The Last Shipbuilders of Iran: Saving a Legacy From the Sea

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This article was first published in Morning Calm magazine, August 2017, PDF

Photography: Mohammad Reza Domiri Ganji

Despite cheaper alternatives and diminishing demand, a small community of shipbuilders on Iran’s Qeshm Island is determined to keep the 3,000-year-old tradition of the Iranian lenj afloat.

A wave of humidity fogs my sunglasses as I step out from the air-conditioned car and onto the grounds of an old shipyard. Littering the ground are discarded scraps of teak, and wedges of walnut wood, coated in sawdust. The only reprieve from the blazing midday sun is a pool of shade cast by a 30m-long traditional Iranian lenj. Encased in a skeleton of scaffolding, this hand-built wooden vessel is still some way from completion, but even in its half-finished state, it’s obvious it’s built to last. The longevity of the tradition itself, however, is up in the air.

Lenjes have been a fixture of Iranian maritime culture for millennia, used for fishing, pearl hunting and trade around the Persian Gulf. Prized for their hardy, seaworthy construction and ability to carry large amounts of cargo, they were also used on longer journeys and trading expeditions to places as far away as India and Zanzibar. But changes are threatening to capsize this ancient tradition and relegate the wooden lenj to the recesses of maritime history, as cheaper fiberglass substitutes and modern cargo ships force many shipbuilders to give up the trade. Thankfully, however, modern developments have failed to erase the tradition from Iranian seafaring culture completely, and shipbuilders can still be seen constructing lenjes in the sleepy fishing village of Guran, on Qeshm, the largest island in the Persian Gulf.

For centuries, Guran’s natural assets have made it the center of lenj building and repair on Qeshm. “The nearby mangrove forest protects lenjes from the waves, and the depth of the water is perfect for the boats to dock and be repaired,” explains Mohammad Pozesh, a 38-year-old shipbuilder who has been making lenjes since he was 18.

Lenjes have been a fixture of Iranian maritime culture for millennia, used for fishing, pearl hunting and trade around the Persian Gulf.

While other yards on Qeshm have fallen into disuse or been converted into repair shops for older vessels or fiberglass lenj workshops, Guran’s small community of shipbuilders is sticking to tradition, continuing to build wooden lenjes by hand, plank by plank, using the same basic principles that have stood for centuries — all without the use of a blueprint. “We can determine a lenj’s physical dimensions based on how much cargo the customer wants to carry. For example, if someone wants a lenj with a 600-ton capacity, we know that the length should be 30m, the width 10m, etc. From that, we have in mind what we should do,” Pozesh says. All the wood that he and the other shipbuilders use is imported from Myanmar, India or Africa, as Qeshm lacks suitable trees.

Traditionally, the art of lenj building was passed on from father to son and took years to learn. “I learned from my father as an apprentice, and my father learned from his,” Pozesh says. “That was how the tradition continued. It took about three or four years just to learn the basics.”

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While a lenj can last for well over 100 years, this longevity comes at a price. A typical vessel costs around US$400,000 and takes up to two years to build using modern tools. Such a significant investment has forced much of the industry to switch to fiberglass lenjes, which, though not as strong or durable, require less time, expertise and money. Indeed, these days it’s fiberglass lenjes that are often used for fishing and pearl hunting, as well as to ferry passengers and goods around the gulf.

Ancient stamps and coins indicate that Iranians living on the gulf’s northern coast began building boats at least 3,000 years ago. As the ocean was their primary source of food and income, mastering the open seas was crucial to survival. Continuing advances in the design and construction of sailboats in the region heralded a new age in sea navigation. No longer did ships need to be powered by men and their oars; instead, the wind could be harnessed to travel further and faster than ever before.

While other yards on Qeshm have fallen into disuse or been converted into repair shops for older vessels or fiberglass lenj workshops, Guran’s small community of shipbuilders is sticking to tradition, continuing to build wooden lenjes by hand, plank by plank, using the same basic principles that have stood for centuries—all without the use of a blueprint.

The lenj was born out of this exciting period in maritime history. Throughout the centuries, lenj sailors also developed complex navigational systems and accumulated vast knowledge of the natural world. With the invention of the sail and the possibility of journeys that could last months or even years, sailors began looking to the heavens to navigate their ships. Using the kamal (an ancient navigational tool harking back to the ninth century) and the position of the sun, moon and stars, they could chart their voyages and determine their position at sea.

Iranian seamen also invented formulas to calculate latitude and longitude and studied the seasonal winds that swept over their shores, giving each gale its own name. Intimate knowledge of these winds helped them plan their journeys. Lenj sailors also became experts at reading the color of the water, the height of the waves, the movement of clouds and even the behavior of seagulls to help them avoid approaching storms.

When the compass was introduced to Iran, sailors fused this new technology with their knowledge of astronomy and the natural world to create the Persian compass. Writing the names of 17 stars alongside certain points on the compass made it easier for navigators to steer their ships in the direction of one of the celestial signposts that had guided them for centuries. In recent times, however, lenjes’ sails have been replaced by engines, and the Persian compass has been cast aside in favor of GPS. The preference of the younger generation for working with modern tools means that this vast body of scientific knowledge and wisdom is likely to disappear.

The decline of lenj building and the loss of these traditions are having a significant impact on communities. There are now fewer people working in the industry than ever before, and low salaries are forcing many to seek work elsewhere.

“Lenjes have been absolutely central to Iran’s history of exploration. Iran was one of the oldest empires to use this type of ship, beginning with Cyrus the Great,” says Ali Pouzan of the Historical Village of Guran Cooperative Company. Established to preserve lenjes and other village traditions, the 39-member cooperative is determined to save the culture of the ships through tourism. “We plan to build a lenj museum in Guran in the next few years, which will educate the public on the ancient tradition and preserve the culture of sailing that’s been so important to life in this part of Iran,” Pouzan says. “However, if we don’t receive enough support through tourism, then unfortunately lenj culture will disappear forever.”

In 2011, UNESCO added the lenj to its List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding, recognizing its historical and cultural importance, as well as the risks to its culture.

Distinct musical traditions such as Lîva, Rezif-khānî and Azva developed alongside the lenj, and sailors would often sing while they worked. Literature about life at sea blossomed too — not surprising considering Iran’s proud history of poetry. Ceremonies and festivals that pay respect to the vessel’s relationship with nature further indicate the importance of the lenj to local communities. Sadly, however, many of these traditions are disappearing alongside the ships. Traditional music is hard to come by, sailors no longer sing while they work and, with the exception of Nowruz-e-Sayyād (Fisherman’s New Year), most of the sailing ceremonies that used to be important components of traditional life are no longer observed.

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The decline of lenj building and the loss of these traditions are having a significant impact on communities. There are now fewer people working in the industry than ever before, and low salaries are forcing many to seek work elsewhere. “During the last two years we haven’t received a single order,” Pozesh tells me. “The ones in the shipyard at the moment are from three or four years ago … I’m part of the last generation making lenjes.”

The social position of the lenj captain has also changed, Pouzan says. “In the past, the captain was highly respected both on the lenj and in the village, and people always asked him to take them to sea to fish and hunt pearls. But now, it’s the captain who’s asking people to come with him.”

Before leaving the shipyard I meet Ali Abdolla Ali, a retired lenj captain in his 80s. He tells me that when he sailed he often made voyages as far away as Kolkata. I ask him if he was ever scared on those journeys. His answer gives me a glimmer of hope that the builders and sailors of lenjes will find a way to persevere. “The sea never ends, and there’s drama every single day,” he says. “But there’s no time to be scared, and you have to accept every kind of torture nature throws your way until you reach your destination. You have to survive.”