Oman was a hub for trade and commerce before the first century AD, and it is this history as a bastion of trade by land, but especially by sea, that has shaped the culture of the Sultanate, and its trade partners, from the Far East to Europe. Here we explore eight Omani trade routes and relationships that shaped the modern world as we know it today.
The Incense Route
Established as early as 1600 BC, the Incense Route linked the Mediterranean world to Arabia, India, and beyond. Frankincense resin was known to have great restorative qualities, from treating breathing ailments such as laryngitis and bronchitis, to soothing ulcers and boils. Being given frankincense plants by a royal showed you just how highly you were regarded in court.
In Arabia, the Nabateans – an ancient empire who gave us the wonder that is Petra in Jordan – controlled the trade of goods and spices. One of their most important cash crops was frankincense, harvested from the south of Oman. From Dhofar, the Incense Route made its way to Mesopotamia (Iraq) where it joined paths with the Central Asian Silk Route, which continued west to Europe.
Phoenicia (Modern day Lebanon)
The Phoenicians are revered as some of the most esteemed traders of the ancient world. Their famed dye, known as Tyrian Purple, glass, copper, pottery, and timber were in demand by both the Greeks and the Persians. As was frankincense, and with Oman as the only place in the world where the precious resin could be found, land routes were established from Tyre and Byblos to Sohar and Bahla to trade this precious commodity, which was literally worth its weight in gold. The Phoenicians imported the resin and then sold it to the Persians, who used it for its healing properties, and to the Greeks, who burned the sweet-smelling sap during burial ceremonies and weddings.
The Asian Spice Route
According to the great 10th century Arab traveller Abu Al Masudi, Omani sailors’ knowledge of the sea and their expertise in path finding through astronomy meant they were readily hired by merchants who wanted to travel to Canton (modern-day Guangzhou).
The journey from Muscat to the southern coast of India took a month, after which the ships sailed on to Sri Lanka, and then crossed the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca, finally landing in Canton (China), where Omani sailors did a brisk trade in goods such as gold, silver, silk, jewels, textiles, and copper, in addition to spices collected along the way, including cloves, black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, and more. The maritime route to Europe ran from Muscat to Aden, stopping for supplies in Mombasa before crossing Africa via the Suez, ending in Venice and Genoa.
Sumeria (modern day Iraq)
Seen by many as the cultural prototype for modern civilisation, the Sumerians were an ancient people who settled in Iraq during the third millennium BC. As the Sumerians began to grow and prosper, they too, began searching for luxury goods to cater to the elite. One such commodity was Omani frankincense, which traders from Sumer came to trade for around 1000 BC.
This new trade relationship coincided with the domestication of the camel, which allowed merchants to carry large quantities of goods to and from the ancient trade centre of Shasir in the Dhofar region.
Persia (modern day Iran)
Oman’s relationship with the Persian Empire goes back more than 1800 years. The Sassanid Dynasty of Persia built settlements in Oman from which they could access trade routes to India and the eastern lands beyond. With the decline of the Roman Empire, the Persians were able to establish a dominant maritime role in the region.
The Sassanids revolutionised industry in the region, establishing guilds for various artisans, and were among the first to introduce labels to their products to distinguish them from the others. They dealt in silk, textiles, gold, leather, carpets, spices, and pearls, in addition to acting as an entrepot for spices and paper from the East, which were then re-exported onto Europe. Oman too established trade settlements on the Persian coast in the 1700s, and to this day, maintain strong trade ties.
Rome (modern day Italy)
As early as the first century AD, Oman was dealing with the greatest European empire of that era: Rome. Want proof? In 1601 AD, a large cache of gold coins bearing the head of the Roman Emperor Tiberius were discovered in the foundations of the Sohar Fort. Historians have discovered that Oman not only served as a check point along Rome’s trade routes, but actually served as the gateway to India and the Far East.
The fame of spices such as nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, and cinnamon in the West can be attributed to these early Roman and Omani merchants, who traded in ancient towns like Asikh on the Omani coast.
The Indus Valley Civilisation (Modern day pakistan and northern india)
The Indus Valley Civilisation and its fabled twin cities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro saw several Arabian goods pass through its lands.
Wooden boats regularly travelled to the Persian Gulf from the Indus Valley Civilisation, laden with lapis lazuli, timber, pottery, figurines, and ebony, which were sourced from all over the land, transferred to the port city of Lothal (in modern day Gujarat) and then shipped to Oman, Bahrain, and Sumer, as early as 3200 BC. On their return, these ships carried goods that could not be found in their homeland, including silver, tin, textiles, oils, grain, copper and bitumen.
Zanzibar and East Africa
At one time the capital of the Sultanate, and part of the nation until 1965, cultural ties between Oman and Zanzibar are perhaps the most lasting of all the trade relations. Over the centuries, Zanzibar provided much in terms of economic wealth for the rulers of the Sultanate. From east Africa, Omani merchants shipped ivory and rhinoceros horn to other parts of the world, including China, where trade manifests show it was used to carve chess pieces and other ornaments, while bringing back ebony, teak, and sandalwood for their own shipbuilding industry.Zanzibar also served as Oman’s trade centre for pearls, ambergris, dates, copper, and horses in Africa, as well as the primary exporter of cloves, its most famous commodity.
A Land of Explorers:
Long before giant cargo liners took over the seas, and commerical jets made the world accessible by sky, Omanis were well-known seafarers, taking to the open ocean to discover new trade routes, as well as to fill-in the blank spaces on the map. The expertise of these dhow-sailing men was highly sought-after by explorers from distant lands, who too wished to discover uncharted lands. What follows are the stories of five such brave souls.
1. Abu Abdallah Bin Qasim Al Amani
Popularly known as ‘Ubayda’ among sailors, Abu Abdallah was a seventh-century Omani sailor who sailed to Canton in China, establishing one of the first Arab trading posts in the city. At its peak, this centre had more than 10,000 Arab residents, and was the final stopping point of both the Silk Route and the Spice Route.
Abu Abdallah’s journey to China took him through the UAE, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and China. He was fondly remembered by other explorers as one of the pioneers of his era. Today, his legacy lives on in the folklores of Sindbad and 1001 Arabian Nights, for which he is thought to be the inspiration.
2. Vasco Da Gama
The explorer’s explorer, Vasco Da Gama is credited with finding the Carreira de India, the first seaborne route from Europe to India. On his return to Portugal during his second voyage to India, estimated to be during the years 1502-1503, Da Gama and his entourage stopped for repairs and supplies in Oman’s port city of Sur.
After leaving his uncle Vicente Sodre with five ships to protect the trade route, da Gama departed, leaving the fleet anchored at Al Hallaniyah, one of the Kuriya Muriya group of islands off the coast of Oman. Sodre ignored the Omanis’ warnings of an impending storm, failing to secure his ships. The storm tore the ships from their moorings and dashed them on the rocks. While the crew of the Sao Pedro managed to ground the ship, the Esmeralda was sunk along with most of her crew. This shipwreck was later discovered in 1998, and excavations have been underway since 2013.
3. Abu Al Hasan Al Masudi
Known throughout the world as ‘Al Masudi’, this explorer was born in Baghdad in 896 AD. Al Masudi’s travels took up a major portion of his life, as he began his exploratory expeditions in 915 AD, and continued to pursue them until he died in 956 AD. In addition to Oman, Al Masudi explored several nations, including the Persian provinces, Armenia, Georgia, and other regions of the Caspian Sea. Journeys to Syria and Egypt aside, he also travelled to the Indus Valley, and other parts of India, as well as East Africa and onward to the Mediterranean. Sri Lanka and China are also among his travels. But, of all his journies, Al Masudi is best known for being one of the first explorers to travel to China, which he was able to do thanks to Omani sailors, who he hired to help him navigate the high seas transporting gold, silver, silk, jewels, textiles, and copper and bringing back bolts of silk and sheets of paper.
4. Ibn Battuta
Arguably the most famous Arab explorer, much is known about Ibn Battuta, but little is known about his time in Oman. In June 1325, at the age of 21, Ibn Battuta set out on pilgrimage to Mecca, but would not see his native Morocco for another 24 years. After spending a month in Mecca, Ibn Battuta joined a caravan to Iraq and Persia, and then made his way on to the port of Jeddah in 1330 before arriving in Aden a year later, where he remained.
In 1332, keen to see more of the world, he travelled to Somalia and sailed back to Arabia, landing in Oman before moving on to the Strait of Hormuz, and then back to Mecca.
“It is a fertile land, with streams, orchards, palm gardens, and fruit trees of various kinds... has fine bazaars and splendid clean mosques,” he wrote of Oman in his book Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354. “The city of Qalhat is on the coast. It has good markets and one of the most beautiful mosques in the world. The walls of the mosque are covered with blue ceramic tiles,” he added. “The people here are merchants and they bring many goods from India. When a ship arrives the people are very happy.”
5. Ahmad Ibn Majid
Despite his Omani heritage, few know about Ahmad Ibn Majid’s reputation and exploratory voyages across the world. Born in 1421 into a family famed for seafaring, he was able to pilot a ship by the age of 17, and by the end of his life, he was fondly known by other sailors as ‘The Shooting Star’ owing to his fearlessness, strength, and excellence in the art of navigation.
Ibn Majid wrote more than 40 books containing prose and poetry, among which were encyclopaedias on marine navigation and seafaring, which helped future explorers from Persia and Arabia navigate the seas in search of India and China. Chief among these books was Kitab al-Fawa’id or the book of Lessons on the Foundation of the Sea and Navigation. This book described the history and basic principles of navigation, the difference between coastal and open-sea sailing, the locations of ports from East Africa to Indonesia, star positions, accounts of the monsoons and other seasonal winds, typhoons and other topics for professional navigators. Despite his many contributions to the explorations of the ancient world, he is best known as the explorer who helped Vasco Da Gama navigate his fleet around Africa in search of India. — [email protected]