Guffa History

Local variant of a global tradition

The Guffa is the specifically Mesopotamian form of a class of boats that exist internationally: coracles. The oldest known evidence of a coracle is a pottery model boat found in Lower Saxony, dating from 5500 BCE, which is thought to have been made by people who migrated to central Europe from the Middle East, bringing agriculture to Europe. Coracles around the world range from skin-covered frames to different kinds of baskets: in the case of the Guffa, a coil basket waterproofed with bitumen. The Guffa is local to central Iraq, known to have been used on the Tigris from Tikrit to Kut, and on the Euphrates from Hit to Samawa.

An ancient lineage

Guffas have been represented in Mesopotamian art and writings through the ages, beginning with Sumerian cylinder seals (from around 3500 BCE). Evidence suggests an unbroken tradition of Guffa-building since then. Assyrian reliefs show Guffas carrying chariots. The Babylonians described the Ark of the Flood as a Guffa – suggesting these boats were already perceived as ancient. They were famously described in Herodotus’ “Histories” (450 BCE); other travellers to Mesopotamia have often mentioned them, as did Arab literature. Guffas appeared in popular songs as a venue for secret lovers’ trysts. They also figure in the work of early Iraqi landscape painters (19th-20th century) such as Abdulqadir al Rassam.

A versatile form of transport

Both archaeological and archival photographic evidence (late 19th – mid 20th century) shows that Guffas have varied widely in size, and probably used different techniques and materials: for example, Assyrian texts describe Guffas with a leather skin. The smallest fisherman’s Guffas can be only 120cm across and 50cm deep, while cargo Guffas ranged up to 6 metres in diameter and around 2m deep, transporting heavy cargoes such as watermelons, bricks, and livestock (typically from the area north of Baghdad downriver into the city) until the mid-20th century. Pulling Guffas back upriver was a widespread trade at this time.

The people-carrier

Guffas also ferried passengers across the river – 20th century photographs show as many as 20 people crowded into a single large Guffa – and there are reports of travellers making longer trips downriver. The traditional method of paddling a Guffa is standing up with a long-handled paddle.

Guffas gathering

Guffas are an iconic element of Iraqi / Mesopotamian culture, remembered in songs, poetry and paintings. Being round, a group of Guffas gathered together form a pattern known as the Seba’ayoun (seven eyes), widely used as an amulet, which was also painted onto some Guffas as a talisman of blessing and protection. The principle of gathering and unity implied in the Seba’ayoun informs our project, the Ark Re-imagined, which envisions the Ark of the Flood as a gathering of many boats, with Guffas at the centre.

The modern Guffa

When traditional techniques largely died out in the late 20th – early 21st century, Guffas continued to be made out of sheet metal: we have seen these versions of the Guffa being used by fishermen in a number of locations, including Hilla (on the Euphrates) and Kut (on the Tigris).