Round boats are a fascination, and the quffa, a basket-built boat from Iraq, is among the most fascinating because of its well-documented antiquity, its common use well into the 20th century, and its sometimes very large -- occasionally immense -- size.
|A quffa in Baghdad in 1914 (Source: Wikipedia) Click any image to enlarge.
Herodotus claimed that the largest quffas could carry 5,000 talents, which is thought to be about 125 tons. This seems a probable exaggeration, although there are sufficiently contemporary and sufficiently realistic local images of unquestionably large quffas, like this one, showing four oarsmen (not paddlers) rowing with a cargo of cut stone.
|Assyrian quffa with a cargo of building stone. Note the fishermen astride inflated hide floats to the left and right. (Source: Lionel Casson, Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World)
"...perfectly circular in plan, nearly flat bottomed, and with convexly curved sides that tumble-home to join the stout cylindrical gunwale bounding the mouth, which is several inches less in diameter than the width at mid height. In construction a quffa is just a huge lidless basket, strengthened within by innumerable ribs radiating from around the centre of the floor. The type of basketry employed is ... coiled basketry."To continue the description of the basketry, Badge goes on to quote Dionysius A. Aguis:
"It consists of a spiral of reeds bundled and woven together...The reeds are woven together with a palm fibre rope and the basket is reinforced by an inner structure. Normally two quffa-builders are needed, one of the inside, and the other for the outside, as one passes the cord through the wall of the basket while the other tightens the cord...."What's not explained in either of these quotes is the quffa's waterproofing. The exterior of the basket was covered with a layer of bitumen, of which there are high-grade deposits in Mesopotamia.
There is a cuneiform tablet from Babylon, dating to around 1750 BCE and discovered in the 1940s, but not translated until a few years ago, that describes a world-inundating flood in a clear precursor to the story of Noah. In this version, the god Enki cues a man name Atrahasis to the coming disaster and suggests he build a quffa to save himself. The tablet describes the boat in great detail, including its construction of reeds bound by ropes, its interior wood framing, its waterproof covering of bitumen to the thickness of a finger, and its size: a (literally) incredible 220 feet (67M) in diameter and 20 feet (6M) high with upper and lower levels.
The translator of the tablet, Irving Finkel of the British Museum, acknowledges that such a craft was physically impossible and doubtless the product of some mythologizing exaggeration. But he was so convinced of the basic soundness of the idea of a quffa large enough to serve as a model for the myth -- one capable of supporting a family and livestock for a period -- that he built a scaled-down version, which was launched in 2014. It too had two levels, with a deck house on the upper one and the lower one suitable for "lots of well-behaved animals."
|Replica Babylonian "deluge ark," built under the direction of Irving Finkel. (Source: DailyMail.com)
Quffas remained in wide use on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and especially around Baghdad, in the first half of the 20th century as water taxis, as carriers of produce and building materials, and as lighters. Various sources reported common sizes to be 4.5 ft to 10 ft. in diameter at the opening, with depths of 2.5 ft to 4 ft. The smallest was 3'8" at the opening, and the largest 16'5" with a maximum diameter of 18'. (Because of the quffa's tumblehome, maximum diameters were regularly greater than the more easily-measured opening.) A large passenger quffa could carry 20 people.
|"Two Arabs in a Quffa," Arthur Trevor Haddon.
Source: Victoria & Albert Museum
Quffa use declined with the building of bridges and roads in Iraq and the proliferation of motor vehicles and launches. I believe they no longer serve an economic function, and do not know if any are being built for recreational purposes or even for the sake of historic preservation.
- Badge, Peter, Coracles of the World
- "Is this the REAL Noah's Ark? Scaled-down replica based on 4000-year-old Babylonian tablet's instructions is rebuilt by hand" DailyMail.com