An 18-metre long reproduction of a Magan boat has successfully sailed off the coast of Abu Dhabi, marking a major milestone for Zayed National Museum’s research programme. The project is a collaborative initiative with Zayed University and New York University Abu Dhabi (NYU Abu Dhabi) which seeks to shed light on the UAE's maritime heritage and Bronze Age trade. 

The vessel, called a Magan boat in ancient times, was built with raw materials described on an ancient clay tablet and using techniques dating back to 2100 BCE. The boat passed several rigorous tests and covered 50 nautical miles (92.6km) in the Arabian Gulf. Captained by UAE National sailors with a team of shipwrights from the broader region and accompanied by the UAE Coastguard, the ship passed two days of sea trials, reaching speeds of up to 5.6 knots under a sail made of goat hair.

Shipwrights specialising in historical replicas worked closely with the researchers to build the boat using raw materials and traditional hand tools. The outer hull of the boat was made from 15 tonnes of locally sourced reeds that were soaked, stripped of their leaves, crushed and tied into long bundles using date palm fibre rope. The reed bundles were lashed to an internal structure of wood frames and coated in bitumen – a waterproofing technique used by ancient ship makers in this region. Archaeologists have recently discovered similar examples of bitumen on the island of Umm an-Nar which match sources from Mesopotamia.

The Magan Boat project is an experimental archaeology initiative from Zayed National Museum in partnership with Zayed University and NYU Abu Dhabi. Launched in 2021, the project aims to deepen understanding of how people in the region lived over 4,000 years ago, as well as preserve the UAE’s maritime heritage and traditional crafts and foster Emirati pride.

Specialists from several disciplines – including archaeology, anthropology, digital humanities, engineering, and science – came together to design and construct the ship. Hundreds of experiments were undertaken in the construction of the boat, including testing the bitumen mixture and the strength of the reed bundles. Students from the partner universities were also involved in the project, offering them the opportunity to develop research skills and delve into the region’s rich maritime heritage by applying knowledge gained in the classroom to real-world, hands-on creation.

His Excellency Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, Chairman of the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi, said: “Appreciating the maritime history of the Arabian Gulf is key to understanding the importance of Abu Dhabi in the ancient world. From ancient shipbuilders to today’s archaeologists, the launch of this impressive Magan boat reconstruction represents thousands of years of Emirati innovation and exploration, and a long legacy of forging regional and international connections. It is an excellent example of Abu Dhabi’s educational institutions coming together to deepen our knowledge of the past and bring history to life for everyone to learn from and enjoy.”

This is the largest reconstruction of its kind ever attempted, serving to deepen the understanding of how Bronze Age societies lived and unlock secrets of traditional craftsmanship which helped create connections between the UAE and the rest of the world. In ancient texts, these boats were called Magan boats, the ancient name for the UAE and part of Oman. The use of this term reflected that the UAE was famous for its role in maritime trade over 4,000 years ago. Ships of this size and strength allowed people living in the UAE to trade with communities as far away as Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) and South Asia.

The boat was designed by a team of more than 20 specialists, including engineers and archaeologists, who seek to uncover knowledge about the past by experimenting with ancient technology using traditional techniques. The shape of the vessel was based on ancient illustrations of boats and the reconstruction was based on a capacity of 120 Gur which is equivalent to 36 tonnes. The length, width and depth were determined by a naval engineer using hydrostatic analysis to provide dimensions that would enable the boat to float once the estimated weight of cargo, boat and crew were added. A crew of more than 20 people was needed to lift the sail and rigging as pulleys did not exist in the Bronze Age.

Dr Peter Magee, Director of Zayed National Museum, said: “This project led by Zayed National Museum has brought together specialists from many disciplines, working collaboratively to increase our understanding of Emirati innovations and fostering immense national pride. It has been a long and exciting journey from discovering ancient fragments of Magan boats on Umm an-Nar to the iconic moment the boat’s goat hair sail was raised and she set sail from Khor Laffan towards the open sea.”

Marwan Abdullah Al-Marzouqi, an Emirati sailor who comes from a family whose links with the maritime heritage of the UAE go back generations, was one of two captains who skippered the Magan Boat during its two days of sea trials.

“When we first towed the boat out from the jetty, we were very careful. I was very aware it was made from only reeds, ropes and wood — there are no nails, no screws, no metal at all — and I was afraid of damaging her. But as we got under way, I soon realised that this was a strong boat. I was surprised by how this big boat, weighed down with a heavy ballast, moved so smoothly on the sea.”

Visitors will see the Magan Boat on display when Zayed National Museum opens on Saadiyat Island. Zayed National Museum celebrates the UAE’s history and culture from the ancient past to the modern day. As a research institution, the museum is a driving force for developing, promoting and coordinating archaeological and heritage research in the UAE. 

The boat construction is part of a broader initiative that seeks to understand Abu Dhabi’s role in Bronze Age trade. Umm an-Nar Island, located off the coast of Abu Dhabi city, was once one of the region’s largest ancient ports. Recent discoveries by archaeologists from the Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi indicate that Umm an-Nar had significant international importance in the Bronze Age. Discoveries include several buildings containing grinding stones, polished stones, stone axes, copper fishhooks and pierced circular stone disks, used to weigh down fishing nets. Many pottery vessels were found to have been imported from as far away as ancient Mesopotamia and south Asia, emphasising the island’s pivotal role in long-distance trade.