||Al-Ahram Weekly Online
28 March - 3 April 2002
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Alexandria is a beehive of activity, as it eagerly awaits the official inauguration of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina next month. Fatemah Farag looks on as copies of invaluable documents, photos, lithographs and paintings related to the Suez Canal under French administration arrive in the city (Reclaiming history); and follows the choppy course of a reed boat designed to unravel the mysteries of prehistoric navigation
Magical mystery tour
Step pyramids on the Canary Islands, a reed boat and a biology teacher with a maritime passion. Fatemah Farag sails along
What is "Abora"? In its original incarnation, Abora is the power of goodness depicted by a sign that can be found on step pyramids, similar to the Saqqara step pyramid, all over the Mediterranean region. For modern-day historians, Abora is a strong indication of links between the peoples of the Mediterranean sea dating back to prehistoric times.
Passion's journey: getting Abora II ready to sail in Alexandria (photos: Hussein Fathi)
In its most recent incarnation, however, Abora is the name being given to a six-ton totra-reed boat. This faithful reconstruction of a Nubian cave-painting is 11.5 metres long, 3.5 metres wide and 1.5 metres deep.
I first came across this six-ton version of Abora on a crowded street in Alexandria. Unceremoniously wrapped in blue plastic, it was being whizzed around the city by an entourage of traffic police. It got stuck under a bridge and wove around the traffic along the Corniche, before it finally reached its temporary destination: the Alexandria Yacht Club.
Once I myself was also inside these rarefied confines, I set about searching for the boat's creator. Now, I feel I ought to be forgiven for seeking out the tallest, most muscular men amongst the crowd. After all, you would have thought that a man who built huge reed boats to sail the high seas would be the burly sort.
I was wrong, however. After several polite "not me" responses, I was finally directed to a short, young- looking blonde man with a soft voice. He was rushed off his feet, which gave him a rather vulnerable look.
Goerlitz ties the knot; building the Abora in Bolivia
Dominique Goerlitz had come to Alexandria six months before to make arrangements for the arrival of his boat -- the "Abora II" -- as part of the festivities being organised to inaugurate the Bibiotheca Alexandrina.
Goerlitz, it seems, is something of a perfectionist. He went as far as to measure the entrance of the yacht club and found it perfect for his boat's admittance. But on his arrival at the club after a 12-hour travail with various customs and security authorities, Goerlitz was confronted by a huge cement fence and a small door.
He was informed that the city of Alexandria was beautifying itself and building quite a few walls in the process. In the race to get the club ready, no one had bothered to take the Abora II's grand entrance into account.
But the day was saved: large cranes were hastily procured and, some time close to midnight, the reed boat finally squatted majestically among its skinnier, modern counterparts.
It was the end of a long journey that had begun in Bolivia, where the boat was constructed. But let us not get ahead of ourselves. The best place to start any story is at the beginning. And so back to Goerlitz, a biology teacher at a grammar school in Germany.
"As a student of botany," Goerlitz told me, "I was fascinated by the fact that in the 'New World' there are many plants that are of foreign origin. For example, the cotton indigenous to North America is of the short- stem variety, which cannot be used to make cloth. But long-stem cotton does grow there, and genetic investigation has shown that it is a hybrid plant with genes from Africa.
"But how did they get there? That was an enigma for which I could find no convincing answer," Goerlitz explained as we sought respite from the winter sun in the shade of a peeling white sailing boat.
Some of the experts he consulted told Goerlitz that plants had simply dropped into the ocean and finally made their way, via the tides, to new lands where nature proceeded to take its course. But Goerlitz was not convinced. Instead, he decided to make it his life's vocation to prove that there had been links between prehistoric communities in Asia minor and the "New World."
He began by following in the footsteps of the Norwegian scientist Thor Heyerdahl. "Heyerdahl used the model of the Pharaonic boats to build two boats; one expedition started in Egypt and attempted to sail to America but failed. That was in 1970. He tried again from Morocco and this time he succeeded," recounted Goerlitz.
"But other scientists argued that since he had sailed only with the currents and had been unable to manoeuvre his boat against the wind, his voyage could not be used as proof that Mediterranean civilisation had any influence on the New World," continued Goerlitz. "You cannot have trade lines if the boats being used cannot sail against the wind, especially in the Mediterranean sea where the currents and winds are crazy."
Goerlitz, keen to probe the mystery further, was inspired to study prehistoric navigation. The research brought him to Egypt in 1992. "It was in Luxor that I had my first breakthrough," he said. "A young Egyptian Egyptologist sat with me, and after listening to my ideas he told me that I would be making a mistake if I adopted Heyerdahl's theories completely. He told me that for reasons of religion and culture, the Pharaohs were isolated and did not sail the seas, only the river. Hence the sun boats were not models for sea voyage. But 500 years before the date that we usually take as the beginning of Egyptian civilisation, other people inhabited Egypt, who traded with all the ancient civilisations."
Abora II in full sail; the Bolivian team take a final photo with Goerlitz and his partner, Cornelia (photos: Cornelia Lawrence)
Thus enlightened, Goerlitz set out to study the rock engravings that these pre-dynastic Egyptians left in areas such as Wadi Hamamat and Wadi Al-Sayala in Nubia, which are said to have been drawn at the end of the 4th millennium BC.
A closer look at these drawings -- which were often of boats, predominantly made of papyrus reed -- led Goerlitz to believe that what everyone automatically thought were representations of oars were actually keels.
"Two or three oars would never have been enough to move such large vessels. They would need something closer to twenty or thirty," Goerlitz explained. "Instead I argue these were keels, which are a must in a sail boat to keep it balanced in the water."
For Goerlitz, the challenge was to prove that this kind of boat could have crossed the oceans. But building similar-looking boats would not be enough. The real test would be to prove that they could sail crosswise and even against the wind -- a prerequisite for regular commercial contact across the seas.
And so in 1993, the first such reed boat was built and, according to Goerlitz, the results were "amazing."
"We started in fresh water and after only a few days we could sail in any direction. And yet still Egyptologists told me I was a donkey. Fresh water is one thing, they said, the sea is something else. And so in 1994 we headed to the Baltic Sea."
The Baltic expedition was the beginning of a long process of refining his original idea; repositioning the keels, trying out prototypes in rivers, and eventually launching the "Abora I" off the coast of Sardinia.
"I chose Sardinia because I believe that in prehistoric times it was a melting pot of northern and southern Mediterranean cultures," Goerlitz explained. He concedes that while they had hoped to reach the Canary Islands (a 3,500-km journey) in 55 days, they only managed 600 km and sailed 90 degrees against the wind (in a modern boat the average would be 30 degrees).
Nevertheless, he and his team, which includes his 11-year partner and wife Cornelia Lawrence, were not to be discouraged. After all, theirs was an epic quest. Ultimately, they aimed to prove that, long before the age of the Phoenicians, people from Asia Minor managed to conquer the Mediterranean Sea by means of prehistoric reed boats and that these people reached Atlantic territories around 3000BC.
The reed boats that Goerlitz constructs aim to prove that they did this via a high-tech navigation system of side boards and different RA-sail positions.
"We now have so much proof in our hands that pyramid culture, for example, spread through Sardinia to Greece to the Canary Islands. This suggests that there must have been a highly developed navigational capability."
Which brings us to the Abora II -- a 2002AD reconstruction of the pre- dynastic rock drawings which will be sailing from Alexandria in a few weeks time with the aim of proving that the Egyptians sailed their vessels not only on the Nile, but that they made journeys far and wide across both sea and ocean.
Because of a limited budget -- a chronic problem for Goerlitz, who along with his wife has put all their joint earnings into the Abora -- Goerlitz went to Bolivia to build his boat out of scirpus lacustris.
He gave me a piece of the material. It looked like plain reed to me, but Goerlitz explained that it has very similar characteristics to papyrus. In 2001, on the Bolivian shores of Lake Titicaca, the "reeds" were harvested in great quantities and the locals helped the Germans build their boat.
"I cannot thank the Bolivian people enough. They taught us so much about boat-making, because to this day they make similar boats. I tried to get UNESCO pay for the transportation of one or two of the Bolivian people who worked on building the boat to assist us in getting it ready and in tribute to their great efforts, but they refused," laments Goerlitz, who acknowledges that without their labours he would probably not be in Alexandria today.
It took several weeks to build the boat, which was then transported across the Pacific to Hamburg in two containers, and then on to Alexandria. The journey took three months.
All the while, Dr Abdou Tarabulsi was pulling strings to get things ready for them here in Egypt. Reclining in chairs in their Alexandria home on a quiet side-street, Tarabulsi and his German wife Ingrid tell me about their involvement with the project.
"It all came by chance... " begins Tarabulsi.
"Did you tell them how it all happened by chance?" asks Ingrid as she enters the room. She explains that she received a call from friends in Germany telling them about the Goerlitz team and asking if they could take care of them when they came to Alexandria.
"I said, why not?" Tarabulsi tells me. Then he met them. "They are all on their own and they needed help. I could not very well leave them after that."
And so he became their de facto project manager, helping them get by in Arabic, taking them to the right places.
"The Governor of Alexandria was wonderful. He met us immediately and started facilitating everything. Also, the Library of Alexandria was a great moral support and took an immediate interest in endorsing the project, in particular Leila Doweidar who is attached to the office of [liberary director] Ismail Serrageddin," Tarabulsi said.
Still, it has not been all plain sailing. "So many fine details, so many phone calls and things to be sorted out. I have been running around ever since they came six months ago," says Tarabulsi.
Nevertheless, Goerlitz's team still needs sponsorship. "Think of their accommodation -- they stay at the Alexandria Youth Hostel. They are young people who work all day, and they need to eat. Basics like that. But so far, we have found no one to put money into their project even though they will be sailing during the official inauguration between the Yacht Club and the Library every day for a week before heading out to open sea."
As we wolfed down home-made German cake, we looked through the tall graceful windows of the balcony and considered their predicament. "We are all volunteers," explained Goerlitz, "I could use one or two Egyptian volunteers to come on the trip and anyone who wants to come and help get the ship ready to sail."
The original plan was to sail out of Spain, but Goerlitz was advised that it was more apt to start in Alexandria. "I was told that if I started from here it would 'hit people in the heart,' and I think that was right."
So come what may, the plan is that a week after the inauguration the Abora II will sail to Beirut, Turkey, Rhodes and then back to Alexandria by the end of July.
"Then we must go back to Germany to start teaching in school again," said Goerlitz. "There is a living that has to be made."
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