'Lion of the Sea' 500 years ago may be the new face of tourism
RAS AL KHAIMAH // The new face of Ras Al Khaimah is an old one: a turbaned fisherman with a thick, greying beard and dark brown eyes.
Ahmed bin Majid was a navigator, poet and scholar of such respect that he is known among mariners as "the Lion of the Sea" more than five centuries after his death.
Born in Julfar, the medieval predecessor of RAK, between 1420 and 1425, bin Majid could become the new face of tourism in the emirate.
For centuries, praise was short after a Yemeni author slandered the sailor's name.
The Yemeni claimed that one night in Mombasa, when bin Majid's tongue was loosened by drink, he revealed the Arab routes of the Indian Ocean to the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, scholars say.
Bin Majid, a devout Muslim, had retired well before da Gama's expedition in 1497.
And Portuguese sources reveal a very different story: that of a lone Indian, sick and abandoned by his crew, who navigated the Portuguese to India so he could return home.
"The Portuguese from the beginning never talked about Ahmed ,in Majid," said Christian Velde, a resident archaeologist in RAK.
Bin Majid was born to a family of navigators in Julfar, a thriving trade city in the Kingdom of Hormuz and the third-largest in the Gulf.
His works on navigation date from 1460 to 1500. It is believed he died shortly after his last work.
"There are different types of works," Mr Velde said. "What types of coastal towns you encounter, treatises on how to sail along the coast, how to navigate into the Indian Ocean, which stars you have to use at night to navigate; on clouds, birds and so on and so on."
The little scholars know about him is from manuscripts that have survived the centuries. They are in Damascus, Paris and Saint Petersburg.
"All the local pilots knew how to do it but he was the one who manifested it," Mr Velde said. "In Europe he was forgotten but in the 19th century Ahmed bin Majid was still a well-known name in the Indian Ocean."
He is remembered at the Museum and Centre of the Navigator Ahmed Bin Majid.
"He's from old times. All the sailors knew him," said Mohammed Al Ghais, 85, a former rope hauler on pearling ships.
A small room has copies of bin Majid's navigation treatise that was still used in Mr Ghais's time.
The RAK Tourism Authority has begun work with folklore museums to make this history accessible to non-Arabic speaking tourists, so more people will know the true story of the Lion of the Sea.