The Isbiya (also known locally as the Kaiya) is a cargo barge traditionally built only in the town of Hit on the Western bank of the River Euphrates in Anbar province. It is documented in a small number of archival photographs and written descriptions from the 19th and 20th centuries, and is believed to have existed in a similar form for several millennia.
The Isbiya is made using a wattle and tar daub technique, with no use of metal or planked wood, a method of construction consistent with the technologies of the Stone Age. This means it could have been built in a similar way for over 5,000 years – perhaps much longer, although its organic construction has left no known physical remains.
Clay models of flat bottomed boats with vertical sides found at Ur (dated to 2500 BC) bear a resemblance to the Isbiya, particularly in the lip (Leffa) protruding from the bottom edge of the boat which is unique to the Isbiya and represented in some of the Ur models.
Archaeological evidence suggests that cargoes of stone, lime and bitumen used to build Ur (3800 – 500 BC) and other ancient cities in southern Iraq were transported using Isbiyas or similar boats. This trade continued into the 20th century, with each Isbiya making a one-way journey, propelled by the flow of the river. The boat was then broken up at its destination, with the materials being sold mainly for use as fuel.
Production of the Isbiya completely ceased in the late 1950s, when its function was replaced by motorized road cargo transport.
Our reconstruction of the Isbiya in spring-summer 2019 was based on oral history interviews with a small number of men in their 80s and 90s who worked with or closely experienced the Isbiya in the mid-20th century and so carry the last living memory of its traditional construction method. One of these interviewees, Haji Hamdi Nuaman – who had actually built some of the last known Isbiyas with his father – accompanied us throughout the reconstruction workshop, providing detailed instruction on every stage of the build.
Like many traditional boats, the Isbiya is a technology specific to its place of origin, made with locally sourced materials. It is a vertical-sided box, constructed using a framework of branches and sticks, including palm fronds (isb) from which it derives its name, mulberry wood and Gharb wood. These are bound together with palm leaf cordage, and ringed with thick coils of Halfa grass before being waterproofed with several layers of tar.
Hit is famous as a source of various types of bitumen which are gathered in different ways: some from ground seepage; some from sulphuric water springs; others mined from strata up to 3 metres deep; another harvested from the ground where it is found scattered in the form of Demaa (teardrop-shaped deposits). Bitumen was important to Mesopotamian civilisations from earliest times, used for waterproofing boats and also in the construction of buildings, for roofing and as a mortar (the Ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia were layered with bitumen). Three kinds of bitumen are used in the making of the Isbiya: Sayyali (liquid tar or pitch), Qasat (soft tar) and Hajjeri (hard tar).
Among the previously undocumented discoveries made through our work in Hit is a smaller version of the Isbiya known as the Delil. This is built using the same techniques, and like the Isbiya may be rowed with oars and punted by poles. The Delil traditionally accompanied the Isbiya as a guide boat, travelling ahead of the larger vessel down the Euphrates to check the depth of the river along the route, ensuring that the deep cargo barge would not run aground.