Kellek, the story of the world’s “first” inflatable boat

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inflatable boat kellek

Raise your hand if you know the word “Kellek.” Probably not many people can do this. Yet it is a noun that finds its way into the Italian dictionary: “Akind of raft consisting of a wooden frame, often supported by inflated wineskins, employed along the lower Tigris River to transport goods and people.”

The kellek can be the starting point for telling the story of the “inflatable boats,” then inflatable boats and again after RIB (and declining in an infinite number of definitions, but this will be the subject of a future article) that well before they were made of rubber or similar materials were constructed from animal skins.

The Inflatable? It comes from Mesopotamia

In Mesopotamia these rafts were used as water transportation on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers from the dawn of civilization until World War II. There are many reliefs (such as the one in the opening) with depictions of soldiers or workers engaged in heavy transport using these very vessels. Kelleks of all sizes from one skin to hundreds were used.

Currently, it is easy to see rafts supported by inflated animal skins to cross the Yellow River in China’s Gansu Province.

Genghis Khan also used them

In fact that technique still finds its applications today, and in the past it has been used in various variations and in many other places, from neighboring Anatolia, but also in Africa, China, India and even Europe. Hannibal ferried his elephants across European rivers on rafts supported by inflated animal skins. Similarly, Genghis Khan ‘s Mongol troops carried inflatable animal skins with them during their westward conquests.

Alexander the Great ‘s troops also used them to transport men and supplies across the rivers of Asia on their eastward march through Persia. In the first century CE, there are reports of rafts supported by inflated animal skins to transport incense along the coast of the Gulf of Aden in present-day Yemen.

A Hui fisherman in Lanzhou, China.

How were they made ?

The four tube-shaped hides of the animal’s legs were used, and they were tied with dampened leather ropes, which, as they dried, shrank, creating tight joints. The skin was soaked in water and left to soak for several days, then laid on a flat surface and exposed to the sun for another day. To create waterproofing, all the hair was scraped off and a mixture of salt, water and vegetable oil was smeared on the skin. The skin was then exposed to the sun one more time, long enough for it to turn a dark brown color.

The geographer and explorer
Ellsworth Huntington
in a 1902 article for a scientific journal described how kelleks behaved in water during an exploration in the upper Euphrates: “As soon as we started floating, we concluded that a kellek moves in the easiest and most pleasant way imaginable. There is no jolting or shaking. Floating skins and flexible woods adapt to every wave movement. Half an hour after departure, we stood for a while while the kellekji gathered a large amount of reeds, which they spread out on the raft, partly to protect the skins from our foot wounds, but mostly to keep them from drying out in the hot sun and breaking. Every hour or two they would throw water on all the exposed parts of the skins“.

Model of an Assyrian kelek or raft made of inflated ox hides, c. 700 B.C. (scale 1:12). Retrieved from one of three Babylonian leather Kellek artifacts from excavations at the Palace of Sennaelemb in Koulanjik, Iraq.

In 1838 and 39, the future Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke, temporarily in the service of the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II, led a couple of expeditions along the upper Euphrates in an attempt to determine the river’s suitability as a transportation corridor to send grain, wood and minerals southward from eastern Anatolia.

He asserted that it was impossible to travel the Upper Euphrates with any boat other than the kellek: “Not even the sturdiest and thinnest iron steamer would be able to go up the river against the current or through the shallows and zigzags of its course. This medium bends like a fish and takes the shape of the wave on which it floats, curving upward or downward. It suffers no damage when it is submerged in water, sinking momentarily.”.

The “softness” of the dinghy then became precisely its strength for what would become its first real applications in the modern age: as a rescue craft and as a military landing craft. They bent, but they did not break…. But we will discuss this in more depth in a future article.

by Luca Sordelli

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