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Lost Dhow exhibition illuminates China's historical trade prowess 2015-01-29

Thursday, 2015, January 29

Aga Khan Museum, Toronto

Xinhua News Agency
The Lost Dhow: A Discovery from the Maritime Silk Route.
Cristoph De Caermichael, Yan Zhonghua

TORONTO, Jan. 29 (Xinhua) -- China's active role in cross- cultural exchange and trade in the 9th century is explored here in The Lost Dhow exhibition that runs until April 26, 2015.

The new Aga Khan Museum in Toronto plays host to the extraordinary exhibition of artifacts from a 9th-century Arab dhow, which was discovered in 1998 at the bottom of the Indian Ocean in the western Java Sea.

Henry Kim, director and CEO of the Aga Khan Museum, said "It has long been suspected that sea-borne trade between the Abbasid Empire in the near east and North Africa, and the Tang dynasty in China was thriving as early as the 7th century C.E. In 1998, a 9th- century dhow was discovered shipwrecked off Belitung Island in Indonesia, and it cemented trade as a fact."

"We always knew there was maritime trade, but where were the ships? This wreck gave us everything. The dhow's cargo was perfectly preserved as new today as the day it was created more than 1,200 years ago," Kim explained to Xinhua while guiding an exclusive tour.

The dhow's discovery is the most important maritime archaeological discovery of the 20th century. Its hold presented 57,500 hundred ceramic artifacts along with gold, silver and bronze artifacts. Approximately 300 objects make up The Lost Dhow: A Discovery from the Maritime Silk Route exhibition, which was jointly organized by the Asian Civilizations Museum of Singapore and Singapore Tourism Board in concert with the Aga Khan Museum. Alan Chong, director of the Asian Civilizations Museum and the Peranakan Museum in Singapore, and John Vollmer, guest curator of The Lost Dhow exhibition, played key roles in this collaboration.

In the exhibition, the dhow's silhouette is cleverly outlined on the museum's floor, inviting visitors to understand the dimensions of the vessel that carried crew and wares on this amazing journey that ended in shipwreck. The dhow was only 6.4 meters wide and 18 meters long and was made out of wood sewn together with rope.

Carbon dating of this particular dhow and the age of the artifacts found confirmed they originated in the 9th century. Some pieces had the date inscribed in Chinese and provided specific provenance. "This vessel was dated 826 A.D.," said Kim, adding " The significance of this collective find was that it not only contained items from its time but from earlier times as well, as early as the first century."

"This was indeed treasure not only of material value but, more importantly, of cultural and anthropological significance that gave us all a rare glimpse into the collective mindset of merchants and artisans and the buyer of these wares. This was not a chance shipment; it was a supply trade ship plying a well- established mapped-out route that may have traveled from as far away as Iraqi Basra to Yangzhou, China," Kim continued.

In the companion book to the exhibition, author Simon Worrall, who has written extensively about the Belitung wreck for the National Geographic, observes that the Abbasid Empire had trade with bordering lands such as Egypt, Turkey, Baghdad, Kashgar, Chang'an, and Luoang. The Aga Khan Museum sources indicated that the Abbasid Empire was a commonwealth of Islamic states that came to dominate much of the world circa 800 A.D..

The dhow's cargo was substantial and astonishingly subscribed to a manufacturing culture of mass-producing a variety of wares for export. This activity is reminiscent of modern China's economic vibrancy circa 2015. Professor Wang Gungwu of Singapore's National University has observed that globalization is a very old concept in this part of the world. What is happening today is the restoration of the original links from China to the Persian Gulf. The Tang shipwreck, the Arab dhow, the Chinese cargo was found in Indonesia. The past and present are once again relinked.

"We know there was trade between these regions, which was the lifeblood of life! It's a question of supply and demand. What a shipwreck like this shows you is that the same trade dynamic was active as early as the 9th century. Here are these bowls mass manufactured in China, the same as in modern times," Kim said.

Many of the items exhibited from the dhow's cargo reflect the ordinary day-to-day life of a long ago people. These finds were mirrored on land as many such containers were unearthed in Siraf on the Persian Gulf and in Chinese tombs and Buddhist temples. In the exhibition, the vessels' maritime routes are indicated on large wall maps displayed in the museum. From the main Silk Road routes to the main maritime routes including the age's weather patterns, the trade route stretched over 8,000 kilometers.

"The shipwreck is the earliest Arab vessel found with a complete cargo, including silver ingots and bronze mirrors... Jars which held spices made of yellowish clay that were once glazed in turquoise, survived relatively intact with only the glazing diminished. A level of sophistication appeared in the intricately worked gold and silver vessels," Kim explained. The find of these precious metal objects indicated that the market was funded by persons of wealth and position circa 820 A.D..

Kim's enthusiasm for the ship continued as he pointed to a replica of a dhow presented by Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman. " While a modern-day dhow is nailed together, has metal hulls, and is driven by engines, the dhow that we see here is an elegant wind- driven example of ancient man's tenacity in its use of everyday materials."

The museum director then guided Xinhua to a Ewer (104 cm x 26 cm) from the Gongxing kilns in Henan Province, China. "The dragon head," he noted, "shows a distinct Chinese influence; the body scroll work and geometric design are likely of Arab origin. Glazed copper green, this unique piece shows us the blending of two cultures. Its shape and detailing indicate that it was made for display purposes and was based on West Asian metalware."

Another fascinating inclusion in The Lost Dhow is early evidence of what has become a stock-in-trade Chinese design: ceramics with blue and white motifs of lozenges and sprigs of foliage. Incorporated into Chinese wares to appeal to the Abbasid market, this design was borrowed from Basra, Iraq. As China's influence spread through Europe 800 years later, the design was in turn incorporated into Holland's Delftware and Portugal's Azulejo.

Birds and clouds, flowers and Buddhist symbols - patterns still favored in today's market - are also well represented in The Lost Dhow exhibition. A large octagonal footed gold cup indicates the complex cosmopolitan environment of the Tang court, its shape and metallurgical technology and its use in the consumption of wine indicating it was from West Asia.

The Chinese artisans' love of color is represented in the green- splashed wares and their artistic license is seen in the dragon lion hybrid handle. Cups on display have embossed bas-relief of fish and animals molded into the bottom of the cup as amusement. These likely teased the imagination of their users and once told stories now relegated to history.

The Lost Dhow and the Aga Khan Museum deliver compelling stories released both from the Indonesian sea bed and across 1,200 years. Late February will also see the launch of two exhibitions in the museum featuring the two passions of British painter and printmaker Howard Hodgkin: collecting and creating art. Both promise to bridge cultures and eras, providing unique insights into both art and history.

Copyright 2014 Xinhua News Agency.

Xinhua is China's state-run news agency.

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