Photo of Emeritus Professor Dionisius  A. Agius FBA

Emeritus Professor Dionisius A. Agius FBA

PhD 1984, University of Toronto


Extension: 5257

Telephone: 01392 725257

Al Qasimi Professor of Arabic Studies and Islamic Material Culture

Distinguished Professor at King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Elected Fellow of the British Academy in 2011

My research focuses on maritime culture and the Islamic world; ethnography of the material culture and heritage of the Western Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean; lexical development of maritime and nautical terminology.  I have particular interest in the socio-cultural history and provenance of the traditional sailing water craft, the sea people and their activities, folklore belief and practices, resources and trade in the Western Indian Ocean.  I have conducted extensive maritime ethnographic fieldwork on the coasts of the Arabian Gulf and Oman between 1990 and 2000, and the African and Arabian coasts of the Red Sea from 2002 to 2014.

New Book (forthcoming)

The Life of the Red Sea Dhow: A Cultural History of Seaborne Exploration in the Islamic World
In my new book I offer a wide-ranging cultural history of the iconic dhow from medieval to modern times based on primary and secondary sources together with ethnographic fieldwork on the African and Arabian coasts of the Red Sea.  While the history of global and seafaring exploration is more popular than ever, seaborne discovery from Islamic lands remains an understudied subject.  Whether discussing trade and salt routes; shoals and wind patterns; spice harvest seasons; litanies and votive offerings to the sea; or the deep and resonant connection between language, memory and oral tradition, this is the first book to place the dhow in its full and remarkable cultural contexts.

Written Books

Data collected from the area has been triangulated with extensive archival material and archaeological finds to establish a historical and cultural pattern of the life of a maritime people in a unique multi-disciplinary series of research outputs: 

(a)   In the Wake of the Dhow (hardback 2002; paperback 2009; translated into Arabic 2009) is the product of over two hundred interviews; it documents the dhow as an important element in the prosperity of the region before the discovery of oil, we find in this book the geographical conditions and the historical-linguistic background of each dhow-type, the life pattern in its role as cargo, pearl-diving, pirate and slaving vessel and also how the seafaring communities interacted with the dhow world. 

(b)   Seafaring in the Arabian Gulf and Oman (hardback 2005; paperback 2009; translated into Arabic 2015 [forthcoming]) brings together the different measures of time past, the sea, its people and their material culture. The Arabian Gulf and Oman have traditionally shared a common destiny within the Western Indian Ocean. The seasonal monsoonal winds were fundamental to the physical and human unities of the seafaring communities, producing a way of life in harmony with the natural world - a world which was abruptly changed with the discovery of oil. What remains is memories of a seafaring past, a history of traditions and customs recorded here in the recollections of a dying generation and in the rich artistic heritage of the region.

(c)   Classic Ships of Islam (hardback 2008; paperback 2014; translated into Arabic 2010) This book charts the development of Islamic ships and boats in the Western Indian Ocean from the seventh to the early sixteenth century with reference to earlier periods. It utilizes mainly Classical and Medieval Arabic literary sources with iconographical evidence and archaeological finds. The interdependence of various trading activities in the region resulted in a cross fertilization, not only of goods but also of ideas and culture which gave an underlying cohesion to the Arabian, Persian and Indian maritime peoples. This study has led to a re-evaluation of that maritime culture, showing that it was predominantly Persian and Indian, with Chinese influence, throughout the Islamic period until the coming of the Portuguese, as reflected in nautical terminology and technology.


Present Project:

Principal Investigator of the project on Magic in Malta, 1605: Sellem Bin al-Sheikh Mansur and the Roman Inquisition, with Catherine Rider, History Department and funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (2014-2016).  The project studies an inquisitional document discovered in the Mdina archives in Malta in 1972 dealing with the trial of Sellem, a Muslim astrologer and galley slave of the Military and Hospitaller Order of St John and his involvement in the practice of magic, particularly geomancy, on the islands of Malta in the Early Modern period.  Aspects of Maltese and Mediterranean history, such as Christian-Muslim relations in the period, the role of the religious and secular powers of the papal Inquisition and Knights of the Order on Malta, and cultural diffusion in an area of intense political and religious contact, are some of the many themes to be explored through studying a document written in Latin and Italian with Arabic terminology.

Projects completed include:

1.   Principal investigator of the MARES project -Maritime ethnography of the Red Sea - funded by the GoldenWeb Foundation and the Seven Pillars of Wisdom Trust (2008-2011).  MARES was a multi-disciplinary, multi-period project focusing on the maritime traditions of the peoples of the Red Sea. Drawing on ethnography, archaeology, history and linguistics.  It sought to understand how people have inhabited and navigated these seascapes in late antiquity and the medieval period, and how they continue to do so today.

2.   Co-investigator with Mustapha El-Lahlali, Professor in Arabic Studies at the University of Leeds and funded by a British Academy (2009) award, to examine a criminal case against a former slave, Georgio Scala, accused by the inquisition in Malta of apostasy and involvement with Moorish slaves in 1598.  The document, written in Latin and Italian, came to light in the Mdina archives in Malta in 1972. By studying the trial of one man we were able to uncover valuable historical information, such as the discovery of the Sfaxi (North African)) dialect in the letters written by galley slaves, while other facets of the case  explored new questions of religious and cultural interaction among the Maltese community and the Mediterranean world of Early Modern times.

3.   Principal investigator of an Arts & Humanities Research Council award (2002-2005) to examine Arabic paper fragments of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries uncovered at Quseir al-Qadim on the Egyptian Red Sea coast by the University of Southampton archaeological team between 1999-2003.  The output was: a) to evaluate the texts combined with archaeological inquiry; b) to examine the content and context of the discoveries within the framework of the long-distance trade and pilgrim traffic from Quseir as a chief port of the Red Sea region and its trade contacts with the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean (India and East Africa); c) to raise public and scholarly awareness about the significance of the documents as a source of academic, educational and community interest so that comparative work will be possible in subsequent research.  The value of this interdisciplinary project was that it brought together a diverse range of scholars and approaches whose input contributes to a comparative analysis of the material.  The discussions offered a clearer hypothesis as to the cultural patterns that lie beneath the surface of the Islamic habitation.

4.   Investigator into the cultural history of the dhow in the Arabian Gulf and Oman funded by the Leverhulme Trust (1996-1998).  The project aimed to study traditional dhows of the Gulf and Oman based on my ethnographic fieldwork.

Other academic activities

I am founding editor of Al-Masāq: Journal of the Medieval Mediterranean (1988), founder of the Society of the Medieval Mediterranean (1997) and founder of the Medieval Mediterranean Biennial Conference series (2009)


Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (2013)

Elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (2015)


Member of the Centre for Gulf Studies and Middle East Humanities

Book Prize Awards

Major Prize

The Abdullah Al-Mubarak Al-Sabah Foundation and the British-Kuwait Friendship Society major book prize for Seafaring in the Arabian Gulf and Oman: The People of the Dhow 

Honourable Mention

The Keith Matthews Prize for Classic Ships of Islam: From Mesopotamia to the Indian Ocean

Highly Commended

The Keith Muckelroy Memorial Award for Classic Ships of Islam: From Mesopotamia to the Indian Ocean 


Georgio Scala and the Moorish Slaves nominated for the National Book Prize