Oman Before the Advent of Islam
In 325 BC, Alexander the Great sent a fleet from India to follow the eastern, or Persian, coast of the gulf up to the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and sent other ships to explore the Arab side of the waterway. The temporary Greek presence in the area increased Western interest in the gulf during the next two centuries. Alexander's successors, however, did not control the area long enough to make the gulf a part of the Greek world.
By about 250 BC, the Greeks lost all territory east of Syria to the Parthians, a Persian dynasty in the East. The Parthians brought the gulf under Persian control and extended their influence as far as Oman. The Parthian conquests demarcated the distinction between the Greek world of the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Empire in the East. The Greeks, and the Romans after them, depended on the Red Sea route, whereas the Parthians depended on the Persian Gulf route. Because they needed to keep the merchants who plied those routes under their control, the Parthians established garrisons as far south as Oman.
In the third century AD, the Sassanians, another Persian dynasty, succeeded the Parthians and held the area until the rise of Islam four centuries later. Under Sassanian rule, Persian control over the gulf reached its height. Oman was no longer a threat, and the Sassanians were strong enough to establish agricultural colonies and to engage some of the nomadic tribes in the interior as a border guard to protect their western flank from the Romans.
This agricultural and military contact gave people in the gulf greater exposure to Persian culture, as reflected in certain irrigation techniques still used in Oman. The gulf continued to be a crossroads, however, and its people learned about Persian beliefs, such as Zoroastrianism, as well as about Semitic and Mediterranean ideas.
Judaism and Christianity arrived in the gulf from a number of directions: from Jewish and Christian tribes in the Arabian desert; from Ethiopian Christians to the south; and from Mesopotamia, where Jewish and Christian communities flourished under Sassanian rule. Whereas Zoroastrianism seems to have been confined to Persian colonists, Christianity and Judaism were adopted by some Arabs. The popularity of these religions paled, however, when compared with the enthusiasm with which the Arabs greeted Islam.
There are a number of sites scattered over Oman which date back to this period. These include the Mikhailif site and the Al Waset site in Batinah. Many smooth, soapstone vessels have been discovered at these areas as well as ornaments characteristic of the period, bronze spearheads, arrowheads and knives.
The most important site dating back to the first millennium BC is located in Sohar. A settlement was unearthed there in which were found constructions below the buildings of the first century AD, indicating a flourishing settlement. The artefacts discovered show that Sohar was a significant trading centre at this time. Merchant seals were found and a type of fine terracotta earthenware, possibly imported from India. Other forms of pottery included Chinese porcelain of a type found in abundance in the first century of the Islamic Age, confirming that trade with China was flourishing then. This trade continued until the 14th century AD.
The succession of strata at the site shows the gradual decline of trade and the subsequent stagnation of the city as a result of the overlordship of Hormuz passing to Qalhat near Sur. Thus trade and its attendant enterprise and tax revenue were relocated there.
The fortification of Sohar was raised by order of one of the princes of Hormuz with the purpose of imposing a trade blockade on the town, until it was severely reduced and the inhabitants were forced to flee. After the Portuguese had been expelled from the region, Sohar saw a trade revival and an increase in its mercantile exchanges in the Far East. Frankincense brought the city of Dhofar in the south of the Sultanate to worldwide prominence. Dhofar was the prime source of this exotic commodity and also of gum. Frankincense was in the forefront of commodities traded in the past, particularly once it had caught the attention of the early historians around 400 BC, such as Herodotus, Pliny, Ptolemy, Strabo and Diodorus.
Field studies carried out in Dhofar indicate that frankincense was transported by land and sea across the world. The crop was collected for outward transport from Ras Fartak port (Jebel Al Qamr) to Yemen and the rest of Asia, via Aden port. The land route started to the west of Dhofar and passed through the Nejd to the south of the Arabian peninsula, then swinging north to Najran and on to Gaza. However, the most significant route was that which linked Dhofar with the east of the Arabian peninsula and continued to Sumer, in Iraq.
Ptolemy was the first geographer to draft a map of the Dhofar district in which he identified the Salalah Plain (Khwar Rawri) as the region where frankincense was cultivated. He also highlighted an area which he named Suq al Omaniyeen (the Omani Marketplace). Other studies show that the Omanis controlled the principal districts on the south coast of the Arabian Sea. Muslim historians made reference to Ubar or Wabar, placing it in the northern part of Dhofar. Nashwan bin Said Al-Homeiri also referred to this place, but believed it to be in the territory occupied by the Aad tribe (the eastern part of Yemen). The historian Al-Tabai speaks of Ubar without specifying its whereabouts in a reference to its having been stricken with drought. At all events, there are many references indicating that the Aad clan was settled at Ubar. The Quran also records a tale of the Aad who were destroyed and buried without their domicile being known. Thus it can be concluded that Ubar was not the name of a city, but of a substantial territory, the precise location of which is a matter of debate between historians and archaeologists.
Shasir continued to thrive after the end of the Bronze and Iron ages. Recent excavations have unearthed traces of fine buildings, suggesting a well-populated place on the trading activities of its citizens. During the Middle Ages, many sources refer to their uncommon enterprise in the export of incense, horses and gum. It is likely that Shasir retained its trading prominence up to the start of the 16th century, when its inhabitants left and relocated in the surrounding regions.
Field surveys carried out in 1993 on the Salalah Plain discovered a similarity in the buildings excavated, particularly at the Ain Hamran site, with those of the Shasir district, sharing many identical architectural features. A large group of buildings at Balid in Salalah were also found. These studies ascribe considerable significance to this locality as a busy trading post engaged in the export and import of goods, as evidenced by the presence of a variety of coins and ceramic vessels, dating to the 14th century AD. Archaeologists also found parallel samples in Shasir, establishing that a link existed between the region to the interior of Dhofar and the coast right up to the 15th century.
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