Searching for Sinbad

Sinbad, “that famous traveller who sailed over every sea upon which the sun shines”, has come to embody the spirit of seafarers from Oman. Long before the birth of Islam, the ancient Omanis have built boats strong enough to allow the monsoon winds to carry them to India and East Africa, where they traded in various commodities. Its strategic position at the entrance to the Arabian Gulf, and as a midway stop between India and Africa, has been crucial in its development, and by the Middle Ages Oman was a prosperous seafaring nation. During this time Sohar was not just Oman’s greatest port, but also one of the largest and most important cities in the Arab world.

The sea has always been central in the history of Oman, and by the time Seyyid Said bin Sultan al Busaidi came to power in 1804, Muscat received goods from all over the world, which included pearls from Bahrain, coffee from Yemen, copper from Basra, gold, ivory, ostrich feathers and slaves from Zanzibar and muslin, spices, timber, rice and porcelain from India and China.

In order to sufficiently exploit the resources of East Africa, Seyyid Said tried to make his presence there stronger, and as luck would have it, an ideal opportunity arose when Lamu was attacked by Mombasa. Even though the Lamuans managed to stave off defeat, they felt vulnerable between the hostile forces in Mombasa and Pate. Round about 1813 Lamu appealed to Seyyid Said for protection. He promptly sent a liwali (governor) to the island, and Said bin Hamid built himself a house directly behind the fort that was being constructed at the same time. From here Seyyid Said gradually, over the years, made his presence in the region felt until he boldly moved his court to Zanzibar in 1840 from where he ruled until his death in 1856.

Fascinated by the link that exists between the Arab world and East Africa, I spent the month of October, last year, in Lamu Town. It is said to be one of the best preserved bastions of Swahili culture in the region, and I spent many happy hours in the old harem section of the liwali’s house reading about and researching this link. Beautifully restored by Paul and Christina Aarts, this “big house behind the fort” (or nyumba kubwa njuma ya gereza in Swahili) is now known as Subira House. It is a place of respite and conviviality, an ideal base to set out on adventures to the rest of the Lamu Archipelago, or a space to simply drink one’s fill of the long, colourful history it enfolds.  

Images of Subira House

Interesting facts:

* Oman automatically grants nationality to all Zanzibaris who are descendants of Omanis.

** About a third of Oman’s population of two million people were either born in East Africa or their parents were, according to statistics from Oman’s passports and immigration office.

*** Swahili, a language spoken in Zanzibar and other areas of East Africa, is widely spoken by many Omanis as a result of the historical ties.

**** The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor has been told in many different forms, but originally comes from 1001 Arabian Nights