The History of Oman
The departure of mankind from tropical Africa, fuelled by a megadroughts and made possible by falling sea levels that exposed much of the continental shelf between Southern Eritrea and Yemen, occurred approximately 135,000 to 90,000 years ago. This brief window of opportunity of low sea levels in the Southern Red Sea, combined with an Arabia that was lush and habitable with significant rainfall, allowed early migrants to escape the harsh climate change in Africa. Crossing into Yemen and Oman, these early human travellers traversed the 2,000km across Arabia to arrive as far as Jebel Al Faya in the United Arab Emirates. Arabia was not the desert landscape that we recognise it as today, but was in the process of being transformed from a harsh desert into lush greenery due to the ending of an ice age approximately 130,000 years ago, making it possible for humanity to survive. Palaeolithic stone tools discovered in cave systems in Southern and Central Oman, as well as similar findings at the Aybur Al Auwal archaeological site in the Dhofar region similar to those made by humans in Africa, indicate that humanity crossed into Arabia towards the Late Pleistocene era via the Straits of Bab el Mandab in the Southern Red Sea.
Archaeological evidence indicates that early inhabitants of Oman, known as the Magan civilisation, were extremely active in commercial trading, and had contact with Ancient Egyptian civilisations, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley dating back to 5000 BC. In 2500 BC the copper trade with Ancient Mesopotamia was so significant that the Sumerians referred to the Hajjar Mountains of Oman as the ‘Mountains of Copper’. Frankincense was a key export of Oman, with traders travelling as far as China. It was renowned throughout the ancient world, with the Greek historian Herodotus referring to the Frankincense harvested from the trees of Southern Arabia, and mentions in Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia. Besides frankincense, Oman’s ancient civilisations also traded in ivory, perfumes and spices. From the 6th century BC to the 7th century AD, Oman was controlled and influenced by a number of Iranian dynasties, all of which had important impacts on the development of Omani culture and heritage. The Achaemenids, known in history as the First Persian Empire and founded by Cyrus the Great, conquered a significant portion of the ancient world, stretching from the Indus Valley in the East, to Macedon on the North Eastern border of Greece. They were followed by the Parthians, whose history refers to Oman as Mazun. In the 3rd century AD, the Sassanids assumed control and maintained a strong presence in the region until the rise of Islam four centuries later. This long and extended exposure with a variety of Iranian dynasties had a defining influence on Oman’s early cultural development, some of which is still very visible today.
With the advent of Islam, Oman experienced many profound changes. It was one of the first countries to embrace Islam during the lifetime of the Prophet Mohammed; in 629 AD, the kings of Oman, Abd and Jaifar, sons of Julanda, converted freely and without coercion following delegations from the Prophet. Ibadism, a moderate conservative form of Islam adopted in the 8th century AD, is still followed today, making Oman the only country in the world where the majority of the population follows this form of the religion. Ibadism can also be found in certain parts of East Africa, the Mzab valley of Algeria, the Nafus mountains of Libya and the island of Jerba in Tunisia. A defining feature of Ibadism is the choice of ruler by communal consensus, a practice used in Oman by Ibadi Muslims since 751 AD. The advent of Islam in Oman was embraced by the local population, but the Persian garrisons continued to follow Zoroastrianism, and the new found zeal of the Arab population was a significant factor that led to the expulsion of the Persians from Oman. This period also saw the development of two different cultures within Oman; the coastal, secular tradition found in Muscat ruled by the Sultan, and the interior, insular tradition ruled by an Imam in accordance with Ibadism. It was only in 1970 that the name ‘Sultanate of Oman’ was introduced as a replacement for ‘Muscat and Oman’. These differences stem from the occupation of the coastal region by various empires throughout Oman’s history, each of which influenced the cultural development and ethnic diversity of this cosmopolitan region. However, despite its newfound independence, Oman was conquered by several foreign powers during the Middle Ages. The Qarmatians, one of the most powerful forces in the Persian Gulf and Middle East region during the 10th century, controlled the coast of Oman between 931-34 AD, while the Iranian Buyyid Dynasty gained control of Oman during the large territorial gains that characterised the first decades of its confederation.
ARRIVAL OF THE PORTUGUESE
A period of decline continued for much of the 19th century. century. Tribal attacks and periodic revivals of the Imam created instability in Oman, but the Al bu Said Dynasty retained power with the assistance of the British, who supported the Sultans rule in Muscat. Eventually an agreement was reached between tribal leaders and Sultan Taymur ibn Faysal, whereby the Sultan recognised the autonomy but the not sovereignty of the Omani interior. The interior remained autonomous until 1954, when the Imam and tribal leaders attempted to create an independent state with the support of Saudi Arabia. Once again with the assistance of the British, the imamate rebellion was supressed, even though remnants of the Imam’s supports held strongholds in the Al-Akhdar Mountain until a forced surrender in 1959, and the Imam exiled to Saudi Arabia. A failed assassination attempt saw Sultan Said bin Taimor become more isolated, who moved his residence from Muscat to Salalah. Threats to the Sultan’s rule continued in the mountainous Dhofar region, where a separatist revolt began called the Dhofar Liberation Front, supported by the formerPeople’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the Soviet Union and Iraq. On July 23rd 1970, Qaboos bin Said, son of the Sultan, assumed power with the assistance of the British following a bloodless takeover. Utilising British personnel and equipment, as well as support from Jordanian and Iranian troops, the rebellion was crushed in late 1975. The Sultan implemented a complete reversal of his father’s isolation policies, creating a new government, ministries and major infrastructural changes that have resulted in the modernisation of Oman and ushered the sultanate into a new age of development. Oman was one of the founding members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, established to promote economic, political and security cooperation between Gulf countries, and has close links with Britain and the United States of America. In 2000 the Sultanate joined the World Trade Organisation in an effort to liberalise its markets and increase its standing in the global economy.
PERSIAN CONQUEST AND RESTORATION OF OMANI RULE
The empire created under the Ya’rubid Dynasty eventually crumbled following a civil war between the two major tribes, the Hinawi and Ghafiri, over the succession of the Imam in the early 18th century, allowing the Persians, under the leadership of Nādir Shāh, to invade Oman in 1737. Their unpopular rule eventually led to a revolt led by Ahmad ibn Said al Said, who ejected the Persians from Oman and was elected Sultan of Muscat, thus establishing the Al bu Said Dynasty that is still in power today. His Grandson, Said ibn Sultan, expanded the Oman Empire to include the island of Bahrain, territories in Hormuz and Iran, and reasserted control over Zanzibar. On his death one of his sons became ruler of Zanzibar, and another ruler of Oman. The abolition of slavery in the mid-19th century by the English had a significant impact on the fortunes of the Al bu Said Dynasty, and entered into a period of decline.
20TH CENTURY ONWARDS
In 1507 the Portuguese arrived in the Persian Gulf, led by the famous Portuguese general Alfonso Albuerque, in an attempt to close all the Indian Ocean naval passages, and thus control the spice and trade routes. This marked the beginning of fierce contestations with the Ottoman Empire,and a bloody battle eventually left Muscat in Portuguese hands, after which most of the remaining inhabitants were massacred. The Portuguese held control over Muscat and much of the coastal region for 143 years, a period marked by several conflicts originating from Persia and the Ottomans. In 1624 the election of a new Imam of the Ya’rubid Dynasty of Oman resulted in a transfer of power from Persians to local Omanis, and in 1648 an army dispatched by the Imam sought to regain control over Muscat. A combination of strategic demolitions and captures of key high towers weakened the Portuguese grip on the surrounding area, and eventually a night raid carried out by a small body of the Imam’s troops led to a Portuguese surrender. After removing the colonial presence of the Portuguese from the North Eastern coastal region of Oman, the Ya’rubid Dynasty expanded Oman’s territorial presence to include former Portuguese colonies along the Indian Coast and East Africa, including Mombasa, Pemba, Zanzibar and Kilwa.