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Ships of the western Indian Ocean in Persian manuscript paintings

Michael J. de Ruyter
p. 351-353


La relecture de 150 images d’embarcations apparaissant dans des peintures des manuscrits persans du xive au xixe siècle révèle l’environnement contextuel de ces images tant décriées de la navigation. Les chercheurs en histoire maritime citent rarement les peintures persanes, mais la disponibilité en ligne de fac-similés numériques de manuscrits persans a amélioré l’accès à un vaste corpus d’images permettant réexamens et comparaisons approfondies. Cette étude met en évidence le potentiel du corpus d’images d’embarcations dans les manuscrits persans et montre comment ces peintures peuvent être interprétées davantage comme des illustrations de la culture maritime que comme des représentations détaillées de la technologie nautique.

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1This paper describes the preliminary review of a corpus of 150 images of watercraft in Persian manuscript paintings from the 14th to the 19th centuries. The iconic 13th-century paintings of ships and boats in several illustrated versions of al-Hariri’s Maqamat are widely used by nautical researchers as pictorial evidence of seafaring in the Indian Ocean, and are highly valued due to the relative paucity of other iconographic and archaeological evidence (Agius 2008, p. 31 and 382). The more plentiful Persian images produced over the next six centuries are much less frequently cited and have been considered “remarkably unrealistic” (Nicolle 1989, p. 187). Persian paintings are rarely cited by nautical researchers due to their highly stylised nature, the apparent absence of evidentiary value and difficulty of access compared to other sources (Nicolle 1989, p. 183). The availability of digital facsimiles of Persian manuscripts online is rapidly rendering the last of these impediments obsolete, prompting a reappraisal of the others. The images in this corpus of Persian paintings might lack technical merit as strictly nautical studies, but they have clear potential to illustrate the nuances of Islamic seafaring culture in the western Indian Ocean.

1. The corpus of images

2This study seeks to examine the social contexts of western Indian Ocean seafaring by exploring rarely used iconographic sources that can supplement archaeological evidence. The growing corpus of Persian paintings of watercraft currently includes 150 images dating from 1314 to 1870 identified in digital collections online and in manuscript catalogues. The images have been coded by temporal, spatial and figural elements, as well as by the shapes, features and activities of the watercraft represented. The original paintings were executed in court workshops in inland cities of the “Persianate” world – Shiraz, Tabriz, Herat, Bukhara, Isfahan, Qazwin, Khurasan, Yazd – and are stylistically distinct from contemporary Arab, Ottoman and Indian manuscript paintings. Watercraft are depicted in a range of lacustrine, riverine and marine environments. This paper reports some results from an initial analysis of the coded images and the full results will be published on completion of the PhD project.

2. Sources and scenes

3The majority of these images come from copies of the Shahnama (Book of Kings), an epic Persian poem written in the 11th century. The illustrators were not therefore witness to the events shown. They appear to have used a mix of inspirations to supplement their clearly limited real life experience, including older Persian manuscripts (Eastman 1950, p. 162-163), Arab and European art, rock reliefs and shadow puppets.

4A range of activities is depicted throughout the corpus. Fully 73% of images show vessels on passage or crossing rivers or lakes, 10% show fighting or violence such as in figure 1, 7% depict the Prophet Nuh and the Ark, 7% represent vessels in crisis or people overboard, three images show hunting or fishing, and only one image depicts boatbuilding activity, sugges­ting a lack of concern with seafaring trades among court audiences.

3. People onboard

5Figure 1 shows a common distribution of figures in Persian paintings of watercraft. Crew members are commonly differentiated by simpler clothing, often shirtless and by darker skin. A nakhoda or sailing master is frequently shown towards the stern in larger vessels, usually distinguished by better clothing and headwear, although people of high social rank are also shown in this position, as is the case in figure 1.

Fig. 1: Painting from the Ẓafarnāmah

Fig. 1: Painting from the Ẓafarnāmah

A 1533 painting from the Ẓafarnāmah, a biography of Timur, showing structural features of watercraft and the sail, and clear differentiation between courtiers and passengers, soldiers and crew.

(BL IO Islamic 137, f. 50r, courtesy of the British Library)

6Prophets, kings, women, soldiers, merchants and slaves are all variously shown as passengers in ships. Some 10% of images show women embarked, always as passengers and often in Nuh’s Ark, and 7% depict the transport of horses, like in figure 1, which in this case includes an elephant. Sea monsters like those on the left of figure 1 are included in a fifth of all scenes and often portend grief or evil (Simpson 1997, p. 56-57).

4. Ships and technology

7There are several standard boat or ship types that appear throughout the corpus, usually shown in profile. The majority of vessels depicted are small craft resembling the lower two in fig. 1 and 39% are seagoing vessels with mast and super­structure similar to the main vessel in the image, while 6% are identifiably European-type vessels, like carracks or galleons.

8Indigenous Persian, Indian and European watercraft are depicted in the corpus. Square sails are prevalent throughout the corpus and triangular or trapezoidal sails first appear in the early 16th century, as shown in fig. 1. Stylistic “banner” sails similar to those in the ship from the Schefer Maqamat manuscript (Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Arabe.5847, f.119v), possibly depicting a Quranic simile (Beeston 1973, p. 94), appear into the 15th century. Only in later European-style vessels is it possible to conclusively determine the method of fastening where nails or bolts appear.

5. Conclusions

9This study confirms that seafaring for the Persian elite was an exceptional experience, much more so than fighting, hunting or feasting if the frequency of representation in manuscript painting in general is a guide. This is demonstrated by the appearance of watercraft in only 1% of the manuscript illustrations reviewed, and the majority of these watercraft conform to one of several visual tropes repeated throughout. These images for the most part display the nautical technical naivety of the terrestrially bound court artists, yet show the potential to provide rich insight into the social contexts of Persian seafaring. Further study of this growing corpus will include analysis of contextual information associated with the images and of the models or prototypes used by the artists. As well as identifying general technical trends, it may then be possible to distinguish which artists or images are more reliable for nautical research and which are more likely to be based on first-hand experience. This corpus already represents a significant collection of indigenous maritime art of the western Indian Ocean that can supplement documentary and archaeological sources.


10Thanks to Flinders University, the British Foundation for the Study of Arabia, the Iran Heritage Foundation and the Royal Historical Society for financial support, and to Associate Professor Wendy van Duivenvoorde for supervision. Thanks to the anonymous reviewer and Dr Giulia Boetto for helpful comments.

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Agius D. A.
2008 Classic Ships of Islam: from Mesopotamia to the Indian Ocean, Leiden, Brill.

Beeston A. F. L.
1973 “Ships in a Quranic simile,” Journal of Arabian Literature IV, p. 94-96.

Eastman A. C.
1950 “On Three Persian ʻMarine’ Paintings,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 9.3, p. 153-163.

Nicolle D.
1989 “Shipping in Islamic art: seventh through sixteenth century AD,” The American Neptune XLIX.3, p. 168-197.

Simpson M. S.
1997 Persian Poetry, Painting and Patronage: Illustrations in a Sixteenth-Century Masterpiece, New Haven, Yale University Press.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1: Painting from the Ẓafarnāmah
Légende A 1533 painting from the Ẓafarnāmah, a biography of Timur, showing structural features of watercraft and the sail, and clear differentiation between courtiers and passengers, soldiers and crew.
Crédits (BL IO Islamic 137, f. 50r, courtesy of the British Library)
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,3M
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Michael J. de Ruyter, « Ships of the western Indian Ocean in Persian manuscript paintings »Archaeonautica, 21 | 2021, 351-353.

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Michael J. de Ruyter, « Ships of the western Indian Ocean in Persian manuscript paintings »Archaeonautica [En ligne], 21 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2022, consulté le 02 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Michael J. de Ruyter

Archaeology, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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