The art of the ancient Egyptians contains abundant representations of sailors in papyrus boats. In 1968 Thor Heyerdahl toured the pharaoh’s tombs in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor and experienced this art firsthand. He subsequently and throughout the 1970s became increasingly fixated on another conundrum: Did the early civilizations that emerged in Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley and Egypt have contact with each other via the nearby seas?
Scholars agreed that the Sumerians in ancient Mesopotamia had both boats and sails, but believed their seafaring had been limited to the rivers and coastal waterways. Heyerdahl was dubious. In ancient times, primitive vessels had also been used to sail on the open seas, as he had already proved possible with his Kon-Tiki, Ra and Ra II expeditions. Heyerdahl was becoming ever more convinced that the larger lakes and oceans were not barriers to contact between ancient civilizations, but in fact the opposite.
In 1976 Heyerdahl was in Iraq – what was once Mesopotamia – in order to study the Maʻdān or Marsh Arabs’ reed boats. He was told that buoyancy is best if the reed is harvested in the month of August.
Heyerdahl followed this recommendation when, in 1977, he led construction of his largest reed vessel – at 18 meters long – on a site where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers conjoin in the former Mesopotamia. The boat was christened the Tigris.
This time as well Heyerdahl was granted permission to sail under the UN flag. With him was an international crew of 11 men, including three of his partners from the two Ra expeditions: Norman Baker (USA), Yuri Senkevitch (Soviet Union) and Carlo Mauri (Italy). The rest of the crew of Tigris: Rashad Nazir Salim (Iraq), Asbjørn Damhus (Denmark), Hans Petter Bøhn (Norway), Carrasco Gherman (Mexico), Norris Brock (USA), Detlef Soitzek (Germany) and Toru Suzuki (Japan).
The Tigris began its journey from the river Shatt al-Arab in Iraq and continued down the Persian Gulf and out into the Arabian Sea. Unlike the Kon-Tiki and the Ra boats which were propelled by winds and currents, the Tigris was to be sailed on a predetermined course, however she quickly proved more difficult to navigate than anticipated. Nevertheless, the vessel managed to reach the Indus Valley in what is today Pakistan as well as Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.
Heyerdahl was tempted to sail the Tigris into the Red Sea, but due to violent conflicts in the region, an exhausted crew and a ship beginning to show signs of wear and tear, he decided that Djibouti would be the journey’s end. They had voyaged a total of 6800 kilometers in 143 days.
Heyerdahl had once again proven the seaworthiness of the reed boat, and thus he (and others) was even more convinced that there had been contact between the major civilizations in ancient times via the waterways around the Arabian Peninsula.
As a protest against war and violence, Heyerdahl decided that the Tigris should be burned. He also sent a letter to the UN with a call to citizens of all industrialized nations: “We are all complicit unless we demand from those responsible for decisions made on our behalf that modern weaponry must no longer be made available to any peoples whose forefathers denounced simple swords and hatchets.” And on 3 April 1978 the Tigris was engulfed in flames outside the port at Djibouti.
In 1979 a book on the Tigris expedition was first in Norwegian. An english edition was published in 1984, with the title The Tigris Expedition : In Search of Our Beginnings.