For years, the vast turquoise sea has witnessed the relationship between the sailor and his huge boat, Lenj. The story of sailing and the sea has never been completed without lenjes where the men of the sea have been ranked according to the lenjes they sailed with. Getting to know about the handmade Lenjes opens a window to the culture and heritage of southern parts of Iran.
The other form of the English word "launch", Lanj or more commonly used word Lenj, is a small ship or huge boat with the engine but no sail. Lenj is not just used to transport people and goods but it is also the main mean for fishing, pearl hunting, and diving. The domination of the lord of the Sea used to be spread from the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman to the Indian Ocean.
Although the exact origin of this industry is not clear, yet it is believed that Kang Port in Boushehr province is the home of this old craft. Qeshm, Gouran, Ganaveh, Reeg are the main ports where the art of building Lenj is still alive and in the northern coastline of the Persian Gulf, is used to be the main sailing-vessel until today.
UNESCO inscribed the "Knowledge of building Lenj and the skill of seafaring in the Persian Gulf" as an intangible cultural heritage to safeguard this gigantic handmade craft.
Lenj is a part of the historical memory of people in this region. They were strong and safe enough to risk for longer journeys and further destinations. Once upon a time, the Achaemenides could go from Persia to the Roman Empire with its primitive version and in recent centuries, Lenjes carried Iranians to far destinations like Zanzibar, in Africa or Kolkata in India.
Lenj and sea have a clear presence in the lives and memories of southern communities. It eased their living and as the main source of family income, it has a sacred place. For that reason, sailors board on the lenj barefoot as entering a holy place. There are thousands of stories about sailors and their Lenjes: the epic story of a brave man surviving from the storm, fairytale of mermaids and curious sailors, or dramatic story of a young bride mourning for his drowned husband never returned back home from the sea.
Each Lenj is a unique wooden handicraft as it is built according to the builder's imagination without any blueprint or construction plan. Since the 18th century, the knowledge of building this gigantic boat is passed down from generation to generation in the south of Iran. Builders of Lenj, or Galafs as they are called in the local language, employ the same method and material their fathers used hundred years ago.
To build a Lenj, Five to six skilled men should work for approximately two years. First, they build the framework out of a firm and resistible wood. Walnut, teak, and oak are the best as they stay solid against moisture. Then to build the body of Lenj, they use panels of teak or Indian Sai tree. Thousands of nails, bolts, and nuts are used to fix the panels together.
To make this huge boat waterproof, Galafs use wide cotton bands. These bands that have been soaked in coconut or sesame oil do not allow water through the Lenj. Galafs call this process "Kalfat Koobi". On the next level, it is time to smear the Lenj with tar to fill all the cracks and lets no chance for water to penetrate the Lenj. Finally, they paint the body of Lenj with a special red colour. This red colour actually is shark's liver oil to make Lenj decorated and waterproof at the same time.
After all these works, a strong Lenj is constructed to be floated in the water for long years and adventurous journeys.
Music, melodies and Lenj are deeply interwoven. Either during the building process, launching ceremony or while travelling across the sea, sailors used to sing certain songs. These folk songs mirror the mysterious life stories of sailors.
Neymeh is a collection of work songs every sailor knew to sing while working under the shining sun on the Lenj deck.
The captain of the lenj is called Nakhoda and has high social ranks and being respected by the community. He is a skilled man and able to forecast the weather by looking at the colour of the water, considering the wind direction, wave height, and the amount of seafoam. Before the modern instruments show directions, Nakhodas could find their ways through the sun position and stars and the Moon location. Jashow or deckhand helped Nakhoda by cleaning, cooking, and mooring, carrying goods, and helping in fishing. These days, the community of Lenj sailors gets smaller and this traditional craft is in danger of oblivion as modern boats and cheaper ships gradually take the place of these magnificent boats.
Based on ancient stamps and coins, sailing knowledge dates back to the Achaemenid era (550 B. C.) when they reached the ancient Rome territory with their giant lenjes. Qeshm Traditional Sailing Museum tries to preserve this ancient legacy and world heritage. If you get the chance to travel to the south of Iran do not miss visiting the museum to get familiar with the amazing skill of building and sailing the Iranian Lenj.
By Samaneh Zohrabi