Like Maritime ports throughout the world and across the centuries the Persian Gulf trade center of Siraf has welcomed captains, sailors and merchants to its eating establishments and cafes. In the tenth century during stopovers or throughout the off-season Persians, Arabs, Indian, Jews and perhaps even the occasional African, Chinese or Spaniard would gather for coffee, tea and food. They would exchange knowledge of the sea, experiences and most exciting of all tales of their voyages. Today a sleepy little village of a few thousand, over a millenia ago the Persian port of Siraf was a vibrant trading port that brought goods from the lands of the Indian Ocean, the African coast, the Bengali Sea and the South China Sea.
One of the captains who was based in Siraf and frequented its cafes was a certain Buzurg who during his downtime thought to put the stories of the sea to paper and his account survives to this day. He names some of his cronies, Huhammad al-Hasan, Muhhamad Babishad, Ismailawayh, Abu al-Zahr al-Barkhati and others. Much of what he leaves us are valid stories, those of whales swimming in the wake of a ship and ramming it, tales of cannibals and slaving on the African coast. There were those from beyond the Indian Ocean trading world, there was the man from Cadiz, in Spain, and there was the Jew in China. The goods of trade were discussed, pearls, gold, ambergris, cotton, diamonds and frankincense. Much of what Captain Buzurg relates is fantastical, there is the story of the giant Rukh bird, giant serpents who could eat elephants, lobsters large enough to hold the anchor of a ship and gold digging ants. These tales are told with a degree of disbelief, the author does not claim that they are fact but only relates the tales that others have returned with.
It was from the port of Siraf that the large ships sailed, to the Red Sea, the coast of Africa at least as far as Madagascar, the Indian coasts, Serandib, Champa and as far as China. The goods of these lands were brought to Siraf and transferred to smaller ships that could navigate their way to the port of Basrah, which was difficult for the larger sea going vessels. It is clear that sailing to China was known but considered rare, Buzurg wrote of one merchant who ‘went to China seven times. Only adventurous men had made this voyage before. No one had done it without an accident. If a man reached China without dying on the way, it was already a miracle. Returning safe and sound was unheard of. I have never heard tell of anyone, except him, who had made the two voyages there and back without mishap.’ Overstated perhaps as the Arabs, Persians and others, Muslim, Christian, Jew and Zoroastrian had formed a community in the south of China from where they conducted their trade and were given permission from the Chinese to govern according to their own laws.
The mishaps of the sea are ever present in the Wonders of India, there were the storms and shipwrecks, the fear of pirates and the ever present payment of taxes in port. Most disturbing was the story of a young boy, the son of a merchant who was one of the few survivors of three ships lost to the sea. For five days this boy and a few others floated on the sea without direction, without food and most serious without water. At some point the others decided that they would sacrifice the boy so that they could eat at which point he ‘guessed our intentions, and I saw him looking at the sky and screwing up his eyes and lips.’ The boy had suffered ship wreck, the loss of his merchant father and uncertain days at sea but he was to survive this last indignity as land was sighted and the boat drifted to safety, the survivors saved by those on shore.
Captain Buzurg, virtually unkown, has provided us with a sense of life upon the seas so many centuries ago.