Cargo carriers of the Tigris

The Iraqi word for raft is Kelek. Most Keleks were made on the Tigris in northern Iraq and southern Turkey. In 2013, Rashad assisted in the construction of one of these, built as part of Nature Iraq’s Tigris Flotilla. Keleks were traditionally constructed using a grid of long, straight poles made from tree saplings – an important export from the northern mountains to southern Iraq since ancient times, used in construction and for a wide range of purposes after the rafts had been dismantled. The poles were supported on floats such as inflated animal skins or (more recently) tyre inner tubes. 

The materials that built Mesopotamia

Some Keleks were used simply to transport the wooden poles that made up the raft; others carried additional heavy cargoes, including giant millstones and the raw stone used to build ancient Mesopotamian cities. Keleks generally made only one downstream journey before being dismantled and used for their materials. Some were also used locally as ferries and for fishing.

Origins of white-water rafting?

Since Keleks and their materials and cargoes are connected with mountainous northern and eastern areas of Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, a question that has emerged from our research is whether there may also have been a smaller “mountain raft” designed to navigate the narrower, rockier and more turbulent mountain tributaries of the Tigris. The inflated skins that were used as floats for Keleks may also have suitable as components for a traditional version of the inflatable white-water raft or dinghy (now made from rubber): a resilient craft that can handle rough waters, and is lightweight enough to be lifted out of the water where necessary to avoid obstacles.

Floating islands

A close relative of the raft is the floating island, traditionally widely used in the Iraqi marshes. Islands may be formed naturally, man-made, or a hybrid of the two. We suggest that the earliest watercraft used by humans may have been such accidental islands, perhaps a tangle of branches and gathered flotsam on which people realised they too could float.