The Imam of Muscat Pearl - That Surpassed in Beauty All Other Pearls in the World

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Origin of Name :-

Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, the renowned French traveler and gem and jewelry merchant of the 17th-century, made six voyages to the east during his lifetime, mainly to India and Persia, at a time when these two countries were among the richest nations in the world. Persia was then ruled by the kings of the Safavid dynasty and India, by the mighty Mughal emperors. The two nations, apart from having their own rich natural resources, were also the centers of attraction of natural resources from other parts of the world. India was then the world's only diamond producer, originating from the mines situated in the river valleys of the eastern Deccan region, in central and southern India. Persia had large deposits of turquoise. The Balast ruby (Spinel) deposits of Afghanistan was either under the control of Persia or India. Among the valuable mineral resources that reached India and Persia during this period, were rubies mined from the Mogok region of Burma; blue sapphires, rubies, beryls and a variety of other gemstones mined from the river valleys of the south-central region of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), known as the Ratnapura district, apart from pearls recovered from the pearl banks of the Gulf of Mannar, between India and Sri Lanka; emeralds mined from the mines of Colombia; and pearls recovered from the pearl banks of Venezuela, Panama and Mexico, all under the control of the Spanish, that reached India through Spain; and Pearls recovered from the ancient pearl banks of the Persian Gulf.

Jean-Baptiste Tavernier- Dressed in the robes of honor presented by Shah Abbas II of Persia.

Jean-Baptiste Tavernier- Dressed in the robes of honor presented by Shah Abbas II of Persia.

Tavernier, developed a desire to travel and see the world from a very young age. His father was a geographer and cartographer to the king of France, and his desire to see the world, was kindled by listening to the intellectual discussions his father had with other intellectuals and like-minded people of the period. He started traveling when he was barely 15 years old and by the age of 22, he had seen most of the countries of Europe and was able to speak several European languages. He started his first voyage to the east in 1631 at the age of 26 years and completed his sixth voyage in December, 1668, after 37 years of almost continuous traveling, with brief periods of rest in-between, during which period he sold the diamonds and other precious stones he brought from the east to customers in the west, and purchased other gemstones such as pearls, emeralds etc. and items of jewelry,  from the west to be carried to his royal customers in the east. It is the combination of travel and business interests, that kept him moving for 37 years, and sustained him financially throughout the period of his travels, which few of the travelers of his period were able to do. Tavernier, made faithful notes of all his travels and experiences as soon the events unfolded, that subsequently became very useful in writing his travelogues. His travelogues although not well presented in an organized manner, like the travelogues written by other literary luminaries of the period, became more popular among the people of Europe, than all other travelogues written during this period, and was translated into several languages, such as English, German, Spanish, Dutch and Italian. Tavernier's writings created an awareness among the people of Europe, of the rich cultural traditions and the way of life of the people of the east.

During his travels, Tavernier had the rare privilege of examining personally several exceptional specimens of natural pearls. He drew sketches of some of these pearls, and noted their characteristics, which he subsequently incorporated in his book, Le Six Voyages de J. B. Tavernier- The Six Voyages of J. B. Tavernier, published in 1676. Two of these sketched pearls have already been treated extensively, in separate dedicated webpages - Sara/Tavernier/Shaista Khan Pearl and Shah Safi/Shah Sofy Pearl. This webpage is dedicated to another sketched pearl, labeled Figure 2, in Tavernier's book, known as "The Imam of Muscat Pearl," so named because the exceptionally beautiful pearl was found by Tavernier, in the possession of the Imam of Muscat, who was kind enough to display his valuable possession to assembled guests including Tavernier, at the end of a grand entertainment given in his honor, by the Khan of Ormus (Hormuz), when Tavernier visited the Island of Ormus, during his fourth voyage to the East, that lasted from 1651 to 1655. Except for his first voyage in which the farthest destination he reached was Isfahan in Persia, in all other five voyages he reached several cities in India. In all these voyages to India, he took the sea route from Persia to India, that started at Bandar Abbas, from where he proceeded to Ormus, an Island just 20 km south of Bandar Abbas, in the straits of Hormuz, a nerve center of international shipping and trade during this period. Tavernier boarded a ship at Ormus, that took him to Surat in India, the only major international port on the west coast of India, that was the main entry point for foreign passengers and cargo from abroad.

 

Characteristics of the Imam of Muscat Pearl

Characteristics of "The Imam of Muscat Pearl" derived from Tavernier's description of the pearl

Tavernier described the "Imam of Muscat's Pearl" in the following terms :- "Although the pearl weighed only twelve and one sixteenth carats (forty eight and a quarter grains), and was not perfectly round, it surpassed in beauty all other pearls in the world at that time. It was so clear and lustrous as to appear translucent."

The weight of the pearl is given as 12 1/16 carats, which is equivalent to 48 1/4 grains. The dimensions of the pearl are not given, but the weight of the pearl indicates that it is a medium-sized pearl. The pearl is described as not perfectly round, which can be interpreted to mean that it was either a near-spherical or a button-shaped pearl. The color, overtones if any, orient and surface quality of the pearl are not known, but the description that it surpassed in beauty all other pearls in the world at that time, and was clear and lustrous as to appear translucent, seem to indicate that all these properties are optimum. The use of the phrase "clear and lustrous as to appear translucent" seem to indicate a white or colorless pearl, the most sought-after color in pearls, with an optimum luster and orient caused by reflection and refraction of light respectively. The surface quality of the pearl must be exceptional and almost blemish-free in order to characterize it as a pearl surpassing in beauty all other pearls in the world, at that time.

 

History of the Imam of Muscat Pearl

The source of the pearl - The pearl banks of the Persian Gulf

The fact that the pearl was in the possession of the Imam of Muscat in the mid-17th century, without any doubt indicates that the pearl originated in the most ancient pearl fishing grounds in the world, the Persian Gulf, most probably in the kingdom of Oman itself, right at its door step, on the pearl banks situated closer to the country's shoreline in the Persian Gulf or the Straits of Hormuz. Oyster bearing reefs were well distributed throughout the Gulf, but were greater in abundance on the Arab side of the Gulf than the Persian side. The pearl banks extended from Basra in Iraq to Oman on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, and extended into the Strait of Hormuz, and up to the Kish Island on the Persian side of the Gulf. The reefs were found at a distance of a few hundred meters to around 96.5 kilometers (60 miles) from the shore.  The pearl banks were more concentrated around the Island of Bahrain, and hence this region sustained a pearl industry since ancient times, well known by the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Roman name for Bahrain was Tylos, and Ptolemy, the 2nd-century AD geographer and astronomer referred to the pearl fisheries at Tylos in his writings, that existed from time immemorial. Other areas where concentrations of oyster bearing reefs were found were Basra, Kuwait, El-Qatif, Dalmah Island off Abu Dhabi,  Abu Musa, Oman, the Island of Hormuz, and the Lavan-Kish Islands on the Persian side of the Gulf. The oysters are found at depths of 2 to 18 fathoms ( 3.6 to 32.9 meters), but pearl divers who used the ancient method of holding their breaths, did not usually descend more than 12 fathoms (21.9 meters).

 

Maritime tribes of the Arab side of the Persian Gulf who took part in pearl fishing operations

The pearl fishing operations were carried out by the maritime tribes  living on the shores closer to the pearl banks. The maritime tribes of Hasa, Oman were skilled pearl divers that worked not only off the coast of Oman, but also in other areas. The pearl divers of Bahrain, El-Katif, and Kuwait were also highly skilled, and had been engaged in pearl diving operations from time immemorial. Pearl divers of the Pirate Coast, the coast line from Ras-al-Khaimah up to Qatar, were also highly skilled, but during the 200 year period from the 17th to the 19th centuries, gave up pearl diving for the more lucrative acts of piracy, attacking international shipping in the Persian Gulf belonging to the British, the Dutch and the Portuguese, operating in the region, on the east-west trade route, originating mainly from India.

 

The positive side of British imperialism that stopped international piracy on the pirate coast of the Persian Gulf and transformed these sheikdoms into a law-abiding, prosperous and viable nation known as the United Arab Emirates

After the British naval forces, based in Bombay, India,  intervened in 1819 to protect shipping in the area, a truce was signed between the British and the Sheikdoms of the pirate coast, that decreased the number of pirate attacks. However, acts of piracy continued intermittently until 1835, and eventually a permanent treaty was signed between all parties, that put a stop to all acts of piracy. The Sheikdoms of the pirate coast now became known as the "Trucial States." Under the terms of the treaty, the British provided security for these states, protecting them from aggression by land or by sea. All disputes between the states were referred to the British for settlement. The British did not interfere in the governance of these states, and eventually helped them to prospect for oil in their regions, that helped them to stand on their own feet. The British finally withdrew from the region in 1971, and the Trucial States joined together to form what is known as the United Arab Emirates today. This  is an example of the positive side of British imperialism, that transformed a group of failed states, resorting to international piracy for their survival, into a law abiding, prosperous and viable nation, taking its rightful place among the committee of nations of the world.

 

The resumption of pearl fisheries on the pirate coast after 1820

After British intervention and the signing of the truce in 1820, the maritime tribes of the pirate coast, who hitherto depended on piracy for survival were encouraged to go back to their traditional vocation, pearl fishing, that had sustained their forefathers for centuries. Thus, their was a revival of the pearl fishing industry on the pirate coast after 1835, that provided employment and income to the people of the area and was a good source of foreign exchange for the sheikdoms. The natural pearl industry of the Persian Gulf survived into the early 20th century, until the onset of the 2nd World War, followed by the Great Depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s, that had a severe impact on the pearl fisheries. The final death blow came in the 1930s and 1940s, with the popularization of cultured pearls by Mikimoto, and the imposition of heavy taxes by the newly independent Indian Government on pearls imported from the Arab states of the Persian Gulf.

 

The Imam of Muscat turns down several attractive offers for his extraordinary pearl

Tavernier saw the Imam of Muscat pearl, when he attended a party hosted by the Khan of Ormus, in honor of the Imam of Muscat, Nasir bin Murshid al-Yaribi , who had recently (in 1650) liberated his country by driving out the Portuguese from their last stronghold in the Gulf, and had now wrested control of the Island of Ormuz from the Persians. This was during Tavernier's visit to the island, en route to India, during his fourth voyage to the East, between 1651 and 1655. In George Frederick Kunz's book, "The Book of the Pearl" published in 1908, the author says that Tavernier saw the "Imam of Muscat Pearl" in 1670 at Ormus, in the possession of the Imam, who had recently recovered the Muscat peninsula from the Portuguese. This appears to be an obvious error, as by 1670, Tavernier had already completed all his six voyages, and had settled down in Aubonne Castle, near Geneva, having purchased the Barony of Aubonne in April 1670, and was now perusing his travel notes with Samuel Chappuzeau, before writing his first two travelogues for publication. The qualification that the Imam had recently recovered the Muscat peninsula from the Portuguese, suggests that this encounter took place during Tavernier's fourth voyage between 1651 and 1655, just 1 to 5 years after Muscat was recovered from the Portuguese. The year 1670 was 22 years after the recovery of the Muscat peninsula and cannot be called recent. Moreover, the Imam of Muscat captured Ormus only during the mid-17th century, holding it for some time, before it was retaken by the Persians. The grand entertainment given to the Imam of Muscat by the Khan of Ormus, was actually given in honor of the Imam, only after Ormus came under his sovereignty.

The Straits of Hormuz

The Straits of Hormuz

Soon after the grand entertainment ended, the Imam of Muscat drew out the exceptionally beautiful pearl from a small purse suspended about his neck, and exhibited it to the distinguished guests around him. Tavernier, as a foreigner and well known jeweler and gem-merchant, was a special guest at this function, and was given the rare privilege of handling and examining this beautiful specimen. The Khan of Ormus, the chief host of the function, offered 2,000 tomans ($34,500) for the pearl, but the Imam would not part with his treasure. According to Tavernier, the news of this extraordinary pearl had reached the mighty Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb, who conveyed an  offer of 40,000 escus ($45,000) for the pearl, but the Imam still refused to part with it.

Hormuz Island and Bandar Abbas- Satellite Photo taken by NASA in 2003

Hormuz Island and Bandar Abbas- Satellite Photo taken by NASA in 2003

Ormus, a rich and wealthy kingdom from the 10th to 17th centuries, characterized by the famous Arab saying "If all the world were a golden ring, Ormus would be the jewel in it."

The location of Ormus and the history of its rule from the 10th to 17th centuries

Ormus was the name of a kingdom in the Persian Gulf, that existed between the 10th and 17th centuries, founded and ruled by Arab princes in the 10th century, but coming under the suzerainty of Persia in 1262, and becoming a colony of the Portuguese in 1508, and again recaptured by Persia in 1622. The kingdom gets its name from the Island of Ormus (Hormuz), where there was a fortified port city, which served as its capital. The Island of Hormuz, is situated in the Straits of Hormuz, a narrow waterway that connects the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf, whose width at its narrowest point is about 56 km. It is located closer to the Iranian coast of the Gulf, just 16 km from Bandar Abbas.

17th Century Portuguese Map of the bell-shaped island of Hormuz

17th Century Portuguese Map of the bell-shaped island of Hormuz

Ormus, a great emporium of international trade from the 13th to 19th centuries

Ormus was one of the important port cities during this period in the Middle East, as it controlled the marine trade routes from Europe, through the Persian Gulf, to India and East Africa. It also controlled the slave market in the 13th-century from Africa and Arabia to Khorasan in Persia. During the 13th and 14th centuries, Ormus attained the zenith of its power and glory, becoming a powerful naval state, with a large and active trading fleet and a powerful navy. The naval fleet consisted of 500 fighting ships, but were not fitted with heavy guns like cannons. Ormus, was like a half-way house between the east and the west, where the treasures of the Orient was gathered in abundance, making it one of the greatest emporia in the world. The Island of Hormuz became so renowned for its wealth and commerce, that the name Ormus became synonymous with wealth and luxury, embodied in the Arab saying, "If all the world were a golden ring, Ormus would be the jewel in it." Ormuz also became the main distributing point for the valuable pearls discovered in the Persian Gulf. Enormous wealth and luxury, acquired by any nation in human history, necessarily lead to degradation in moral standards and behavior, and Ormus was no exception.

 

Drawing of the old town of Hormuz by A W Stiffe, with the fort on the right and a mosque minaret to the left

Drawing of the old town of Hormuz by A W Stiffe, with the fort on the right and a mosque minaret to the left.

Portuguese control of Ormus and the Persian Gulf ports, from 1508 to 1648

The Portuguese occupied Ormus and Muscat in 1508, gradually extending their control over the entire Arabian side of the Gulf. However, in 1559 the Portuguese were expelled from El-Katiff. Eventually, they were expelled from Bahrain in 1602, by Shah Abbas I, with the help of the British. Later they were ousted from the Island of Hormuz, in 1622, but still managed to hold on to Muscat, from where they were finally ousted in 1648.

Hormuz Island- Persian Gulf

Hormuz Island- Persian Gulf


Portuguese Fort- Hormuz Island

Portuguese Fort- Hormuz Island

The title of Imam of Muscat

The title of Imam of Muscat was a unique spiritual cum temporal institution that was created by the Ibadists the dominant religious sect in Oman, in the 8th-century AD, in keeping with strict Islamic traditions followed during the period of the prophet and the first four rightly-guided Caliphs. The Prophet was not only the spiritual head of Muslims but also the head of the Islamic state he founded. All the guidelines of the future Islamic state was laid during his period of rule from Medina. In temporal matters he also adopted a form of government by consensus, carrying all shades of opinion together. He had not laid any provision or rules for his succession, and left it to his companions to evolve a method of succession based on his example of consensus. Soon after his death a spiritual cum temporal successor was elected by consensus known as a Khalifa (Caliph). This was a form of democracy by consensus, carrying all shades of opinion together. The first four Caliphs of Islam were elected on this principle, and were known as the rightly-guided Caliphs. It was only after the assassination of the fourth Caliph, Ali bin Abu Ta'alib, the elected Caliphate was transformed into a hereditary Caliphate, that eventually turned out to become a monarchy on the Christian model, with succession going from the father to the eldest legitimate son.

The Ibadists of Oman thus adopted the Islamic model of succession, electing a spiritual cum temporal leader who was known as the "Imam" to charter the destinies of their nation. The election of the Imam was by communal consensus and consent, a form of democracy by consensus, that maintained the unity of the Muslim Umma, as opposed to the western style democracy that was introduced much later, that caused a lot of disunity and dissent in the community due to its reliance on party politics, the majority always having its way, and the minority sometimes allowed to have its say. This, unique Islamic institution of "The Imam" was preserved in Oman  for 400 years, from 751 AD until 1154 AD, when Banu Nabhan established a dynasty of hereditary Sultans who continued in power until 1406. In 1406, an Imam was again elected who challenged the authority of the hereditary Sultan, paving the way for conflict between the two institutions. From then onwards, the Imamate and Sultanate sometimes alternated in the history of Oman, or existed side by side. The Sultanate drew its support from Muscat and its environs and the Imamate from the interior regions of Oman. The conflict between the Sultanate and Imamate continued well into the 20th-century, until as recently as 1954, when the newly elected Imam resisted the Sultan's efforts to extend government control into the interior of Oman. The insurgency that resulted lasted 5 years, and was defeated in 1959, with British help. The Sultan finally abolished the Office of the "Imam", and the new Imam was exiled to Saudi Arabia in 1960. The introduction of the hereditary Sultanate not prescribed in Islam, resulted in its first undesirable effect just 10 years after in 1970, when the Sultan of Muscat and Oman, Sa'id bin Taymur was ousted by his own son and heir, Sultan Qaboos bin Sa'id Al Sa'id, reminiscent of Emperor Aurangzeb ousting his father Emperor Shah Jahan and placing him under house arrest during the Mughal period in India. Sultan Sa'id bin Taymur later died in exile in London. This type of undesirable succession, sometimes leading to fratricidal  or patricidal killings, was a common feature of many Muslim empires, such as the Ottoman empire, the Persian empire and the Mughal empire, and was a result of the adoption of a system of governance not prescribed in Islam.

 

History of Muscat and Oman

The history of Muscat from very ancient times until 7th-century AD

The location of Muscat in the Gulf of Oman, closer to the Straits of Hormuz, the entrance to the Persian Gulf, with easy access to its ports, both on the Arabian and Persian side of the Gulf, and also easy access for ships from Egypt and the east coast of Africa, and from the ports of the western shores of India, had made it one of the nerve centers of the international shipping and trade since very ancient times. Archaeological evidence suggests that the history of Muscat is as old as civilization itself, with evidence of human settlements dating back to 6,000 B.C. The discovery of ancient fisherman's burial sites in the area of Ras al-Hamra in Muscat, and Harappan pottery in the south of Muscat, seem to suggest contacts with the ancient Indus Valley civilization of 3,000 to 1,500 B.C. By the 1-st century A.D. Muscat had achieved international prominence as a port and trading center, as evidenced by the reference made to it by the Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy who called it "Cryptus Portus" - the Hidden Port,  and the Roman author, naturalist and philosopher, Pliny the Elder who called it Amithoscuta. From the 3rd-century B.C. until the arrival of Islam in the 7th-century A.D. Muscat and Oman were invaded and occupied by the forces of the emperors of two of the Persian dynasties, the Parthians, from 250 B.C. to the 3rd century A.D. and the Sassanids from 3rd-century to 7th-century A.D. The primary purpose of their invasion was the control of the Persian Gulf and its important trade routes.

Photograph of Muscat Harbour, taken in 1903- Fort Al-Jalali is in the background.

Photograph of Muscat Harbour, taken in 1903- Fort Al-Jalali is in the background.

The increase in importance of Muscat after the advent of Islam until the end of the Seljuk Turk rule in 1154 AD

Islam reached Oman and Muscat in the 7th-century A.D. during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad. In the centuries that followed the arrival of Islam, the expansion of the Islamic empire and the economic prosperity that followed, Muscat's importance as an international port and trading center increased phenomenally. The establishment of the first Imamate of Ibadi Muslims in Muscat in 751 A.D. bringing together all the warring tribes was a step in the right direction, that helped the development of Muscat as an international port and trading center. However, continued tribal rivalries and skirmishes, made way for the Abbasids of Baghdad to conquer Oman and Muscat whose rule continued until the 10th-century, when they were driven out by the local Yahmad tribe. In the 10th-century, Omani merchant fleets sailed from Muscat to East Africa and Madagascar looking for natural animal products like rhinoceros horns, ivory, leopard skins and tortoise shells, which were subsequently traded with China, where there was a ready market for these products, in exchange for porcelain, silk and spices. From 967 A.D. to 1053 A.D. Oman and Muscat again came under the rule of the Persian Buyyids, from whom the Seljuq Turks took control until 1154 A.D.

Map of Muscat and Oman

Map of Muscat and Oman

The increase in wealth and prosperity of the the people of Muscat during the rule of Banu Nabhan hereditary dynasty that caused the alienation with the people of the interior of Oman

In 1154 A.D. the Banu Nabhan established a hereditary dynasty after the defeat of the Seljuk Turks. This powerful dynasty ruled Oman and Muscat until 1470 A.D. with an interruption of 37 years from 1406 to 1443, when the country was again ruled by an Imamate. During the period of rule of the Banu Nabhan, the people of Muscat prospered from Maritime trade and close alliances with the Indian sub-continent. The wealth and prosperity of the people of Muscat during this period, caused their alienation with the people of the interior of Oman, paving the way for conflicts that lasted well into the 20th-century.

 

The capture of Muscat by the Portuguese in 1507, that led to a massacre of civilians, men, women and children

In 1507, the Portuguese led by Alfonso de Albuquerque captured the port of Muscat in the Gulf of Oman and the strategic port of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, with the intention of taking control of all the trade routes passing through the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. Muscat fell to the Portuguese after a bloody battle with forces, loyal to the Persian Governor of the City, and the people who were most affected by this encounter, were the innocent civilians of the city, men, women and children who were mercilessly massacred by the barbaric Portuguese. This was a bitter experience for the people of the area, who after the advent of Islam, had experienced only warfare in which only the combatants suffered and the life of civilians, whether men, women or children were spared in keeping with strict rules of engagement prescribed by the Prophet of Islam. Naturally, it created strong enmity towards the invaders, and the Portuguese were forced to take shelter in their well fortified forts  as long as they remained in Muscat. After taking control of Muscat and Hormuz, they extended their control to other ports such as Bahrain and El-Katif in 1521 AD, mainly with the intention of taking control of the pearls resources of the Gulf. However, they were ousted from El-Katif within a short period in 1559 AD, and eventually from Bahrain in 1602, and Hormuz in 1622 by Shah Abbas I. They were only able to hold on to Muscat for a longer time because of their well fortified fort.

 

Despite all odds the Portuguese held on to their fortress at Muscat for 143 years and were finally ousted in 1650

During their stay in Muscat the Portuguese were continuously harassed both by the Persians and the Ottoman Turks. The Turks twice captured Muscat from the Portuguese in 1552 and again from 1581 to 1588. In 1546, Muscat was almost razed to the ground by Turkish bombardment. However, it was left to the Omanis themselves to organize resistance and oust the Portuguese finally in 1650. The foundation for this resistance was laid when in 1624, Nasir bin Murshid al-Yaribi was elected as the Imam of Muscat and Oman. The Imam reorganized his army and put together a team of disciplined and well-trained soldiers, that took him over two decades. Then on August 16, 1648, he dispatched his elite troops against the Portuguese stronghold of Muscat. The troops attacked the well fortified fort and eventually captured the high towers and demolished them completely, weakening their grip of the town, which was captured eventually. The Imam's troops continuously harassed the Portuguese who were confined to the fortress, and finally on January 23, 1650, the Portuguese unable to face the continuous onslaught of the Imam's troops surrendered to his forces. In contrast to the barbaric treatment meted out to the civilians by the Portuguese in 1507 at the time of capture of Muscat, the Portuguese prisoners-of-war were treated humanely by their adversaries in keeping with laws on the treatment of prisoners-of-war prescribed by Islam and its prophet.   

 

Ya'aruba Imams, the most successful rulers of Oman and Muscat, colonizing foreign lands, bringing wealth and prosperity and uniting the whole country

Imam Nasir bin Murshid al-Yaribi, the first ruler of the Ya'aruba dynaty, was now, not only the undisputed leader of Oman and Muscat, but also the most powerful leader in the Persian Gulf. The Imam now sent his troops against the Persians in the Island of Hormuz and captured it towards the end of the year in 1650. The Imam then moved his forces and his powerful navy against  Persian interests in the Gulf, even occupying the coastal areas of Persia. In the 1690s, Imam Nasir's son and successor moved his army and navy against Portuguese colonies of east Africa. He attacked the Portuguese garrison of Mombasa, and after besieging it for two years captured it in 1698. After the fall of Mombasa, the Portuguese were easily ejected from Zanzibar, and from all other coastal regions north of Mozambique. Thus, the Imams of the Ya'aruba dynasty, transformed Oman and Muscat into an empire in the Arabian peninsula, colonizing lands in Persia, Africa and also in India. After, the expulsion of the Portuguese from Oman, no other foreign power ever occupied Oman, except for a brief period by the Persians. Instead Oman was transformed from the status of a colonized nation to a colonizer herself, becoming the dominant maritime power in the area. Thus, the Ya'aruba Imams were among the most successful rulers of Oman and Muscat, occupying foreign lands, bringing wealth and prosperity to the nation, and uniting the whole country. It was during their period of rule, that most of the architectural monuments, such as imposing castles, palaces and other buildings, restored recently were constructed, such as the fort at Nizwa and the palace at Jabrin.

 
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Ahmad bin Sa'īd founder of the Al-Sai'd dynasty

In 1719, civil was broke out in Oman after the dynastic succession of Saif Ibn Sultan II as Imam, which was vehemently opposed by the Ulama, the religious authorities. Civil war broke out between two major tribes, the Hinawi and Gafiri, and in the unsettled conditions that prevailed, Nadir Shah invaded Oman in 1743, occupying the coastal cities of Muscat and Muttrah, but failed to take Sohar, which was defended by Ahmad bin Said. After the end of the civil war, Ahmad bi Said continued to fight the Persians until they were expelled from the country. In 1744, Ahmad bin Said was elected the Imam of Muscat. The new Imam worked towards the reconciliation of the rival factions in the civil war. He also worked hard to rebuild the Omani navy, and personally led expeditions against the pirates operating from the pirate coast of the Persian Gulf, and also attacked and expelled the Persians from Basra. Ahmad bin Sa'īd was the founder of the Al  Sa'īd dynasty, and after his death in 1783, was succeeded by his son Sa'īd , who being unpopular was replaced by his son Hamad. Hamad who died suddenly in 1792, was succeeded by his uncle, Sayyid Sultan bin Ahmad. In fact even prior to assuming power, Sayyid Sultan bin Ahmad had exercised tight control over Oman and trade in the Gulf, that some European powers dealt with him directly as the effective ruler of the country. Sayyid Sultan bin Ahmad was succeeded by his son Sayyid Sai'd bin Sultan, during whose period Oman reached its zenith as a regional power, exercising its authority over its possessions on both sides of the Gulf and in East Africa and also Gwadar in India, on the coast of the Arabian Sea.

 

Sayyid Sa'īd bin Sultan, the greatest ruler of the Al-Sai'd dynasty

When Sayyid Sultan bin Ahmad died in 1804, he was succeeded by his two sons,  Sa'īd and Salim, but the throne was usurped by their cousin Badr.  Sa'īd reclaimed his throne in 1806, after assassinating Badr, and became the absolute ruler of his domain, with Salim taking a back stage until his death in 1821. One of the first tasks of young  Sa'īd was putting his own house in order, by settling all family and tribal quarrels. Other major issues he had to contend with during the early years of his rule, was the Anglo-French rivalry in the Indian Ocean, the rapid expansion of Wahhabism in Arabia and the problems caused by the pirates of the Pirate coast. Having consolidated his power as Sultan, Sayyid Sa'īd bin Sultan made a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1824, when he was 33 years old.

 

Sayyid Sa'īd bin Sultan exerts his authority over the east African colonies

During this period, the east African coast consisted of many small states, who still owed allegiance to Oman, after expelling the Portuguese in 1698. The instability that followed Sa'īd's accession to the throne, who was just 15 years old at that time, was perceived as weakness by the east African states, who stopped payments of tribute, and the Mazar'i family at Mombasa had set up a virtually independent dynasty. In 1822,  Sa'īd sent an expedition against the Mazar'i family that expelled them from the Pemba island. In 1827,  Sa'īd himself traveled to Mombasa, to assert his authority as the Sultan. This resulted in a dramatic increase in the revenue remitted to Oman. The power struggle between  Sa'īd and Mazar'i for Mombasa, ended only in 1837, after the killing of 30 Mazari's who were taken captive.

Sayyed Sa'id bin Sultan, Imam and Sultan of Oman, Muscat and Zanzibar

Sayyed Sa'id bin Sultan, Imam and Sultan of Oman, Muscat and Zanzibar

Sayyid Sa'īd bin Sultan begins commercial cultivation of cloves in Zanzibar in 1828 that boosted the earnings of his kingdom

Sayyid Sa'īd bin Sultan first visited Zanzibar in 1828. He was impressed by the fertile land of Zambia, and its climate and believed that conditions here would be suitable for the growing of cloves, a spice that was much in demand in Europe, and was used at that time for the preservation of meat, and was brought by his sailors from Indonesia previously. He acquired two properties in Zanzibar, which he used as experimental plots for growing cloves. After the success of his experimental cultivation, Sayyid Sa'īd bin Sultan then ordered the cultivation of cloves all over the Islands of Zanzibar and Pemba, which became the largest producer of cloves in the world. The export of cloves to Europe eventually generated almost one-third of Oman's revenue. Thus, Sayyid Sa'īd bin Sultan became one of the first colonial rulers, who opened large plantations of cash crops outside his country, that generated revenue for his kingdom. The Sultan probably got the idea for the creation of such plantations, from his British colonial partners, who had already started their own plantations of cash crops in lands colonized by them, in Asia, Africa and the new world, such as sugarcane, cotton, tea, coffee, tobacco, rubber, coconut, oil palm, pea nuts, pineapple, banana etc. that generated revenue for the British empire.

 

Other commercial ventures that generated income for the Omani empire

Sa'īd also engaged in other commercial ventures that generated income for his kingdom. He organized caravans that set out deep into the African continent, to countries like Tanganyika and Uganda, in search of ivory, slaves and other products. Zanzibar became the center of the slave trade in east Africa, from where they were taken to the Arabian peninsula for dispersal. Under a treaty of collaboration signed with Britain in 1822, Sayyid Sa'īd bin Sultan was bound not to sell slaves to the western powers, but only in the Arabian peninsula. He also used some of the slaves for the development and maintenance of clove plantations. The revenue generated from taxes and commercial interests, made Oman and Muscat one of the richest and most powerful countries in the region.

 

Sayyid Sa'īd bin Sultan unofficially shifts his capital to Zanzibar and establishes diplomatic relations with the United States, Britain and France

During this period Sayyid Sa'īd bin Sultan divided his time more or less equally between Oman and east Africa, spending part of his time in Oman and an equivalent period in Zanzibar, where he also built palaces and set up his court. While at Zanzibar he established diplomatic relations with the United States in 1837, with Britain in 1841, and France in 1844, and these countries opened consulates in Zanzibar. The United States, Britain, France and Germany became the principal buyers of Omani goods. Sa'īd also exported goods in his own ships to Arabia and India, and occasionally to Europe and the United States. In the 1840s, Zanzibar had become the most powerful nation in east Africa, and the commercial capital of the western Indian Ocean. It was his interest in trade that made Zanzibar and Oman great nations, and Sayyid Sa'īd bin Sultan himself was reported to have said on one occasion, "I am nothing but a merchant."

 

Sayyid Sa'īd bin Sultan officially transfers his court to Zanzibar in 1853, but dies shortly afterwards in 1856

Zanzibar was the unofficial capital of the Omani empire since early 1940s, but in 1853, Sayyid Sa'īd bin Sultan  officially transferred his court to Zanzibar, which became the capital of the Omani empire. His domain in east Africa extended from Mogadishu in Somalia to southern Tanzania. Sayyid Sa'īd bin Sultan died in Zanzibar 1856. His long period of rule on the east African coast helped spread Islamic and Arabic influence through out the region, and the development of the local Bantu  language known as Swahili, into the lingua franca of the entire east African region, after the incorporation of Arabic vocabulary.

 

Britain's support to the Al-Said Sultans that prevented the revival of the Ibadi Imamate

Sayyid Sa'īd bin Sultan was succeeded by his two sons, Majid who became the ruler of Oman and Thuwayn the ruler of Muscat and Oman. Thus the Omani empire was now split into two different independent states. After the separation the economic fortunes of Muscat and Oman declined rapidly, and Zanzibar was forced to compensate Oman annually for the loss of slave-trade income by paying 40,000 Maria Theresa silver dollars, a payment which was later taken over by the British when Zanzibar defaulted. The British continuously propped up Sultans of the Al Bu Said dynasty in Muscat using their military strength, against periodic revivals of the Ibadi imamate in the interior of Oman, that led to signing of the treaty of Al-Seeb in 1921, that recognized the countries interior and coastal regions as separate entities, and renamed the country Muscat and Oman. Muscat was ruled by the Sultan and the interior of Oman by the Imam.

 

Saudi Arabia occupies the Buraimi Oasis in 1952 but was re-captured by Oman in 1955 with British help

In 1948, the Iraq Petroleum Company began oil exploration in Oman. While oil explorations continued, Saudi Arabia invaded northwestern Oman in 1952, and occupied the Buraimi Oasis, believed to hold vast reserves of oil. This outside intervention, helped to unite the two entities of Oman, who sunk their differences to confront the common enemy. Sultan Sa'īd ibn Taymur, supported by the British Trucial Scouts, pushed the Saudis back in 1955 and retook the Buraimi Oasis. With the victory over the Saudis, Oman was reunited and the centuries old Imamate abolished and the Imam exiled to Saudi Arabia in 1960. Oil was finally discovered in Oman in 1964 and the first oil revenues began to flow in from 1967.

 

A palace coup that leads to Sultan Qābūs ibn Sa'īd ascending the throne and paving the way for the crushing of the Marxist rebellion, and appointment of a national administration in which all ethnic and tribal interests were represented

On July 23, 1970, a palace coup saw the exiling of Sultan Sa'īd ibn Taymur,  to London by his own son and heir to the throne Prince Qābūs ibn Sa'īd, a Sandhurst-trained military officer, ostensibly for the suppression of the Marxist rebels in the Dhofar region and to counter the communist threat from Marxist South Yemen, two crucial issues, which the son felt, the father was not able to handle. Tim Landon,  Prince Qābūs ibn Sa'īd's friend and colleague at Sandhurst, now became his mentor and closest adviser. One of the first acts of Sultan Qābūs bin Sa'īd was to change the name of his country from Muscat and Oman to the Sultanate of Oman. He then launched a campaign against the Marxist rebels of Dhofar and crushed the movement in 1975, with the help of British, Iranian and Jordanian troops. In setting up his national and regional administrations, Sultan Qābūs took into consideration all tribal and ethnic interests, and made sure that they were proportionately represented. A cabinet of 26 ministers were appointed directly by the Sultan, but the important portfolios of prime minister, foreign minister, finance minister and minister of defense were held by the Sultan himself. In 1996, Sultan Qābūs ibn Sa'īd declared the Sultanate of Oman as a hereditary absolute monarchy, which was embodied in the country's first written constitution the "Basic Statutes of the State" which also provided for his succession. The constitution provided for a bicameral assembly consisting of an elected 83-member lower chamber, Majlis Al-Shura (Consultative Council) and an appointed 48-member upper chamber, Majlis Al-Dhowla (State Council), whose members were appointed by the Sultan.

Muttrah Corniche in Muscat Oman at night.

Muttrah Corniche in Muscat Oman at night.

Photo above- Creative commons


A mosque in Ruwi- a suburb of Muscat Oman

A mosque in Ruwi- a suburb of Muscat Oman


Entrance to Sultan Qaboos Palace in Muscat

Entrance to Sultan Qaboos Palace in Muscat

Photo above- Creative commons

Modernization of Oman while preserving ancient architectural monuments

At the time Sultan Qābūs seized his father's throne petroleum revenues had just started flowing in. However, by the end of the century production approached almost a million barrels a day. The Sultan used the oil revenues earned for the social, educational and economic development of his country and to increase the living standards of his people. He adopted his own model of development and modernization, contrary to the models adopted by his neighbors such as the Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait. Muscat and Oman had several  ancient architectural buildings such as palaces, castles and forts constructed by the Ya'aruba Imams in the 17th and early 18th centuries. Sultan Qābūs restored and preserved these ancient buildings, while modernizing his capital Muscat. Old Muscat and Mutrah was modernized without bulldozing the old towns out of existence. Modern housing and office blocks were constructed in the suburbs, such as Qurm and Ruwi. The new international airport was built at Seeb.

 

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Related :-

1) Shah Safi/Shah Sofi Pearl

2) Sara/Tavernier/Shaista Khan Pearl

 

References :-

1) The Pearl Fisheries of the Persian Gulf - Chapter 6, The Book of the Pearl - George Frederick Kunz.

2) Famous Pearl Collections - Chapter 16, The Book of the Pearl - George Frederick Kunz.

3) Travels in India by Jean-Baptiste Tavernier - Translated from the original French edition of 1676 - Dr. Valentine Ball

4) History of the United Arab Emirates - From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

5) From Pirate Coast to Trucial - John Brinton. Saudi Aramco World. www.saudiaramcoworld.com

6) Hormuz Island - From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

7) Ormus - From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

8) Encyclopedia of World Biography on Seyyid Said - www.bookrags.com

9) Said ibn Sultan - Encyclopedia Britannica, 2009 student and home edition

10) History of Oman - www.murgan.com

11) Port Sultan Qaboos - www.worldportsouce.com

12) Muscat Oman - From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

13) History of Oman - From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

14) The History of Oman - Oman Information Center. www.omaninfo.com

15) Oman - Encyclopedia Britannica, 2009 student and home edition

 

 


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