On the ancient Syrian island of Arwad, which was settled by the Phoenicians in about 2000BC, men are hard at work hammering wooden pegs into the hull of a ship.
But this vessel will not be taking fishermen on their daily trip up and down the coast. It is destined for a greater adventure – one that could solve a mystery which has baffled archaeologists for centuries.
The adventure begins not in Arwad but in Dorset, where an Englishman has taken it upon himself to try to prove that the Phoenicians circumnavigated Africa thousands of years before any Europeans did.
Philip Beale, 47, has commissioned the building of a replica Phoenician ship that he plans to sail around the continent with a crew of 20. Their 10-month expedition sets off in August and will follow the route that seafaring Phoenician merchants are said to have taken more than 2,500 years ago.
Apart from navigation and communications equipment, Mr Beale's crew will have none of the comforts of a 21st-century vessel – their ship has no toilet or running water, no spare sails and no emergency motor. If they run into difficulty, they will have to rely on old-fashioned brawn – and row.
"For me it is the challenge that is the attraction but I am a little wary," Mr Beale admitted yesterday. "I have been round the Cape of Good Hope before in a traditional vessel and I know there are risks. There is a 30 per cent chance that we won't be able to complete it at all."
Mr Beale had the idea for his unusual quest when he read the works of Herodotus, who wrote about the Phoenician voyage. According to the Greek historian, their journey began on the shores of the Red Sea, when the Egyptian King Necho asked a group of Phoenician seamen to attempt the first near-circumnavigation of the continent in 600BC. Mr Beale's crew will use the Suez Canal to reach the point of their predecessors' departure.
Two thousand years after the Phoenicians, the first European known to have rounded southern Africa was a Portuguese navigator, Bartolomeu Dias. He was blown off course in 1488 as he explored the coast in the hope of finding a trade route to Asia.
In pre-Christian times the Phoenicians – referred to in the Bible as "rulers of the sea" – were considered the only sailors capable of navigating their flimsy wooden vessels on such a treacherous voyage. So how will Mr Beale's crew fare in their flimsy replica ship?
"There are lots of dangers," he admitted. "In rough seas there is a risk that it could simply fall apart. And because we have got just one square sail, we cannot sail into the wind, so we might get blown on to rocks."
As if that did not sound frightening enough, the crew also face a considerable risk of running into modern-day pirates as they navigate the African coast.
This is not Mr Beale's first maritime adventure. In his early twenties, he was inspired to study old ships by a picture of an ancient Indonesian schooner that he saw in Java. In 2003, he gave up a career as a City fund manager to commission a replica of that 2,800-year-old boat and sail it to Africa. Since then, he hasn't looked back. "I don't think I could do a nine-to-five now," he said.
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