Oman have had a major role along the Silk Roads, interacted and had relations with Far East regions especially from the 11th to the 15th century, such as the Indian subcontinent or China. Indeed, thanks to their excellent sailing skills, Omani people could reach distant lands. This relation between Oman and Eastern regions is well illustrated by the Chinese literature of this period, especially with the name of geographical places. For example, Oman was designated as “Wong Man”, and the southern coastal Omani cities of Mirbat and Dhofar were called respectively “Wu Ba” and “Nu Fa”.
Amongst Omani people who travelled to China through other main cities of the Silk Roads, Sayyid Bin Abu Ali seems to be a good example of interactions between foreign people along these roads. Sayyid Bin Abu Ali was called “Sa Yi Di” by the Chinese. An inscription in his grave commemorating him from the Mongol-Yuan period written in Chinese by Liu Minzhong – one of the most well-known poet of that time – remains the tangible evidence of Sayyid’s uncommon life.
In this inscription, Sayyid Bin Abu Ali’s father is then designated as “Bu A Li”. It affirms that Sayyid’s ancestors moved from their hometown “Ha La Ha Di” (the coastal city of Qalhat – North East of modern Oman), to reach the coastal city of Xi Yang (Quanzhou – South East of modern China) where they settled as merchants. Bu A Li was deeply trusted by the king, and was extremely integrated into the society. When Bu A Li passed away, his son Sayyid inherited of his position.
It is believed that Sayyid Bin Abu Ali was born in the Indian subcontinent on the 13th century after his family moved from Qalhat. His ancestors were middlemen and traders between Persian Gulf coasts and China. Through their key position along the Maritime Silk Roads, they could keep contact with these regions, and interact with diverse people. Due to political circumstances, Sayyid’s family was able to extend and develop its trade towards Eastern lands. Therefore, their ships could reached Quanzhou (Zaitun), which was at these times one of the principal destination of Omani merchants and navigators.
A specific period of Sayyid Bin Abu Ali’s life is also narrated in a chapter treating of India in Yuan Shi (“A History of the Yuan Dynasty”). It is counted that during an expedition in to the Kerala region in the Indian Subcontinent from Quanzhou in 1281 AD, Kublai Khan of the Yuan dynasty requested Sayyid to work with him. Moreover, in a chapter of Gao Li Shi (“History of Korea”), the author refers to Sayyid Bin Abu Ali as “Bo Ha Li”, in this book about Korea, the author declares that Bo Ha Li married a Korean lady. In fact according to scholars, Sayyid left the Malabar Coast to Beijing in 1292. With the authorization of Kubilai Khan, he married a Korean lady. Therefore, this marriage allowed him as well to get closer to the Korean royal family.
Sayyid Bin Abu Ali died in 1299 in Beijing where an imperial funeral was organised for him. He was then carried to Quanzhou through official vehicles and buried there.
Sayyid Bin Abu Ali’s life deeply shows the impact of the Maritime Silk Roads at this period of history. An Omani born in India, who lived in many places eventually became a close companion of Yuan dynasty members. As other travellers of this time, he settled along the Silk Roads, exchanged and mixed with other people. His life remains a significant evidence of the international mobility and interactions possible thanks to the Silk Roads at these times.