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A dhow in the Indian Ocean, near the islands of Zanzibar on the Swahili coast
Fishermen's dhows moored at Dubai in 2014

Dhow (/d/; Arabic: داو, romanizeddāw) is the generic name of a number of traditional sailing vessels with one or more masts with settee or sometimes lateen sails, used in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean region.[1][2] Typically sporting long thin hulls, dhows are trading vessels primarily used to carry heavy items, such as fruit, fresh water, or other heavy merchandise, along the coasts of Eastern Arabia,[3] East Africa, Yemen and coastal South Asia (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh). Larger dhows have crews of approximately thirty and smaller ones typically around twelve.


There are several versions of the origin of the word "dau". Previously, it was believed that it could be of Arabic or Persian origin (and although in the 21st century there is no such word in either Arabic or Persian, some Dutch documents from the 17th-18th centuries indicate that then the Persian word dawh meant "small ship"). Recently, most researchers are inclined to believe that this term comes from the language of the East African Swahili people, in which daw means "vessel".[4]

However, regardless of the sources of its origin, the use of "dhow" as a collective term to refer to the boats of the Indian Ocean with characteristic "Arabian" sails, was introduced definitely by Europeans. Since in the European tradition ships were classified mainly according to their sailing equipment, all the ships of the Indian Ocean that carried similar Arabian sails and looked more or less the same to the untrained European eye were known to as Europeans using a single word, "dhow". At the same time, neither the Arabs nor the Indians use the term "dhow" to refer to their vessels collectively. The collective terms used in Arabic for ships are markab or khashab, and the Qur'an uses the term fulk. On the other hand, the peoples of the Indian Ocean use separate special names for each type of ship, differing from each other mainly not in sailing rigging, but in size, hull design and number of masts[5]


The exact origins of the dhow are lost to history. Most scholars believe that it originated in India from 600 BC to 600 AD, although there are some who claim that the sanbuk, a type of dhow, may be derived from the Portuguese caravel.[6][7] However, Portuguese caravels only appeared in the area in the late 15th century.

The dhow was the ship of trade first used by the Somalis. The Somali people who are known to have the oldest surviving dhow which is called Beden, have traded with the ancient world from Egypt, Babylon, as well as the civilizations of the far east, carrying valuable frankincense, myrrh, gold, etc. It was the Somali merchants that first introduced exotic animals from Africa to the Ming Dynasty. The dhow was used to transport giraffe to the Chinese Emperor Yong Le's court, in 1414.[8] Another source suggests the ship that carried the giraffe to China was part of a large Chinese fleet led by Zheng He.[9]

Ships that are similar to the dhow are mentioned or described in the 1001 Nights including various ports where they harboured. The dhow is also associated with the pearl trade.[citation needed]

The Yemeni Hadhrami people, as well as Omanis, for centuries came to Beypore, in Kerala, India for their dhows. This was because of the good timber in the Kerala forests, the availability of good coir rope, and the skilled shipwrights. In former times, the sheathing planks of a dhow's hull were held together by coconut rope. Beypore dhows are known as 'Uru' in Malayalam, the local language of Kerala. Settlers from Yemen, known as 'Baramis', or 'Daramis' which could be derived from the word 'Hardamis' are still active in making urus in Kerala.[citation needed]

Dhows were extensively used for the Indian Ocean slave trade, which the Royal Navy attempted to suppress. In his 1873 book, Captain G. L. Sulivan described "four different kinds of coasting dhows, as shown in the engravings, viz. the Bateele, the Badane, Bugala or genuine Dhow, and the Matapa boat".[10]

Since the 20th century

In the 1920s, British writers identified Al Hudaydah as the centre for dhow building. Those built in Al Hudaydah were smaller in size, and used for travel along the coasts. They were constructed of acacia found in Yemen.[11] They are distinguishable for their smaller triangular sails on movable bases to harvest the irregular winds of the Red Sea.[12]

Captain Alan Villiers (1903–1982) documented the days of sailing trade in the Indian Ocean by sailing on dhows between 1938 and 1939 taking numerous photographs and publishing books on the subject of dhow navigation.[13][14]

Even to the present day, dhows make commercial journeys between the Persian Gulf and East Africa using sails as their only means of propulsion. Their cargo is mostly dates and fish to East Africa and mangrove timber to the lands in the Persian Gulf. They often sail south with the monsoon in winter or early spring, and back again to Arabia in late spring or early summer.[citation needed]


For celestial navigation, dhow sailors have traditionally used the kamal, an observation device that determines latitude by finding the angle of the Pole Star above the horizon.[15]


A Shu'ai in the Persian Gulf

The term "dhow" is sometimes also applied to certain smaller lateen-sail rigged boats traditionally used in the Red Sea, the eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf area, as well as in the Indian Ocean from Madagascar to the Bay of Bengal. These include the feluccas used in Egypt, Sudan and Iraq, and the dhoni used in the Maldives, as well as the tranki, ghrab and ghalafah.[26] All these vessels have common elements with the dhow. On the Swahili Coast, in countries such as Kenya, the Swahili word used for dhow is "jahazi".[1]


The Kuwaiti Maritime Museum in Salmiya, Kuwait, holds replicas of a number of different types of dhows.[27]

The Al-Hashemi-II (1997-2001), in Kuwait City, Kuwait, was recognized by Guinness World Record as the largest wooden dhow ever built; it has never been floated and is used for events.


See also


  1. ^ a b Briggs, Philip. "Dhows of the Swahili coast". Zanzibar Travel Guide. Retrieved 6 September 2012.
  2. ^ "The History & construction of the dhow". Nabataea. Retrieved 6 September 2012.
  3. ^ Bowen, Richard Lebaron (1949). "Arab Dhows of Eastern Arabia".
  4. ^ "Arab Seafaring | Princeton University Press". press.princeton.edu. 23 July 1995. Retrieved 13 April 2024.
  5. ^ Holtzman, Bob (24 June 2009). "Indigenous Boats: What's a Dhow?". Indigenous Boats. Retrieved 13 April 2024.
  6. ^ Taylor, James. "Traditional Arab sailing ships". The British-Yemeni Society. Archived from the original on 15 July 2012. Retrieved 6 September 2012.
  7. ^ Sanbuk – Robert's Model ships and boats
  8. ^ Chris McIntyre; Susan McIntyre (2013). Zanzibar. Bradt Travel Guides. p. 6. ISBN 978-1-84162-458-7.
  9. ^ Duyvendak, JJL (1938). The True Dates of the Chinese Maritime Expeditions in the Early Fifteenth Century. pp. 341–413.
  10. ^ Sulivan, G.L. (1873). Dhow Chasing in Zanzibar Waters and on the Eastern Coast of Africa: Narrative of Five Years' Experiences in the Suppression of the Slave Trade. S. Low, Marston, Low & Searle. p. 102. Retrieved 15 November 2021.
  11. ^ Prothero, GW (1920). Arabia. London: HM Stationery Office. p. 99.
  12. ^ "صناعة القوارب". yemen-nic.info. Retrieved 12 March 2021.
  13. ^ Villiers, Alan (2006). Sons of Sinbad : an account of sailing with the Arabs in their Dhows, in the Red Sea, round the coasts of Arabia, and to Zanzibar and Tanganyika; pearling in the Persian Gulf; and the life of the shipmasters and mariners of Kuwait. Facey, William, 1948–, Ḥijjī, Yaʻqūb Yūsuf., Pundyk, Grace., Markaz al-Buḥūth wa-al-Dirāsāt al-Kuwaytīyah (Kuwait). London: Arabian Pub. in association with the Centre for Research and Studies in Kuwait. ISBN 0954479238. OCLC 61478193.
  14. ^ Villiers, Allan (15 October 2018). Monsoon Seas the Story of the Indian Ocean. Creative Media Partners, LLC. ISBN 9780343245221.
  15. ^ "Ancient Sailing and Navigation". Nabataea.net. Retrieved 7 September 2012.
  16. ^ "The Traditional Dhow". Oman: Ministry of Information. Archived from the original on 25 July 2012. Retrieved 7 September 2012.
  17. ^ Hourani, George Fadlo; Carswell, John (1995), Arab Seafaring in the Indian Ocean in Ancient and Early Medieval Times, Princeton University Press.
  18. ^ "Dhows", China, Facts & details, archived from the original on 22 September 2013, retrieved 4 October 2011.
  19. ^ "Dhow Ship – Types", Marine engineering, Bright hub, archived from the original on 25 November 2010, retrieved 14 March 2010.
  20. ^ "Ghanjah", Cog and Galley ships, archived from the original on 25 April 2012, retrieved 4 October 2011.
  21. ^ Dhow sailing in Kenya, UK: Diani beach, archived from the original on 24 July 2012.
  22. ^ Agius 2008, p. 316.
  23. ^ Oman, a Seafaring Nation, Oman: Ministry of Information, 1979.
  24. ^ Agius 2008, p. 314.
  25. ^ Xavier, Sandy. "Zaruq". CA: Sympatico. Archived from the original on 5 October 2003. Retrieved 6 September 2012.
  26. ^ Abdullah, Thabit AJ (2000), The Political Economy of Trade in Eighteenth-Century Basra, Social and Economic History of the Middle East, SUNY, ISBN 978-0-7914-4808-3.
  27. ^ Ben Garcia (19 August 2021). "Preserving and protecting Kuwait's maritime heritage". Kuwait Times.


Further reading