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Early Persian Gulf Trade

The Persian Gulf lies between two of the major breadbaskets of the ancient world, the Tigris-Euphrates area (Mesopotamia, meaning "between the rivers") in present-day Iraq and the Nile Valley in Egypt. Mesopotamia, a part of the area known as the Fertile Crescent, was important not only for food production but also for connecting East to West. Rivers provided the water that made agriculture possible. Agriculture, in turn, enabled people to settle in one area and to accumulate a food surplus that allowed them to pursue tasks besides growing food, namely, to create a civilization. They chose leaders, such as kings and priests; they built monuments; they devised systems of morality and religion; and they started to trade.

Mesopotamia became the linchpin of ancient international trade. The fertile soil between the Tigris and the Euphrates produced a arge surplus of food; however, it did not support forests to produce the timber necessary to build permanent structures. The region also lacked the mineral resources to make metals. Accordingly, the early inhabitants of Mesopotamia were forced to go abroad and trade their food for other raw materials. They found copper at Magan, an ancient city that lay somewhere in the contemporary state of Oman and, via Magan, traded with people in the Indus Valley for lumber and other finished goods.

Trade between Mesopotamia and India was facilitated by the small size of the Persian Gulf. Water provided the easiest way to transport goods, and sailors crossed the gulf fairly early, moving out along the coasts of Persia and India until they reached the mouth of the Indus. Merchants and sailors became middlemen who used their position to profit from the movement of goods through the gulf. The people of Magan were both middlemen and suppliers because the city was a source of copper as well as a transit point for Indian trade.

From approximately 5000 BC to around 1800 BC, Iraq's need for incense, as supplied by Dhofar, grew. Some time around 2000 BC the region probably witnessed a change of climate and the environment began to experience drought and gradual desertification. This happened around the time inhabitants began to domesticate the camel for use in the overland caravan route. In about 1800 BC, an alternate trade route arose that linked India to the Mediterranean Sea via the Arabian Sea, then through the Gulf of Aden, thence into the Red Sea where the pharaohs had built a shallow canal that linked the Red Sea to the Nile. This new route gave access not only to Mediterranean ports but also, through the Mediterranean ports, to the West as well. Archaeological findings in the peninsula and in Egypt prove that the land trade became an established reality circa 1500 BC.

One of the ways that rulers directed goods toward their own country was to control transit points on the trade routes. Oman was significant to rulers in Mesopotamia because it provided a source of raw materials as well as a transshipment point for goods from the East. Although a valuable prize, Oman's large navy gave it influence over other cities in the gulf. When Mesopotamia was strong, its rulers sought to take over Oman. When Oman was strong, its rulers pushed up through the gulf and into Mesopotamia. One of the basic conflicts in gulf history has been the struggle of indigenous peoples against outside powers who sought to control the gulf because of its strategic importance.

Competition between Red Sea and Persian Gulf trade routes was complicated by the rise of new land routes around 1000 BC. Technological advances in the second and first millennia BC made land routes increasingly viable for moving goods. The domestication of the camel and the development of a saddle enabling the animal to carry large loads allowed merchants to send goods across Arabia as well. As a result, inland centers developed at the end of the first millennium BC. to service the increasing caravan traffic. These overland trade routes helped to Arabize the gulf by bringing the nomads of the interior into closer contact with their relatives on the coast.

At all events, the locality known as Shasir was the Nejd/Dhofar district's principal trade center for the northern land route which began at the start of the Neolithic Period and which appears to have been associated with trade between Dhofar and the north of the Arabian peninsula to Sumer in the south of Iraq. It is possible that the trade links between Dhofar and Sumer extended from the earliest times to trade with Gaza and Ancient Egypt.

From the earliest times, Dhofar was a habitat uniquely suited to the cultivation of the frankincense bush, although it appears that the use of frankincense as a traded commodity did not occur before the Neolithic Period, some 8000 years previous. During the Islamic Era, frankincense trade traversed the routes of the Neolithic Period which were constructed by the Arabs and Romans. The frankincense route from Oman to Egypt travelled by way of the Negev and Sinai. Thus, trade may have occurred between the Arabian peninsula and Dhofar during the Neolithic Period.

Certainly, South Arabia was once endowed with many rivers and lakes and consequently, traversed by many roads, in particular across the Rub al-Khali. The evidence for this comes from vessels and implements associated with the Neolithic Period which were found along the length of the route and at various sites throughout the Arabian peninsula. Further evidence came in the form of paintings on rock faces in the west of the peninsula and in Yemen. Finds along the route to Sumer in Iraq were all characterised by the same feats of decoration.

Oman did not confine its exports to raw frankincense, or olibanum. By blending this with a form of tallow, it was possible to process it into incense for religious rites. Ivory and perfumes were also among Oman's exports during the Neolithic Period. Investigative surveys stumbled on a quantity of Sumerian tablets bearing the name bokhur (incense) and records have described bokhur as "extracted from the frankincense bush".

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