RIVER TRANPORT DURING 5th Century B.C.
“But the greatest marvel of all the things in the land after the city itself, to my mind is this which I am about to tell...”
With these words the Greek historian Herodotus, who visited the Persian Empire in the middle of 5th century BC, describes of the round boats on the river Tigris in Mesopotamia.
“194. But the greatest marvel of all the things in the land after the city itself, to my mind is this which I am about to tell: Their boats, those I mean which go down the river to Babylon, are round and all of leather: for they make ribs for them of willow which they cut in the land of the Armenians who dwell above the Assyrians, and round these they stretch hides which serve as a covering outside by way of hull, not making broad the stern nor gathering in the prow to a point, but making the boats round like a shield: and after that they stow the whole boat with straw and suffer it to be carried down the stream full of cargo; and for the most part these boats bring down casks of palm- wood202 filled with wine. The boat is kept straight by two steering- oars and two men standing upright, and the man inside pulls his oar while the man outside pushes.203 These vessels are made both of very large size and also smaller, the largest of them having a burden of as much as five thousand talents’ weight;204 and in each one there is a live ass, and in those of larger size several. So when they have arrived at Babylon in their voyage and have disposed of their cargo, they sell by auction the ribs of the boat and all the straw, but they pack the hides upon their asses and drive them off to Armenia: for up the stream of the river it is not possible by any means to sail, owing to the swiftness of the current; and for this reason they make their boats not of timber but of hides. Then when they have come back to the land of the Armenians, driving their asses with them, they make other boats in the same manner. 195. Such are their boats; and the following is the manner of dress which they use, namely a linen tunic reaching to the feet, and over this they put on another of wool, and then a white mantle thrown round, while they have shoes of a native fashion rather like the Bœotian slippers. They wear their hair long and bind their heads round with fillets,205 and they are anointed over the whole of their body with perfumes. Each man has a seal and a staff carved by hand, and on each staff is carved either an apple or a rose or a lily or an eagle or some other device, for it is not their custom to have a staff without a device upon it.”
The History of Herodotus
Translated into English by G. C. Macaulay
The University of Adelaide
Herodotus describes in his first book the Persian Empire during the Achaemenids dynasty. The Empire at that time reached the maximum territory expansion and was famous for the state organization and the road system. The most famous highway with a length of 2700 km was the Royal Road connecting the Royal city of Persepolis with Sardes the capital of Lydia near to the Aegean Sea coast.
It is probable the two merchants/sailors, after the demolition of their boat and the sale of the goods they traded, returned to Armenia from Babylon on foot covering a distance of about 1,000 km on the Royal Road in about 38 days.
Many goods were transported from Mediterranean Sea to Euphrates and Tigris River by land via Syria and then continue to the south by river transportation. In other words it was a combined transport by land and river, as it happens today where cargoes are carried from the inland to the river ports and then through the large rivers of Europe to the ports of North Sea.
The main goods were wine from Phoenicia area and metals in talantons (each talanton had a weight of 26 kg).
Herodotus reports that the big round boats could carry 5,000 talantons i.e. 130 MT, but is considered an exaggeration.
It is remarkable that these round boats are still in use by the locals in Tigris River under the name “GUFFA”.