The trade routes constituted a vast communications network that transmitted far more than tradeable commodities. They carried ideas, creeds, fashions, customs and languages from one extremity to the other, much as the internet does today. South Arabians taught the Indians astronomy, philosophy, maths and astrology several centuries before the dawn of the Hellenistic Era.
The great Omani mariners Ahmed Ibn Majed and Suleiman Al-Mahri studied the science of navigation and then transmitted these principles, enriched by their encyclopaedic practical knowledge of the Indian Ocean, to generations of mariners and sea captains around the world. Most significantly, Omani merchants were greatly responsible for the spread of Islam.
Undoubtedly, the most significant product of all of this Omani scholarship was the emergence and dissemination of what became to be known as Ibadhi Islam, which eschewed violence and appealed to the Omani preference for negotiation and pacifism, reflecting the true spirit of Islam. Ibadhism flourished in Oman and in North Africa and contact was maintained between mashraq and maghreb over the centuries, sometimes despite suppression by the ruling powers.
Ibadism is still Oman’s preferential interpretation of Islam, informing its interactions with others at every level, culturally, socially and politically.
The Islamic Era was a time of great flowering for Oman, ruled by peaceful and devout leaders who welcomed all visitors to its shores and offered safe harbour, sweet water and transit facilities to mariners.
The very extent of the distances covered by Omani merchants, and their reputation for diplomacy, piety and integrity, gave them an edge in negotiating trade agreements, in interacting with other cultures and extending their influence.
Oman exported horses in great quantities to India, pearls and ambergris to Africa, along with dates, copper and, of course, frankincense. In addition, it prospered from the trade in spices from India and Serendib by way of its own entrepot ports and overland caravans across the Arabian Peninsula to the Mediterranean. Merchants also traded cotton, gold, silver, perfumes, gemstones, ivory and ebony from India and the Andaman Islands, and silk, musk, clay and sable from China.
From East Africa, they shipped ivory to China for use in the carving of chess pieces and other ornaments, and imported ebony, teak and sandalwood for their own thriving shipbuilding industry. Chinese references record that rhinoceros horns were imported to China from various parts of Asia, but that the finest quality of all were those brought by Omani tradesmen from Zanzibar
Trading objectives spawned the emergence of the travelling geographer, historian and observer of human life and culture, who most often followed merchant or pilgrim routes or accompanied merchants on their voyages. These intrepid men, through their written chronicles, supported the spread of knowledge far and wide and fed such literary masterpieces as the Thousand and One Nights, in which Sindbad, who may have been a real person, set sail from fabled Sohar. Many of these travellers visited Oman and experienced its hospitality, including Ibn Mujawir, Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo. Islam, meanwhile, was fuelling great movements of devout pilgrims, who travelled in caravans across desert and ocean to reach Mecca. On one such caravan from North Africa 300 male births were recorded, along with an undefined number of female births and uncompleted pregnancies.
Ideas and customs were exchanged across tribal lands and settlements. Precious commodities, such as Omani frankincense and pearls, smoothed diplomatic introductions.
Some of the commodities had a transformative impact on life, such as the spices that revolutionised diets and health, or the Omani horses that supplied the armies of Delhi, about which Marco Polo noted that one Hindu king and his brothers each imported 2,000 horses a year from Oman, at a cost of 500 marks of silver apiece.
The coastal culture of the East African littoral was born of the intercourse of Bantu Africans and the Arab and Persian traders who visited its shores and often intermarried and settled there. The Swahili (from the Arabic word for coast) language, today the most widely spoken language of East Africa, is deeply infused with Arabic vocabulary. Omani links with Zanzibar, always particularly close, were fully formalised when Zanzibar became the seat of the Omani royal court in 1698 after the defeat of the Portuguese, extending Oman’s influence deep into Africa, as far as Kindu on the Congo River.