“Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
The creativity and inventiveness of the early civilizations of the Middle East continue to astonish us moderns. Faced with major obstacles to overcome, Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Arabs, et. al. time and again successfully devised solutions using available materials and know-how. Exactly how they managed is not always clear. As one example, since the days of Herodotus—the Greek writer known as “the father of history” who visited Egypt around 450 BCE—historians have been debating among themselves how Egyptians in the time of Pharaoh Khufu, called Cheops by the Greeks (2547–2524 BCE), were able to move an estimated 2.3 million carved stones weighing an average of 2.5 tons apiece across water and desert and stack them on top of one another on the Giza Plateau in order to build the 481-foot-tall Great Pyramid. Citing Egyptians he spoke with during his visit, Herodotus gave credit to a great causeway leading from the Nile to the site of the pyramid and to “machines made of short pieces of timber” used to raise the stones from one step to the next up the sides of the pyramid. Those “machines” have been described both as levers and as cranes. Leonardo da Vinci drew what he thought one might look like in his Codex Madrid.
Theories abound, some more serious than others, some less. External ramps? Internal ramps? Cranes? Kites? Levers? Space aliens? The list goes on and on. A study published in 2014 to much acclaim purports to have found the definitive answer. It suggests that workers watered the sand ahead of the stone blocks—not too little, not too much, just the right amount—making it feasible to drag them across the desert on sledges using the manpower depicted in a wall painting on an Egyptian tomb dating from that era. Still, questions on the matter remain for historians to debate, which is, after all, their stock in trade, and we all need a livelihood.
We have a historical question of our own regarding the pyramids, one involving not water and sledges and sand but water and boats: Is it possible that the Egyptians used rafts supported by inflated animal skins to float heavy objects such as stones and obelisks on the waters of the Nile? It’s not as crazy of an idea as it sounds.
Such a possibility came up recently when AramcoExPats staff members were discussing a writing project currently underway, one involving AXP founder and publisher Vicci Turner. In April 1979, she and ten fellow ExPats from Aramco living in Saudi Arabia at the time—Ken Swayne, Charlie and Tricia Franck, Betty and Ed Staples, Jeff and Carol Reppun, George and Sandy Robinson, and Bob Hart—spent their spring break rafting down the upper reaches of the Euphrates River in Turkey as it slices through the rugged canyons of the Taurus Mountains in southeastern Anatolia.
Those ExPat Argonauts were the fourth and final party to successfully conquer the Kemer Khan (Kömürhan in Turkish)—“the Grand Canyon of the Euphrates” noted adventure travel guru Richard Bangs called it in a 1981 article for Aramco World—before it disappeared forever beneath the waters of reservoirs created by a series of dams as Turkey harnessed the river’s flow to power modernization. All but four attempts before theirs failed, several with loss of life.
That doughty band of Aramcons accomplished their deed aboard a trio of sturdy 16-foot Avon Pro inflatable rafts built in Wales, each manned by an experienced boatman recruited from the US to help guide the expedition. While conducting background research into the history of travel on the Euphrates, AXP staff stumbled upon a remarkable example of ancient ingenuity: a raft supported by inflated animal skins known as a kellek dating from the days of the Assyrians. The kellek was essentially a BCE answer to those modern-day Avon Pros.
Animal skins were put to diverse use in Mesopotamia, Arabia, and environs in that age and ensuing millennia. Sealed animal skins commonly served to carry water and wine. In modified form, they did additional duty as vessels for drawing water from wells. They were also used to store and carry grain. People of the desert sometimes even slept on animal skins filled with water, qualifying them as distant forebears of the modern waterbed.
In the case of the kellek, a careful step-by-step process was followed to keep a goat or sheep-skin intact while being prepared for use as flotation. After the animal was killed, its head, feet, and tail were cut off and the meat, bones, and internal organs drawn out through the neck cavity. The four tube-like skins of the animal’s legs and the tail stub were tied with lengths of moistened leather cord that shrank and tightened as they dried, creating permanent seals. The hollowed-out skin was then immersed in water and left to soak for several days, after which it was removed from the bath, laid out on a flat surface, and exposed to the sun for another day. All hair was scraped off at this point and a mixture of salt, water, and vegetable oil smeared on the skin. It was then exposed to the sun one more time, long enough for the skin to turn a dark brown, indicating it had properly cured.
The most intriguing use of inflated animal skins was as a means of support for buoying rafts used to travel on rivers such as the Tigris and Euphrates. While the typical kellek was much smaller, the largest of them sported as many as 1,000 inflated animal skins carefully lashed together and topped by a wooden platform serving as a deck. These impressive craft were capable of carrying cargoes weighing as much as 35,000 pounds—equivalent to the weight of seven Giza pyramid building blocks.
Ancient Assyrians once used a monstrous kellek to transfer a massive winged bull stone statue (lamassu) 600 miles down the Tigris River from Nimrud in northern Mesopotamia to the present day site of Basra at the head of the Arabian Gulf. If the Assyrians could turn to a kellek to float a lamassu down the Tigris, surely the Egyptians could have put one to similar use on the Nile transporting building materials for their pyramids. For an answer to that question, AXP contacted Egyptologist Gerald Kadish, recently retired after serving on the history faculty at Binghamton University in New York’s Southern Tier for 50-plus years.
“As to your question about whether there were kelleks in ancient Egypt,” he wrote in reply to our email, “I know of no evidence for such in Egypt. The Egyptians had no trouble transporting large blocks of stone in their larger boats. The huge stones of the lowest tier of blocks of the Khufu pyramid came from the Giza plateau, not from the quarries on the east side of the Nile. More impressive is the transport of gigantic obelisks from the Aswan granite quarry to the Karnak temple (for instance) by their large transport vessels. They were not limited to the papyrus boats used in other, less challenging contexts. Think of the huge solar boat buried alongside the Khufu pyramid. There is one representation of a boat transporting two—presumably smaller—obelisks.”
Case closed, lesson learned, no super-sized kelleks in Lower BCE Egypt. Ample evidence does exist of the use of individual inflated animal skins on the river’s upper reaches in the Common Era, but that’s a tale that goes beyond the scope of this article.
In Mesopotamia, on the other hand, kelleks of every size—from one skin to 1,000—were used as a means of water transportation on the Tigris and Euphrates from the dawn of civilization all the way up to World War II. Assyrian reliefs depict armed soldiers floating on individual inflated skins attacking enemy positions by water and the defenders escaping by similar means. The Assyrians were not alone in relying on such methods for conducting war. Hannibal ferried his elephants across Europe’s rivers on rafts supported by inflated animal skins, and Alexander the Great’s armies used them to transport men and supplies across the rivers of Asia on their eastward march through Persia on the way to Afghanistan and India. Roman legionnaires were known to carry deflated animal skins with them as part of their kit, employing them when needed to cross some river or stream blocking their path. Sometimes they filled them with air, others with straw, still others with their clothes and miscellaneous belongings to protect them from the water. The Mongol troops of Genghis Khan carried inflatable animal skins with them on their westward conquests to serve the same purpose.
Kellek-like craft were used for many centuries, primarily for riverine transport, not only in Mesopotamia and Anatolia, but in Africa, Europe, China, and the Indian subcontinent, too. Rafts supported by inflated animal skins, in fact, are still in use today by Chinese crossing the Yellow River in Lanzhou, Gansu Province and by people in a smattering of other countries. Their known use on the Arabian Peninsula was limited to peripheral coastal areas. As one example, there’s a 1st century CE reference to rafts supported by inflated animal skins being used to transport frankincense along the coast of the Gulf of Aden in present-day Yemen. Given there are no permanent rivers in Arabia, where water flows through wadis only during heavy rains, the absence of kellek-like craft from the historical record of the interior is not too surprising.
By E. Faucher-Gudin (Lebensdaten unbekannt) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
There’s another unanswered kellek-related question to consider: Where exactly did the use of inflated animal skins first originate? Reflecting our ’druthers, our vote goes to Mesopotamia until proven otherwise.
In 1838 and ’39, future Prussian field marshal Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke, temporarily in the service of Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II, led a pair of expeditions down the upper Euphrates in an effort to determine the river’s suitability as a transportation corridor for sending grain and wood and ores southward from eastern Anatolia where they were found in abundance into Mesopotamia where they were in great demand. In 1901, a party led by noted Yale geologist/geographical determinist Ellsworth Huntington successfully ran a nearly identical stretch of the river, including the Kemer Khan. Both men floated on kelleks supported by inflated animal-skins, not on Avon inflatable rubber rafts like those Aramcons did in 1979 and Richard Bangs a year earlier. The first modern inflatable boats made of rubberized Mackintosh cloth were introduced in England in the mid-1840s—too late for von Moltke, but soon enough for Harrington, who opted instead for the traditional means of transportation on the Euphrates, the kellek. When in Rome or Turkey, do as the Romans and Turks do.
In a 1902 article for a scholarly journal, Huntington described how his kellek was constructed:
“In the evening a number of entire sheepskins had been well soaked and left wet so that they might be pliable and ready for immediate use. In the morning they were inflated by blowing through the necks, the legs being securely tied so that no air could escape. At first, the mouths of the blowers were at a distance of 8 or 10 inches from the necks of the skins, but as the latter became fuller and more difficult to inflate, the men’s mouths were brought nearer until they touched the skins. When a hole was discovered, it was quickly mended by putting a piece of wood like a checker against the inside of the hole and tying the skin firmly around it. A light frame of saplings was tied together with ropes, and under this were tied the skins, about thirty in number, with the legs up. They were packed together so closely as to make the kellek water-tight. Thirty skins seemed to us very few for five people, but the fishermen’s rafts consist of only six, and two men sit on one such kellek. The kelleks always go in pairs on long fishing trips. … As soon as we began to float, we concluded that a kellek moves in the easiest, most delightful way that can be imagined. There is no jar or shake. The buoyant skins and pliant saplings adapt themselves to every movement of the waves. Half an hour after starting, we stopped for some time while the kellekjis gathered a great quantity of reeds, which they spread over the raft, partly to protect the skins from injury by our feet, but still more to prevent them from drying in the hot sun and cracking. Every hour or two they threw water over all exposed portions of the skins.”
On his part, von Moltke asserted that it was impossible to travel the Upper Euphrates in any craft other than a kellek: “Not even the strongest and thinnest iron steamer would be able to work its way upriver against the current or through the shallows and zigzags of its course. Downriver, it is impossible as well for any vehicle other than rafts made of these leather sacks.” Regarding the kellek, he continued, “Such a vehicle bends like a fish and assumes the shape of the wave on which it floats, by curving upwards or downwards. It suffers no harm when it is showered with water, momentarily sinking, and the most violent race against cliffs and rock tips tears at most one or a few tubes. Once at the bottom, the light scaffolding is sold at favorable prices in an area quite poor of wood, and a horse or mule is sufficient to carry all the skins back overland to the point of transit. I have often seen the indigenous people swimming fearlessly across the wide torrent of the Euphrates or Tigris, sitting astride a tube.”
In an article earlier this year, AXP featured a story on the Arabian dhow and what a remarkable ship it is. The kellek was equally remarkable in its own way on its own scale. Both vessels are testaments to the long history of the creative ingenuity of the people of the Middle East. Necessity, it’s said, is the mother of invention. Needing to cross bodies of water, flowing and still, fresh and salt, they invented the kellek and the dhow.
In the summer of 1978, Richard Bangs led a party that successfully rafted the Upper Euphrates in an Avon Pro inflatable, not a kellek; in the spring of 1979, a band of Aramcons followed suit.
[To be continued]
1 On kites, see Cray, Dan, “How Do You Build a Pyramid? Go Fly a Kite,” Time (Sunday, November 29, 1999). Retrieved 2018-09-21. For a more sober assessment of possibilities, see Brier, Bob, “How to Build a Pyramid,” Archaeology. Retrieved 2018-09-21. See also
2 On the subject of sand and water, there are many references. Physicists from the Fundamental Research on Matter (FOM) Foundation were part of the team responsible for this breakthrough. See Hekkenberg, Ans, Ancient Egyptians Transported Pyramid Stones Over Wet Sand,” Phys.org, April 30, 2014, URL: https://phys.org/news/2014-04-ancient-egyptians-pyramid-stones-sand.html.
3 Bangs, Richard, “Down the Gorge,” Aramco World 22(1), January/February 1981: 27–32.
Kellek—often spelled “kelek”—is a Turkish word and not of Arabic origin.
5 Gerald Kadish (personal communication, September 26, 2018)
6 Huntington, Ellsworth, “Through the Great Canyon of the Euphrates River,” Geographical Journal XXII (London, 1902), 181. See also Huntington, Ellsworth, “Valley of the Upper Euphrates River and Its People,” Bulletin of the American Geographical Society, 34(4) (1902): 301–310 and 34(5) (1902): 384–393.
7 Moltke, H. von, Briefe über Zustande und Begobenheiten in der Tiirkei au den Jahren 1835 bis 1839 (Berlin, 1876), pp. 289–291, 360–363. “Gegen den Strom würde auch das stärkste und flachste Eisen-Dampfschiff nicht anarbeiten können, abgesehen selbst von den Untiefen und Zictzacts des laufs, und abwärts ist es wiederum für jedes andere Fahrzeng, als die flöße aus ledernen Schäuchen, unmöglich. Ein solches fahrzeug biegt sich wie ein fisch und nimmt die gestalt der Welle an, auf welcher es schwimmt, indem es sich aufwärts oder abwärts trümmt; es schadet ihm nichts, wenn es, mit Waßer überschüttet, momentan untergeht, und das gewaltsamste Unrennen gegen klippen und felßpitzen zerreißt höchstens einen oder ein paar Schläuche. Unten angekommen, wird das leichte gerüst in der durchaus holzarmen Gegend vortheilhaft verkauft, und ein pferd oder Maulesel genügt, um die sämmtlichen häute über land nach dem Ubfahrtspunkt zurück zu tragen. Ich habe oft gefehen, wie die Unwohner, indem sie sich rittlings auf einen Schlauch seßen, furchtlos quer über den breiten reißenden Strom des Euphrat oder Tigris schwimmen.” [A scanned PDF copy of Von Moltke’s 1876 German text was rendered into modern typeface from its original Gothic Fraktur by AXP staff and then translated by them into English. AXP accepts responsibility for any and all errors or inaccuracies that may have resulted.]