The Golden Web Foundation
Professor Dionisius A. Agius FBA
PhD 1984, University of Toronto
Al Qasimi Professor of Arabic Studies and Islamic Material Culture
IAIS Rm 4
Fellow of the British Academy 2011
Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts 2013
Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society 2015.
My research focuses on maritime culture and the Islamic world; ethnography of the material culture and heritage of theWestern 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 present.
The Life of the Red Sea Dhow: A Cultural History of Seaborne Exploration in the Islamic World (hardback & paperback 2019). 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.
Data collected from the Arabian Gulf and Oman 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: The Arabian Gulf and Oman (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; The People of the Dhow (hardback 2005; paperback 2009; translated into Arabic 2020 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: From Mesopotamia to the Indian Ocean (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.
1) Principal Investigator for Songs of the Arabian Red Sea sponsored by the Saudi Commission for the National Heritage, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Seven Pillars of Wisdom Trust, UK (2013-2022). An ethnographic study (research team Exeter University and Medina University) of the musical maritime landscape in the Hijaz and Upper Tihama in the past two hundred years. The overarching aim of this interdisciplinary research is to document the sea songs typology, their origin and provenance, their different keys and styles, an important record before the singers and their songs will fade away.
2) Principal Investigator of 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) and Alex Mallett, Waseda University, Japan. 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. http://socialsciences.exeter.ac.uk/iais/research/projects/magicinmalta1605
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. http://projects.exeter.ac.uk/mares/
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. http://socialsciences.exeter.ac.uk/iais/research/projects/agius/
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)
Book Prize Awards
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
The Keith Matthews Prize for Classic Ships of Islam: From Mesopotamia to the Indian Ocean
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
The Life of the Red Sea Dhow nominated for the Abdullah Mubarak Foundation and British-Kuwait Friendship Society Book Prize for Middle Eastern Studies
Research group links
- Centre for Gulf Studies
- Centre for Islamic Archaeology
- Centre for the Study of Islam
- Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies
My primary research interests include:
For more information, see profile.
In his research Professor D. A. Agius shows that objects are active agents helping to shape people the way they are. It is this people-object-world combination that is integral to the human mind and language. The key question to his study is why objects are called the way they are? His search into the use of Arabic and Materail Culture is an inquiry into communities, social, technical, political and religious conditions. It is about the identity of a people, their language and culture, demonstrating their specialised skills and artistic imagination to produce objects of use within their community and the outside world. With this in mind his research for the past thirty years has been devoted to the study of ship-types of the Arab Mediterranean and Arabian Indian Ocean, the language of the coastal and seafaring communities, ship-building, navigational techniques and winds and currents; in addition, his study entails a great deal of archival work, pictorial evidence and maps.
- Harriet Nash (AHRC grand holder) PhD
Star gazing in traditional water management: A case study in Northrn Oman”.
- Jamila Abulgase PhD
"The medieval Sub-Sahara of the Songhay Empire (870-977/1464-1591): a study on the social life through unpublished documents".
- Suhanna Shafiq MPhil
"Buzurg ibn Shahriyar: ninth-century Arabic nautical terminology of the Indian Ocean".
- Stavros Panayiotou MPhil
"Arab-Byzantine relations in the Medieval Mediterranean: the protraits of Leo of Tripoli and Damianah of Tyre according to primary sources".
For more info about the Photo Gallery please click here.
This research was also possible with funding from the British Council and the Ministry of Information of Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Research Title: "Ship-types in the Gulf: An historical-linguistic inquiry".
This study looked at traditional ships and boats in the Persian/Arabian Gulf with the aim of establishing an historical and linguistic link between the present and the medieval Islamic period. My research was based on field work collecting information (over 200 interviews) from seamen and fishermen, master-builders and carpenters on different techniques of dhow-building. Also the research extended to pictorial evidence, maps and references to maritime ethnography. The findings of this study have been published in In the Wake of the Dhow: The Arabian Gulf and Oman, pp. xxiv+253.Reading: Garnet, 2002 and Seafaring in the Arabian Gulf and Oman: The People of the Dhow. xiii+285. London: Kegan Paul Limited, 2005, reprinted twice.Arts & Humanities Research Council – Major Grant (2002-2005)
Research Title: “Reconstructing the Quseiri Arabic Documents”
Director of the Project
Research Team: Anne Regourd (palaeographer); Cecile Bresc (numismatist) and Dionisius A. Agius (maritime ethnographer and linguist)
The research objective was to read or reconstruct the Arabic documents of the Ayyubid to Mamluk periods (13th to 15th centuries) (paper fragments, coins and ostrich eggs), unearthed by the University of Southampton archaeological team (1999-2003) at the harbour town of Quseir al-Qadim on the Egyptian Red Sea coast. The proposed output is: a) to evaluate the texts combined with archaeological inquiry; b) to examine the content and context 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).
1984 Doctor of Philosophy, University of Toronto:
Thesis: "Arabic Literary Works as a Source of Documentation for Technical Terms of the Material Culture".
Supervisor: George Michael Wickens.
1977 Master of Arts, University of Toronto:
Dissertation: "A Study of the Kitab al-Ājurrmiyya as a Manual of Arabic Linguistics".
Supervisor: George Michael Wickens.
1974 Diploma di Studi Arabi cum laude, Pontificio Istituto di Studi Arabi, Rome
1967 Diplôme d'Études Arabes, Faculté de Lettres Orientales, Université St-Joseph, Beirut
University of Exeter
2011 - Emeritus Al Qasimi Professor of Arabic Studies and Islamic Material Culture
2007- 2011 Al Qasimi Professor in Arabic and Islamic Material Culture
University of Leeds
2003-2007 Professor of Arabic & Islamic Material Culture
1998-2003 Reader in Arabic & the Medieval Mediterranean
1994-1998 Senior Lecturer in Arabic
1989-1994 Lecturer in Arabic
1987-1989 Teaching Fellow in Arabic
Ministry of Defence, Defence School of Languages, Beaconsfield
1986-1987 Burnham Lecturer in Arabic
1984-1985 Teacher of Arabic as a Second Language, Language Centre, Kuwait University
University of Toronto
1979-1981 Teacher Assistant in Field Methods
1977-1984 Teacher Assistant in Classical and Modern Arabic
2006-2007 Director of Research, Department of Arabic & Middle Eastern Studies
1999- 2007 Director of Centre for Mediterranean Studies
1992-1995 Acting Administrative Head of the Department of Modern Arabic Studies
Conference, Seminar and Study Day Co-Organizer (1)
Study Day: Traditional Music of the Mediterranean (17 February 2000)
with David Cooper, School of Music
Study Day: Byzantium and Islam (20 October 2001)
with Alan Murray, Institute of Medieval Studies and Josine Opmeer, School of Fine Art
Two-day conference: Arab Voices in Diaspora (1-2 July 2002)
with Zahia Salhi, Department of Arabic & Middle Eastern Studies
One-Day Interdisciplinary Seminar: The Islamic Harbour (12 May 2004)
with Lucy Blue, Department of Archaeology, University of Southampton and Francine Stone, Seminar for Arabian Studies
Three-day conference: Visualising Paradise (13-15 September 2004)
with Heather Nicholson, School of Geography and Josine Opmeer, School of Fine Art
One-Day Interdisciplinary Seminar: Islamic Burials (22 May 2005)
with Anne Macklin, Department of Arabic & Middle Eastern Studies and Francine Stone, Seminar for Arabian Studies.
Three-day conference on the island of Hydra, Greece: The Donkey (and the Mule) in the Culture of the Mediterranean (7-9 October 2005)
with Ed Emery.
International Medieval Congress Sessions Co-Organizer (2)
Two sessions on Hispano Arabic Studies (July 2002)
with G. Crowson and the participation of the Society for the Medieval Mediterranean; speakers R. Hitchcock (Exeter) & R. Arié (CNRS, Paris).
Four sessions on Islamic Art (July 2004)
with G. Crowson and the participation of the Society for the Medieval Mediterranean; speakers included A. Almagro (Granada), V. Porter (London), E. Schubert (Brussels), M. Terrasse (Paris).
Four sessions on the Music of Islam (July 2006)
with G. Crowson and the participation of the Society for the Medieval Mediterranean; speakers Abdu-Noor (Yale), L. Bolat (New Mexico), S. Fatemi (Tehran), Y. Klein (Harvard), A. Shiloah (Jerusalem), D. Wulstan (Aberystwyth) www.leeds.ac.uk/smm .
Invitations to speak at National and International Meetings (1)
"What can primary sources tell us about Classic ships of Islam?"
21 March 2006, University of St. Andrews.
"The dhow of the Arabian Gulf and Oman"
24 November 2005, University of Manchester
"Quseir al-Qadim: The Islamic harbour based on Arabic documents"
30 April 2004. Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter.
"Harbour and caravan terminus: Historical and textual documentation of Quseir al-Qadim"
15 February 2004, Archaeological Society of Alexandria, Egypt.
"Excavations at Quseir al-Qadim: The Arabic documents"
13 December 2002, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium
"Word, object and communication: the language of material culture"
5 March 2002, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
"Ostrich eggs: pilgrims and merchants"
7 February 2002, School of History, University of Leeds.
"In the wake of the dhow".
11 April 2001, The Arab-British Centre, London.
"The language of the dhow".
7 March 2001, The Society for Arabian Studies and the Anglo-Omani Society at the University College London.
"Testing strategies and the L2 learner".
8 April 2000, King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud University, Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
"Testing and evaluating learners of Arabic" (Two-day seminar).
17-18 January 2000, The Language Center, Kuwait University, Kuwait.
"An illumination of a 13th-century sewn boat: Travel in Medieval Islam".
1 December 1998, Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Leeds.
"Traders and seamen: Ibn Bat$t$´t$a's observation of medieval vessels".
16 May 1998, School of Anthropology & Museum Ethnography, University of Oxford.
"Re-examining the Medieval Arabic of Sicily".
15 November 1997, Vakgroep Talen en Culturen van het Nabije Oosten, Universiteit van Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
"Siculo Arabic: Socio-cultural and linguistic identities in Islamic and Norman Sicily".
13 November 1997, Department Oosterse en Slavische Studies, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium.
"Christian and Muslim Sicilians: Tripartite culture of Latin, Arabic and Greek".
12 November 1997, Faculteit Letteren en Wijsbegeerte, Universiteit Gent, Belgium.
"The three linguistic communities of Islamic and Norman Sicily".
10 November 1997, Faculty of Oriental Languages, University of Leiden, The Netherlands.
"Courtiers, peasants and slaves: The Medieval Arabic of Sicily".
18 March 1997, The Libyan Cultural Centre, Villa Drago, Malta.
"L'Arabe sicilien pendant l'époque musulmane et normande (Xe-XIIIe s.)".
18 February 1997, Institut Orientaliste, Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium.
"Is Maltese directly linked with Siculo Arabic or the North African dialects?".
24 July 1996, Institute of Linguistics, University of Malta.
"A review of the Arab and Muslim travellers' and geographers' works available and their portrayal of the region's economic and social setting".
8 April 1996, Juma Al Majid Centre for Culture and Heritage, Dubai, The UAE University, Al-Ain and The Cultural Foundation, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
"The dhow and the Gulf: Links with traditional Arab seafaring".
15 February 1995, Arabic and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter.
"Le problème complexe de l'arabe en Sicile".
14 April 1994, Istituto di Studi Arabi, Università di Palermo, Sicily.
"Tempests, roaring waves and calm seas: Travelling in the Middle Ages".
20 March 1994, School of Fine Art, University of Leeds.
"Linguistic strata of the Medieval Arabic of Sicily".
5 March 1993, Mediterranean Lecture Series, University of Manchester.
"An updating on the dhow: Traditional Arab seafaring".
10 April 1992, British Council, Doha, Qatar.
"L'arabe de Sicile: le Tathqif al-Lisan d'Ibn Makki l-Siqilli".
14 February 1992, Estudios Arabes e Islámicos, Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain.
"Reconstructing the Medieval Arabic of Sicily: The commoners and the elite".
28 September 1991, Centro Dante Alleghieri and the University of Malta.