Arwad Island, the northernmost Phoenician trading post, still has a Phoenician-built wall on its sea front. When Beale was researching places to have a his vessel built, he combed the Lebanese, Turkish, Cypriot and Syrian coastlines in search of a community of traditional boatbuilders. Finally he discovered Arwad, only 35 kilometres from the Lebanese border but part of Syria, where there are still two families (one of three members, the other of 25 members) who build boats with traditional methods. A chance chat in a restaurant on the island with the 24-year-old business student Orwah Bakker, now project-manager of the expedition, led him to Khalid Hammoud, who built the ship with four others.There are brief interviews with crew members and then this:
Hammoud’s family has been building boats for many generations. However, constructing an ancient vessel was a huge challenge, particularly as an ancient technique had to be used. It took two years of planning and design before the first plank of Aleppo pine was even laid and Bakker says that the hardest part for the team was the design stage, when every detail had to be painstakingly translated and explained.
Built of pine – whereas Phoenicians would have used the now-endangered and more expensive cedar – Phoenicia is an example of “plank-first construction”, an ancient technique that involves building the boat’s frame first and inserting the planks afterwards. The positioning of the first plank is a delicate process because it sets the shape of the whole ship. Each successive plank is then carefully joined by mortice and tenon pegs of olive wood, and each tenon fixed with two wooden dowels. The whole ship consists of 8,000 pegs, fixed with 16,000 dowels. “Usually it takes three men and two months to build any type of ship,” says Bakker. “But this time, we needed at least five or 10 builders to work on it over eight months to make it ready. It has been hard but enjoyable.”
Phoenicia’s route will take it first into the Suez Canal, and then into the Red Sea, which it has to enter before the tides change in early September. It will then pull in at Aden, Mombassa, Dar es Salaam, Maputo, Richard’s Bay, Cape Town, Accra, Gibraltar, Carthage, Alexandria, and, all being well, return to Arwad in May of next year. The stops have been chosen mainly because they make sense from a sailing point of view, but Carthage in Tunisia has particular significance because it was a Phoenician colony. Similarly, Alexandria is also where Beale suspects the Phoenician expedition to have ended, because Herodotus states that it was somewhere on Egypt’s northern coast.
Beale calls his expeditions “experimental archaeology”. Each voyage so far has been an attempt to see whether it would have been possible to sail such a vessel in certain seas at a certain time.
A week ago, the local community slaughtered a sheep to send the boat on its way. Beale adds, “We’re going to need all the luck we can get.”Indeed.