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Oman Maritime History

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The strategic location and passion for seafaring since ancient times have been the guiding force behind Oman rich history of Ports.

The Sultanate of Oman has been considered as one of the pioneering nations in seafaring. Currently, the large ports at Muscat , Sohar and Salalah  have continued this tradition of over-seas trade.

If we look at the historical evidence, the 4500-year-old remains of a Reed Boat, used for trading with India, were found in Ras Al Jinz. Oman popularly known as Majan at that time, had maritime trade links with ancient civilizations as far afield as the ancient cities of Ur and Sumer in Iraq and the Indus Valley in Gujarat, India. Oman was a prosperous country mainly due to the copper trade prevalent in Sohar, Samad A’Shan and Masirah Island among other places. It all happened due to Oman’s excellent boat building capability and marine navigation skills. Over the centuries, Oman’s principal ports and harbours  were found all along its coast from khasab with numerous khors and inlets on the Musandam peninsula stretching up to Sohar, Muttrah , Muscat, Qalhat, and Sumharam in Dhofar.  Places like Ras Al Hadd, Bandar Al Jissah and Bandar khyran, locked in by mountains or deserts effectively provided protection from rough weather and served as staging posts for sailors. A Sumerian text mentions that the great king Sargon of Akkad boasted that ships from Majan, amongst those from other countries, docked at his wharves .

Towards the last millennium BC, Dhofar witnessed a flourishing trade in frankincense (aromatic gum which was as valuable as gold) with the Kingdom of Sheba, India, Egypt, Rome and China. Frankincense was behind the prosperity of many cities and ports in Southern Oman including Khawr Rawri, Al Baleed and Mirbat. Pottery from Oman was also traded throughout the Arabian Peninsula.

Pliny, the Greek historian writing in the 1st century AD, claimed that the control of the frankincense trade had made the southern Arabs one of the richest people in the world.

By the 8th century, Omani sailor Abu ‘Ubayda’ Abd Allah bin al-Qasim al-Umani, thought to be the fabled Sindbad, had reached China where he set up a merchant community in Canton. The renowned Ahmed bin Majid was master of the sea in the 15th century. He was credited with guiding Vasco Da Gama around the Cape of Good Hope and beyond.

In the 18th century, Muscat emerged as one of the major trading centers in the Indian Ocean under Imam Ahmed. During the reign of his son Sayyid Sultan bin Ahmed, Oman expanded its territorial control to Gwadar in Pakistan, Shajbajar, Hormuz, Bandar Abbas and Qishim in Iran and to Bahrain in the Arabian Gulf. His son Sayyid Said bin Sultan extended Oman’s naval empire with territories spreading from Cape Gurdafur in the Horn of Africa to Qirimba in Mozambique including Magadishu, Malindi, Mombassa and Zanzibar. During his reign, Oman’s ships traveled to and from increasingly distant cities including London and New York. In 1834, he presented the massive 74-gun ship to King William IV of the UK as a gift. In 1840, Hajji Ahmed bin Nu’man Al Ka’abi  arrived in New York on board the merchant ship Sultana, as an envoy to the US.

SHIP BULDING PROWESS  

At the peak of Oman’s seafaring empire in the 18th and 19th centuries, the dhows were magnificent vessels as the Sultanate had an advanced expertise in ship building.  They had raised poop decks with an attractive row of small windows. Even the largest, like the 200-tonne ‘baghala’, was famous for its beauty. A French writer described a voyage in a baghala named ‘Hope of Compassion’: “Her windowed stern was especially lovely. Its elliptical area of ancient teak was covered with intricate patterns of excellent carving and her curved bow swept upwards from the sea as gracefully as the breast of a swan”. These carvings were achieved with the simplest tools- and adze, a chisel, a hammer etc. The ships were built by hand and eye, without drawings or written specifications.  The gaps between the boards were sealed with a mixture of gypsum and shark fat.

These large dhows were the best of the Gulf world’s dhow tradition. Oman used these magnificent vessels to develop into one of the great sea-trading nations before the 20th century age of steam-powered ships.

“Muscat is a bay, Like which there is none in the world . It is the bay of Oman where vessels are loaded all the year round. IT is a cape located between two towns”.

MUSCAT – THE HIDDEN PORT

Muscat ‘s prominence as a port was acknowledged as early as the 1st century by Greek  geographers Ptolemy, who referred to it as Cryptus Portus ( the Hidden Port ), and Pliny the Elder, who called it Amithoscuta. Two 9th century works detailing the sailing routes from the Gulf to China cite Muscat’s importance as the last watering place for ships heading out of the Gulf for destinations in India, East Africa and beyond.

Many old sea route maps featured a special inset highlighting the Port of Muscat, which emphasizes the city’s importance as an essential berth on the international trade routes of that time. For example, the Spice Route Map of 1649 AD covered the Spice Route from the Cape of Good Hope to the Bengal Region in India. Muscat has been marked prominently on the map (picture inset). Oman was an important connecting link between Mediterranean world and the India Ocean.  The spices, tea, gold, ivory, silk and other goods from India, China, and the Spice Islands were carried in dhows to the Gulf, and then transferred to camel caravans for transportation to the Mediterranean Sea.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the coast of Muscat was part of a number of maritime and topographic surveys because of its important strategic position on the international trade routes. Many foreign countries and trade and shipping companies sent survey missions to explore the coast of Muscat, its topography and bathymetry. These survey missions  produced many precise maps and accurate drawings for trade and military use alike.

In a drawing from the 18th century AD (picture inset), the artist wrote that’ the harbour  of Muscat is the only harbour  where boats are safe at all times’.

The strategic position of Muscat harbour aroused the interest of European colonial powers since the Portuguese occupied it in the 16th century. France tried, will located to back up its navy at Mauritius and its trading activities in the rest of the Gulf. Britain too had an interest and tried everything it could to chase away the French and reserve Muscat for the logistic support of its navy in the Indian Ocean and reinforce its presence in the area.

After the death of Sayyid Said in 1856, Oman’s maritime commerce started declining. In the ensuing decades, the maritime activity was restricted to the import of essential items, mainly from India by old-style wooden dhows. Ships had to anchor offshore and sometimes wait for days before cargo could be unloaded manually into small boats.

Within the accession of His Majesty Sultan  Qaboos Bin Said in 1970, Oman embarked on a new journey of maritime commerce and port development. The establishment of Mina Sultan Qabbos in 1974 was a major milestone in this direction. The development of other ports including Salalah,  Sohar, khasab, Shinas and Duqm, dedicated terminals and fishery harbours have resulted in expansion and modernization of Oman’s sea transport infrastructure, thereby contributing to the nation’s economic diversification drive.  

(Source: Port of Oman 2010, Published by Ministry of Transport & Communications, Sultanate of Oman)

 
Port Sultan Qaboos – At the Heart of Oman’s Maritime History