. There are three ships under the protection of the Karimi assurances, traveling together for safety and among the last of the season bound south for Yemen. I humbly beg forgiveness from the One before whom I submit, who knows the danger in every unseen shoal.

In two hours time, before the evening prayer, the captain informs me we will put ashore in a safe place. We sail by day in sight of land, but at night we rest. As God is our only guide, the wisely guided do not lead themselves into temptation. There are many dangers here, for they say the devil himself is master of the sea when darkness settles and the afarit do his bidding. Even Solomon, wise and powerful as God made him, took precaution when traveling to see Sheba’s beauty queen. Should I, a poor Yemeni born in Zabid, and now a stranger to no land where freshly minted Kamiliya dirhams are valued, do less. There are, I trust, no monsters in these depths, but the jinn inhabit all seven climes and more, if there be more.

Just before dawn, as I lay on deck atop my straw mat, surveying the majestic panorama of the night sky, the holy words of surat Yunis came back to me, the reward for having a stern father who made a wayward son memorize against his then rebellious will:

It was He that gave the sun his brightness and the moon her light, ordaining her phases that you may learn to compute the seasons and the years. He created them only to manifest the truth. He makes plain His revelations to men of understanding.

Ahmed, the captain or mu‘allim, was also awake, preparing to ease the ship out of its anchorage, as the sea birds preceded us in their prayers to the same creator. He knew the stars of the night as well as any Bedouin tracker knew the hooves of his camel herd. To me, a businessman, there was no natural order to the heavens, just a myriad of bright lights that a vivid imagination could create into forbidden human and animal forms. The Greeks, God preserve us from their errant thinking, saw goats and winged horses where I saw nought but a calligraphy of God’s inscrutability.

Ahmed chided me for my devout resistance to pragmatism. “Understand the words you recited, oh man of the purse. God in his wisdom placed the stars there to help us, not dazzle our senses. Look directly above at that square of stars. There is your winged horse, which the Greeks call Pegasus, although I have no idea what such a fanciful animal would look like, were Greek liars – and all Greek sailors I know are liars – to be believed. The Bedouins call it the “well bucket,” no doubt in hopes that the late summer rains are soon to appear. Now follow along in a straight line across the top of the sky to that bright star; that is the “belly of the whale,” (batn al-hut), may God preserve us from the fate of his servant Jonah; in three weeks time it will be straight above us. All in all there are 28 of these asterisms, no matter how you dream about them. All arranged neatly in the circle of the sky, half visible at any given moment. This is the belt that holds the world in place. God is indeed above all of us, watching over us. Send me to a dark land with no memory of my past and I could tell the time and plot a course by these divine markers alone. Surely, God is a guide on sea and land for those willing to trust him.”

I was sufficiently humbled to ask him more about how he knew the best times to sail here in the Red Sea.

“For that,” said Ahmed, “look not to the Greeks or the Arabs, donkeys the former are by nature, donkeys the latter are when not on solid ground, but to the Persians. We sailors reckon the timing of our sailing by the New Year (nayruz) calendar. But this is a confusing system, my friend, since the Persian calendar does not keep pace with the cycle of seasons. When forty years pass, these seasons arrive 10 days later by this calendar, so with every new generation of sailors we need to revise the numbers, but it is still the same sailing season, and I can tell it just from the location of specific stars at specific times.”

“So why bother with such a cumbersome system?” I asked, wondering if the Prophet would have condemned it as he did the intercalary month of the pagan Arabs, who were not satisfied with the lunar calendar God had ordained for his purposes.

“Not all sailors know the stars as I do, and if you travel to different climes you will see new stars and not see some familiar ones,” responded Ahmed. “But you worry far too much about silly details. We know when to sail because each season has its winds. Thus we sail from Aydhab in early summer because the north wind is with us at first and the winter southeast wind does not prevent us from making headway from Jeddah to Bab al-Mandab. We are at God’s mercy, trying to navigate between the calm, when we hardly move at all, and the violent monsoons, when all could be lost in a moment.”

“But what of the other ships, coming up the coast of Africa or from India and Ceylon? How do they know when to sail?” I asked.

“Not by listening to learned men or reading books, I can assure you,” answered Ahmed. “We all follow the experience of generations before, perhaps going back to Noah, or whoever God first gave the knowledge of navigation. I know a man who sails west out of Aden to Somalia when Altair and Vega are at midheaven. The Indian fleet, for the ships often bunch together for safety, sails home from Aden in early spring with the southwest monsoon at their backs. This is called the dimani or tirmah sailing.”

“Neither of these strange terms have I heard before,” I interrupted.

“It is no wonder, scholar of books and other useless things, since neither is an Arabic word. There is no one language on the sea. Both are Persian words, dimani, or some say damani, for the main sail sheet of a ship and Tirmah for a hot Persian month in summer. But we Arabs know this west wind as dabur, some say because it hits (dabara) our back as we face east in the sacred precinct of the ka‘ba.” Ahmed lectured me, as though I was a student to be tutored by a master. And in a way, I suppose I was.

to be continued