A Brief History Of Seafaring and Boatbuilding In Bodrum

With thousands of boats in its harbors and marinas and tens of boatbuilding shops and boatyards around the peninsula, Bodrum is one of the most important seafaring and boatbuilding centers of Turkey. One of the most important Blue Voyage bases and stops both in Turkey and in the Mediterranean, Bodrum is also known with its world famous Bodrum Gulet (goolet), a version of the Mediterranean goletta/schooner. In recent years, Bodrum is on the way to becoming known for its numerous marinas around the peninsula and sail races organized both in winters and in summers.

The origins of seafaring in and around Bodrum goes back all the way to the antiquity and even further down to the Bronze Age. Although it is not easy to tell what the boatbuilding activities during this period were like, we at least know that the Aegean maritime traffic comprised the region of Bodrum as early as the Bronze Age. According to the ancient historians, the Leleges, who are currently accepted as the first inhabitants of the area, were engaged in piracy. Since there cannot be a pirate without a boat, one needs to accept that the marine culture of the area goes back at least three thousand years. Likewise, the ancient historians describe the Carians, who inhabited the area together with the Leleges or right after them, as a marine culture. However, the Myceanean remains in Müsgebi, one of the villages of Bodrum, the present day Ortakent, indicate that they had to sail from their homeland in Greece, or later from Crete, to this location. Knowing that both the Minoans, the Cretan civilization that preceded the Mycenaeans in the Bronze age, and the Mycenaeans traded extensively in the region from Bodrum to Izmir, it may be safe to say that the marine activity in the area goes back at least about four thousand years. We know that Bodrum, or rather Halicarnassos, as it was known in antiquity, had war ships during this period from the fact that it participated in the sea battle of Salamis as part of the Persian fleet. During this period, Bodrum was an important Persian sea base, important enough to have Alexander the Great put the city under long and difficult siege in its struggle to destroy the Persian Empire. Three famous admirals, of whom two were women, came from Bodrum: They were, chronologically, Artemisia I (5thcentury BC), who commanded five ships at the Salamis sea battle between the Greeks and the Persians;  Artemisia II (4th century BC), who is known for defeating the Rhodians in the harbor of Halicarnassos and conquering Rhodes afterwards; and Turgut Reis (1485-1565), one of the most famous Ottoman corsair/admirals. The golden age of Halicarnassos as the capital of Caria ended when conquered by Alexander the Great.

There is not much information about Bodrum in the medieval sources, either. However, the sources indicate that there was a good deal of sea traffic within the gulf and around the peninsula of Bodrum, especially in the channel between the island of Cos and the Anatolian shore. The shipwrecks found in the area in recent years (for example, the 7th century Byzantium wreck near the island of Yassıada across the village of TurgutReis) support this finding. Bodrum’s name appears inThematibuswritten by the Byzantium Emperor Konstantinos Porphyrogennetos as Halicarnassos, together with Iasos, Bargylia, Myndos, Strobilos, the cities in the area at the time. The one named Strobilos is actually not far from Bodrum. According to the historians of the time, it was between Halicarnassos and Myndos (present-day Gümüşlük). Today’s scholars on the subject think that it is the old Byzantium settlement in Aspat, a place near present-day Akyarlar on the peninsula. The relevance of Strobilos for the present subject is that although not much is known about Halicarnassos at this period, Strobilos was an important Byzantium trade port and naval base in the western Anatolia. It was one of the few ports open to the Venetian trade and this alone shows that there was an important trade activity and thus good deal of marine traffic in the area. This area was also one of the major conflict areas between Muslims and Christians as from the eleventh century on. As the Byzantium Empire withdrew from this area, the area became divided between Muslims and the Western Christians. While the Muslim Menteshe Principality seized Strobilos, the Christian Saint Jean Knights took over Halicarnassos, building the Petronium Castle, which still stands today. During this period, the area was caught in the midst of the pirate activities between these two groups. As the Muslim/Turkish pirates leaving from Anatolia, including Strobilos, attacked the Christian ships, the Christian pirates from Rhodes and other areas preyed on Muslim shipping.

There is, however, more to the medieval period than the pirates. It was during this period that very crucial changes and improvements in boat building and seafaring techniques took place. Today’s frame-first method of boat building (in this method, the framework is erected first and then the planks are fastened to it) appeared in the Mediterranean during this period. This new technique replaced the shell-first boatbuilding technique of antiquity (in this technique, the planking was first assembled as a shell by using peg-mortise-and-tenon joinery and then the internal framework was added as extra support). This change made possible the construction of bigger boats through new and different hull types enabled by this transition in boatbuilding technique and shortened, greatly, the time required to build boats. Another crucial change during this period was the replacement of the oar-shaped side rudders by the sternpost rudder. Furthermore, the fore-and-aft rigging, in the form of lateen sails, spread in the Mediterranean area during this period, replacing the square sails of antiquity. After a long use, this rig type would be combined, again during this period, with the square rig variations coming to the Mediterranean from the Atlantic area, resulting in hybrid rigs (fore-and-aft sails combined with square sails). These new sailing rigs would facilitate and, one may say, even make possible the long ocean voyages. Thus, today’s boats are actually the direct outcome of the developments in the medieval sea technology.

While there were all these changes in the medieval period, almost nothing is known about the state of the boatbuilding activities in Bodrum during this period. The scholars believe that there was some, if limited, boatbuilding activity in Bodrum during the time of the Saint Jean Knights. However, we know for certain that there were boatbuilding activities in Bodrum during the Ottoman period. Although the exact date when the Ottomans started these activities is not known, the sources indicate that at least from the eighteenth century on, Bodrum was a provincial Ottoman boatyard building galleons for the Ottoman navy.

The Ottoman Boatyard is one of the most important pages of the history of seafaring and boatbuilding in Bodrum. An official correspondence dated to 1715 regarding the monies paid by one Halil of Bodrum for some galleons, as stated in Avram Galanti’s book titledBodrum Tarihine Ek(Supplement to the History of Bodrum), is accepted as the oldest document with regard to the Ottoman Boatyard. According to Rasim Özgürel, the oldest piece of information about this particular boatyard comes from the pious foundation charter set up for one Kızılhisarlı Mustafa Pasha, an Ottoman official, dated to 1727. İdris Bostan, a scholar on the history of the Ottoman navy and sea power, writes, in hisOsmanlılar ve Deniz(theOttomans and the Sea), that a decision was made to have a Şehtiye (a type of boat) built in the Bodrum Boatyard in 1782 and an architect named Kostantin was assigned to this project. Coming back to Rasim Özgürel, he writes that the Chief Commander of the Ottoman Navy Cafer Pasha had a galleon built in the Bodrum Boatyard in 1770.

The reign of the Ottoman Sultan Selim III (1789-1807) was the time when the work regarding the reformation of the Ottoman Navy picked up momentum. During this period, the Ottoman administration paid close attention to the provincial imperial boatyards, including Bodrum. In fact, Avram Galanti writes, in hisBodrum Tarihi(History of Bodrum), that the Captain Pasha, who had just returned from his trip in the Mediterranean, had the harbor master Mehmet Captain and the person responsible for the masts hanged for the faults that he found in the boats built in the Bodrum Boatyard “in accordance with the new boatyard arrangements.” İdris Bostan writes, in his work titledKürekli ve Yelkenli Osmanlı Gemileri(The Ottoman Boats Propelled by Oars and Sails), that a galleon of 48 meters was being built in Bodrum in 1823. He also mentions, somewhere else in the same work, that a 47,8 meter galleon was built in Bodrum and brought to Istanbul in 1833. Thus, all these references show that in the near past, there were significant boatbuilding activities in Bodrum, at least as a provincial imperial boatyard.

On the other hand, the existing sources do not say anything regarding whether or not a boat building tradition independent of this Ottoman Boatyard existed in Bodrum during the same period. Even if there was such a tradition outside the activities of the Ottoman Boatyard, it did not make it to the Republican era. For Avram Galanti does not talk about a boatbuilding activity in the section of his book about boatyards in Bodrum (Bodrum Tarihi, 1st edition, 1945); he ends this topic with the Ottoman Boatyard. Yet, there were actually many boats in Bodrum in this period. The number of the sponge diving boats alone were 89, writes Galanti. Still, he does not mention any boatbuilding activity. Likewise, the first boat builders, who would appear in Bodrum a few years after Galanti’s book, also say that there was no boatbuilding tradition before them.

After the Ottoman Boatyard, the boatbuilding activity started in Bodrum again, this time with the coming of the Cretan Muslim refugees. The Cretan Muslims had to leave their native island because of  the wars and reciprocal clashes bringing pain and suffering to all the parties involved between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century and settle first in the Greek island of Cos (an Ottoman island at the time) and later in Bodrum (many Cretans also settled in the other parts of Turkey). They brought, with them, the trades of seafaring, sea transportation and fishing, which were among their major occupations in their native island, and pioneered the development of boatbuilding and sponge diving. Although there was an active Ottoman Boatyard and perhaps a limited seafaring activity in Bodrum almost a century before their arrival, this place was a small town engaged predominantly in agriculture and husbandry at the time of the arrival of the Cretan Muslims. Coming from an environment dominated heavily by the sea and the activities related to it, the Cretans played a major role in the transformation that made Bodrum a town known for its boats and yacht charters.

Prepared and Written by Timuçin Binder

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