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Volume 34, Number 3May/June 1983

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A History

Written by Paul Lunde

Until very recently, almost nothing was known of the pre-Islamic past of Oman, the rugged, almost inaccessible, sultanate stretching along the southeastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula. During the past 10 years, however, with the support of Sultan Qaboos bin Sa'id, scholars have begun to reconstruct the remote past of this fascinating country. They have, for example, identified archeological sites dating from the third millennium B.C., thought to be contemporary with the Barbar culture of Bahrain and with the great Riverine cultures of Mesopotamia and Mohenjodaro, and have found, even this early, evidence of trade between Oman and far-off Sumer.

Among the more exciting finds are the remains of what may be one of the raised platforms with stepped sides called "ziggurats" in Mesopotamia, found at 'Arja (See page 18), which may indicate some early influences from Mesopotamia.

Archeologists have also discovered that ancient Oman had a flourishing copper mining and processing industry. The copper obtained was traded, and even exported; in fact, it is almost certain that the mysterious country of "Makan" or "Magan" mentioned in Sumerian tablets refers to Oman.

Dhofar, now part of Oman, was also the source of another of the ancient world's most-prized commodities - frankincense, offered by Sheba's queen to Solomon, and by the Magi to the infant Jesus (See page 26).

Despite this economic activity, however, there is, so far, no evidence in Oman of a developed urban civilization at the earliest period - possibly because the area lacks a river system around which to organize a centralized society. Another factor is the distinctive geography of the country, which has had such a profound effect upon its history.

Oman has three basic types of landscape, each linked to a particular human economy: the coast, the mountains and the desert. The coast, and particularly that part known as the Batina, is intensively cultivated, by means of irrigation, and has traditionally been outward-looking, producing fishermen and merchants. Historically, it has been the coastal strip, with its active ports, which has come under foreign domination, and hence undergone foreign influences. Inhabitants of the mountains, on the other hand, have always been fiercely independent and organized into small, self-sufficient communities of farmers and pastoralists, while the foothills to the west, and the desert beyond, have been the province of nomadic peoples.

Although each of these three groups is relatively self-sufficient, commercial exchanges between them have linked them together - without, however, making any one group totally dependent upon the others. An indication of how isolated some of these mountains regions are is the survival in Dhofar of several tribes speaking varieties of a non-Arabic Semitic language, akin to the languages spoken in ancient times in Yemen, while at the tip of the Musandam Peninsula there is a small group speaking an archaic form of Persian (See page 38).

Because of its proximity to Iran, the coast of Oman came under Persian domination early in history. The extensive falaj irrigation system, for example (See page 28), was introduced by Achaemenid Persia about 600 B.C. - greatly increasing the prosperity of the Batina - and for almost 1,000 years this coast was sporadically under Persian control.

In pre-Islamic times, tribes from Yemen filtered into Oman - from, legend says, Marib, site of the famous dam in South Arabia (See Aramco World, March-April 1978). Recent discoveries near Salalah in Dhofar of south Arabian inscriptions show that some of these Yemenis were colonists sent out by their king, almost certainly in an effort to control the lucrative incense trade.

Later, another tribal group entered Oman: the important tribe of Azd, from which the present ruling family is descended, migrating in the sixth century for reasons not yet known, from what, today, is Saudi Arabia's Asir province. After settling in the highlands, the Azd contacted the Sasanid Persians, who controlled the coast, and negotiated an arrangement: a measure of autonomy from the Sasanid governor in return for controlling the inhabitants of the mountains, and collecting taxes. The head of the Azd confederation was given the title "Julanda," a Sasanid administrative title taken by early Muslim historians as a personal name, and used to identify the early Azd rulers of Oman.

With the advent of Islam, 'Amr ibn al-'As, later famous as the conqueror of Egypt, and one of the most important political and military leaders of the early Muslim community, was sent to Oman by the Prophet Muhammad. This was probably in the year 632, for while he was in Oman he learned of Muhammad's death that year in Medina, and hastened back. His mission, however, was successful: the two sons of the Julanda of Oman accepted Islam, and immediately, with their Azd kinsmen, set about driving the Persians out of the country: they sent a letter to the pagan Sasanid governor at Rustaq, inviting him to embrace Islam and, when he refused, defeated him in battle. The Azd then besieged the Persian garrison at Sohar, forcing the governor to surrender and leave the country. The Azd subsequently played a major role in the Islamic conquests. They were one of the five tribal contingents that settled in the newly founded garrison city of Basra at the head of the Arabian Gulf: under their great general al-Muhallab ibn Abi Sufra, they also took part in the conquest of Khurasan and Transoxania.

Another important group in Oman's history was the Kharijites, who fled south following the battle of Siffin, in 657, when the forces of Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet, fought the armies of Mu'awiya, the governor of Syria, and founder of the Umayyad dynasty, over the issue of the succession to the caliphate. The Kharijites refused to accept either Ali or Mu'awiya as the legitimate successor, believing the caliphate should be elective, and many took refuge in Oman, far from the authority of the central government. In 750, when the Umayyad dynasty was overthrown by the Abbasids, an Omani branch of the Kharijites known as the Ibadis picked as their spiritual leader Julanda ibn Mas'ud - a descendant of the same Julanda brothers who first embraced Islam, and despite an expedition to Oman sent by the Abbasids, these Imams ruled in Oman thereafter.

During the Middle Ages, Oman was in regular contact with Persia, India and even southeast Asia. With maritime trade flourishing. Arab dhows built by Omani shipwrights at Sur (See page 30), were riding the monsoon winds eastward as far as Ceylon and in the eighth century an Omani trader Abu Ubaida' Abd Allah ibn al-Qasim, made the first sea voyage from Arabia to China. In the late 10th century, Omani merchants founded the trading city of Kilwa, on an island off the coast of Tanzania and by the 12th century, an amir from the Nabhani clan of Oman was permanently resident on the East African coast, trading in gold, iron, and slaves. It is probably at this time that Omani merchants first began to reside in Zanzibar.

The 15th century brought two events that profoundly changed the political and economic life of the Gulf, and indeed, of the world. First, the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople - in 1453 - and by 1517, had also taken Egypt and Iraq, and so come into control of the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf. Second, the Portuguese succeeded in finding a sea route to India - when Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1498. Ironically, it was the great Omani navigator, Ahmad ibn Majid, who guided da Gama on the last vital leg of his historic voyage - effectively ending Arab domination of eastern trade. Other Portuguese ships quickly followed, and, in 1507, Albuquerque brutally sacked Muscat. By the end of the year, the Portuguese flag had been raised all along Oman's coast. The Portuguese also took Kilwa - the Omani outpost in East Africa.

In 1550, an Ottoman fleet set out to relieve Muscat, sailing from Suez with 30 ships and 16,000 men, under the command of the aging cartographer and admiral Piri Reis, maker of the first Ottoman map of the New World (See Aramco World, January-February 1980). The Ottomans captured the city, but the Portuguese soon re-occupied it.

Meanwhile, 60 years of rule in the interior by the Nabhani clan - who were secular rather than religious leaders - were coming to an end and a national hero was about to appear.

This was Nasr ibn Murshid, of the Ya'rubi clan of Azd, elected Imam in 1624. At this time, the Portuguese still controlled the coast, while control of the interior was divided among at least five self-styled "kings." Nasr ibn Murshid saw that the country could only be united against a common enemy, and determined to drive out the Portuguese. It took 25 years to do so. Nasr himself died without seeing the last of them go, but his successor, Sultan ibn Saif, finally took Muscat in 1650, ending almost a century and a half of Portuguese presence on the coast.

Sultan ibn Saif built up a powerful fleet and carried the war into the waters of the Indian Ocean. Soon what had started as a war of liberation led to the establishment of a wealthy and centralized state, with revived trading colonies in East Africa and a merchant class dependent upon a strong government.

The Imam Sultan fortified his capital of Nizwa and for perhaps the first time in Omani history appointed local officials in the towns and villages who owed their obedience to him. He spent large sums on repairing and extending the falaj system, which greatly added to the prosperity of the country. Just before his death in 1679, he appointed his son as his successor.

Until this date, the imamate had always been elective, and this departure from custom is perhaps an indication of an awareness of the need for continuity in the government. Sa'id, another son of Imam Sultan, succeeded to the Imamate in 1692, and ruled until 1711, continuing the policies laid down by Imam Sultan. He enlarged the cultivable area of the Batina by planting palm trees and expanding the irrigation system; he also increased the power of the Omani fleet until, by 1700, Oman was the dominant sea power in the Indian Ocean.

In the first quarter of the 18th century, civil war broke out in Oman between two factions, one claiming descent from an eponymous ancestor of south Arabian origin, the other from an ancester of north Arabian origin. The factions were called respectively "Hinawi" - the "southern" faction - and "Ghafiri" - the "northern." The leaders of the two factions both met their death in the same battle at Sohar in 1724, but antagonism between the groups has persisted until recent times.

At one point after 1724, the "northern" faction called for Persian aid, and in 1737 Nadir Shah invaded Oman and besieged, without notable success, Muscat and Sohar. The next year the Persians and their mercenary army were driven from the country. They soon came back, however, and as with the Portuguese occupation, foreign tyranny once again produced a national leader - this time from the Bu Sa'id clan, of which the present Sultan is a member. His name was Ahmad ibn Sa'id.

Governor of the fort at Sohar when a Persian fleet attacked the town, Ahmad ibn Sa'id not only held out for nine months, but finally forced the Persian commander to come to terms. Within a very few years, in fact, Ahmad ibn Sa'id succeeded in driving the Persians from the country altogether; he was elected imam about 1749.

Ahmad ibn Sa'id was succeeded as imam by his son in 1783, who, retaining the title of imam, withdrew from temporal power and left his son Hamid in charge with the title "sayyid"; no subsequent ruler of the Bu Sa'id clan has taken the title of imam.

In 1792, Sayyid Sultan, the fourth Bu Sa'id ruler, took power and resumed the struggle against Persia. He captured Hormuz, Bandar Abbas, and a number of other ports. In 1798 he signed a treaty with Britain allowing the East India Company to construct a trading post at Bandar Abbas. It was during these years that the country came to be known as "Muscat and Oman," a name mirroring the increasing social and economic division between the coastal trading cities and the people of the interior with their more traditional ways. Sayyid Sultan himself, and his successors, were active and wealthy merchants, but this wealth, and that of the coastal cities, does not seem to have percolated into the interior, which began to be strongly affected by the influence of the religious and political revival then sweeping the Arabian Peninsula.

More important to the fortunes of Oman's ruling dynasty were its increasingly close ties to Britain. In 1820, Sayyid Sa'id received military help from the East India Company against his enemies. In 1829 he occupied Dhofar, the ancient incense land, at that time one of the poorest and most backward areas in Arabia. In 1832, Sayyid Sa'id moved to Zanzibar - the Omani trading colony - and turned his interest to East Africa. Nevertheless, it was precisely in these years that a series of treaties with Britain led, in stages, to the abolition of the slave trade - treaties being signed in 1822, 1839,1845, and 1873. They were a serious blow to the economy of Oman, and as the century wore on, the economic depression grew worse.

In 1856, when Sayyid Sa'id died, Zanzibar was given to his son Majid and Oman to his son Thuwaini. It is a mark of the growing influence of Britain over Omani affairs that the disputes arising from this division were settled by the governor general of India, Lord Canning.

As economic conditions in Oman worsened, large-scale migration to Zanzibar took place. Conditions were made worse by the 1873 treaty that finally abolished the slave trade, and was much stronger in its terms than those that had gone before. As might be expected, there were a number of popular uprisings, and Muscat was attacked in 1874,1877 and 1883; in the last two cases British warships were forced to come to the aid of the government. When the capital was again attacked in 1895, the British refused to become involved, and the sultan (for this was the title by which the ruler was now known) only saved the city by making concessions to the rebels. The British then loaned him money, and as the government debt rose, increased their influence. The authority of the sultan over the interior of the country was by this stage so weak as to be practically non-existent.

In 1913, an imam was elected in the mountains, and with support from both the "southern" and the "northern" factions, went into open revolt, attacking Muscat in 1915. The British sent a well-trained force of Baluchi soldiers to assist the sultan, and the rebels were defeated. In 1920, the British political agent in Muscat arranged a peace treaty between the government and the rebels, but resentments still smoldered. The financial disarray of the sultanate led to the appointment, by the British, of a succession of financial advisors to the sultan. Their efforts to impose order, even when sincerely undertaken, were unsuccessful.

When the father of the present sultan, Sa'id ibn Taimur, took power at the age of 21, in 1932, Oman was poor, backward and crippled with debts. Sultan Sa'id, during his 38-year-long reign, attempted to bring financial order to the exchequer. He was personally very frugal, and lived most of his reign in Dhofar, in his palace at Salalah, where he was virtually inaccessible - though he maintained contact with his officials by means of a two-way radio, and was said to know everything that went on in his country.

For most of his reign, Sultan Sa'id's authority was limited to the Batina and the area about Salalah. The interior of the country was under the jurisdiction of the imam. Though the sultan had begun to permit a degree of modernization, he was forced to abdicate in 1970, and permit his son Qaboos bin Sa'id to take power. Educated at Sandhurst and helped by oil revenues, the present sultan has set about developing Oman into a modern state (See page 14), healing old wounds, and improving the living standards of the entire population.

This article appeared on pages 4-7 of the May/June 1983 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

See Also: OMAN

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