The Sultan's Shadow: One Family's Rule at the Crossroads of East and Westby Christiane Bird
A story virtually unknown in the West, about two of the Middle East’s most remarkable figures—Oman’s Sultan Said and his rebellious daughter Princess Salme—comes to life in this narrative. From their capital on the sultry African island of Zanzibar, Sultan Said and his descendants were shadowed and all but shattered by the rise and fall of
A story virtually unknown in the West, about two of the Middle East’s most remarkable figures—Oman’s Sultan Said and his rebellious daughter Princess Salme—comes to life in this narrative. From their capital on the sultry African island of Zanzibar, Sultan Said and his descendants were shadowed and all but shattered by the rise and fall of the nineteenth-century East African slave trade.
“As shrewd, liberal, and enlightened a prince as Arabia has ever produced.” That’s how explorer Richard Burton described Seyyid Said Al bin Sultan Busaid, who came to power in Oman in 1804 when he was fifteen years old. During his half-century reign, Said ruled with uncanny contradiction: as a believer in a tolerant Islam who gained power through bloodshed and perfidy, and as an open-minded, intellectually curious man who established relations with the West while building a vast commercial empire on the backs of tens of thousands of slaves. His daughter Salme, born to a concubine in a Zanzibar harem, scandalized her family and people by eloping to Europe with a German businessman in 1866, converting to Christianity, and writing the first-known autobiography of an Arab woman.
Christiane Bird paints a stunning portrait of violent family feuds, international intrigues, and charismatic characters—from Sultan Said and Princess Salme to the wildly wealthy slave trader Tippu Tip and the indefatigable British antislavery crusader Dr. David Livingstone. The Sultan’s Shadow is a brilliantly researched and irresistibly readable foray into the stark brutality and decadent beauty of a vanished world.
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The Sultan's ShadowOne Family's Rule at the Crossroads of East and West
By Christiane Bird
Random HouseCopyright © 2010 Christiane Bird
All right reserved.
The time is 1806. the place is a sultan's castle justoutside Barka, Oman, a port on the Arabian peninsula. Inside the castle sit twohandsome teenage brothers: the gentle and bookish Salim and the decisive andambitious Said. Beside them is their adviser Muhammad bin Nasir. Standingsentinel at the door is a tall Nubian slave.
Bedr, the boys' first cousin, enters the room and takes aseat between the brothers. Said admires the scabbard hanging by Bedr's side-amagnificent affair set with semiprecious stones. Yet even more magnificent isthe point of the dagger within, Bedr says, and he takes it out for his cousinsto admire. Silently, Said reaches for the weapon and then, swiveling suddenly,plunges it into his cousin's breast. The Nubian slave shuts the door.
Screaming with pain, Bedr staggers to his feet and throwshimself out a window, to land upon a dung heap. Stumbling to the castle stable,he mounts a saddled horse-one is always at the ready, as is the Arab custom. Hegallops toward the desert, where four hundred of his Wahhabi* supporters arequartered. Watching from an upstairs window, Said's aunt Bibi Mouza cries outfor Said to go after him, and he does, accompanied by his brother, his adviser,other noblemen, and the Nubian slave. Galloping through a copse of date trees,they come upon the wounded man and knock him off his horse. Pouring blood, Bedrdoggedly continues on foot toward the Wahhabi camp, now within sight. Saidhesitates a moment, then stabs him dead.
Said and Salim are the sons of Seyyid Said bin SultanAhmed Al Busaid, who ruled Oman from 1793 to 1804. Bedr was plotting thebrothers' own murders and would have succeeded were it not for the boys'perceptive and formidable aunt. Upon discovering Bedr's intentions, Bibi Mouzapersuaded Said of the necessity of killing his cousin.
Six weeks after Bedr's murder, Said and Salim aredeclared the joint rulers of Oman. It will be Said alone, however, who willwield the power. He is fifteen years old-and, legend has it, will be haunted byhis vicious act for the rest of his life, so much so that he will rarelysentence a subject to death.
The story of Seyyid Said bin Sultan Al Busaid and hischildren begins, as all stories begin, in history. But in the case of the AlBusaids, and of the Omanis in general, that history is many centuries old.Though today all but vanished from the world stage, Oman is one of the oldestand most unusual countries in the world.
A small nation, Oman lies at the southeastern edge of theArabian peninsula, east of today's Saudi Arabia, south of the United ArabEmirates, and northeast of Yemen. A dramatic land of desert, mountain, and sea,Oman is centered on a stark, rugged chain of mountains-the Hajars-and isisolated from its neighbors by the vast, barren reaches of the Rub'al-Khali, orEmpty Quarter, the great desert that also blankets much of Saudi Arabia.Geography is destiny: limited contact with other Arabs meant that from thebeginning, the Omanis developed their own unique history and culture, includinga singular brand of Islam called Ibadhism, and were more focused on the sea andforeign parts than they were on Arabia.
About two thirds of Oman is bounded by the sea. To itssouth and east are the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, while to its north isthe Gulf of Oman, which leads into the Persian Gulf-better known among Arabs asthe Arabian Gulf. Directly north of Oman lies Iran, less than thirty-five milesaway at the Strait of Hormuz, the narrowest point. As strategically importantduring Seyyid Said's time as it is today, the strait has witnessed the passageof everything from great argosies headed to ancient Mesopotamia to mammoth oiltankers headed to modern nation-states. As an old Arab proverb goes, "Ifthe whole world were a ring, Hormuz would be the gem in it."
The sea has been central to Oman since the dawn of time.Centuries before the birth of Christ, the ancient Omanis were building boatssewn together with twisted coconut fibers and sailing for thousands of mileswith the help of the powerful monsoon winds that blow between India and EastAfrica. Oman's strategic position at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, midwaybetween India and Africa, also made it a coveted prize for foreign invadersranging from the Persians to the Portuguese.
"Oman" today refers to the Sultanate of Oman, amodern nation with clearly defined borders, but during Seyyid Said's time, theterm was used more loosely, to refer to a broad swath of territory centered onthe country's northwestern mountains. The origins of the word Oman-or morecorrectly, 'Uman-may derive from an Arabic term meaning "to stay in aplace."
The forbidding Hajar Mountains, which run in a north-southarc along Oman's east coast, are the country's most striking geologicalfeature. Arid and nearly devoid of vegetation, they rise naked and dark fromthe earth, the result of a violent upheaval from the ocean bed some one hundredmillion years ago. Twisted into strange contortions in parts, the largelylimestone range changes color with the day-from burnt red to gray, pale greento tan, deep purple to black. In Seyyid Said's time, the Hajars were still wellpopulated with gazelle, wildcat, lynx, and leopard, but already their numberswere dwindling.
In the heart of the Hajars soars the ten-thousand-foot-highJabal Akhdar, or "Green Mountain," which is green only in relation tothe desert. The crucible of Omani culture, the Jabal Akhdar is intertwined withdeep valleys and high plateaus that have held small farming communities sinceas early as the fourth millennium b.c. Later settlements established around themountain's base grew into some of Oman's most important towns and cities.
Wedged between the northern part of the Hajars and thesea is the fertile Batinah plain, stretching for about 150 miles in length and5 to 30 miles in width. For centuries, thousands of towering dark green datepalms have flourished here, beneath watchful eyes peering out from mud-bricktowers and forts. Dates have long been the mainstay of Oman's food supply andeconomy, used to feed everyone from humans to camels and to purchase everythingfrom spices to slaves. Even today, Oman is one of the world's largest producersof dates, harvesting about 265,000 tons a year.
On the edge of the Hajars south of the Batinah liesMuscat, or "place of anchorage," Oman's capital since the 1780s andone of its few large natural harbors. Muscat is "one of the mostpicturesque places in the world," wrote one nineteenth-century visitor."From a distance, immense granite masses of rock, with jagged outline ofcliff and crag, are seen rising in gloomy abruptness from the sea....Plasteredhouses glitter against the somber background like a seagull's wing against anangry sky." A flourishing international port since well before the adventof Islam, Muscat-seductive, reclusive-was, until 1929, accessible only by boatand mountain footpaths.
Lacing the Hajars and the Batinah are the dry riverbedsknown as wadis. The wadis run with water only in the late summer or early fall,when the surrounding mountain slopes gleam with wildflowers and a velvetysheen, and are peppered with oases.
Historically, the wadis have been Oman's lifelines,serving as the main transportation and communication routes between thecountry's interior and its coast, which are otherwise cut off from each otherby the mountains. The most important wadi is the Sumail Gap, which separatesthe Western and Eastern Hajars, and is actually a series of severalintertwining wadis. Guarded by watchtowers-raised fingers along the way-theSumail Gap is bordered by a mountaintop shaped like a ship. Local legend has itthat a group of foreign sailors once tried to depart Oman before paying a younggirl for their provisions. She complained to her sheikh, who pulled the shipback against the wind, up the mountain, as a punishment and warning for all tosee.
At the northernmost end of the Hajars, jutting out intothe Strait of Hormuz, is the Musandam peninsula, where Seyyid Said's father wasslain by the so-called pirates who once flourished on this coast. Now separatedfrom Oman proper by the United Arab Emirates, the dark, hulking peninsula risesnearly a mile above the sea and is cut by deep, narrow, fjord-like inlets,similar to those found in Norway. Musandam's easternmost point is known as theCape of the Graves of the Indians, named for the many Indian merchant vesselsthat were once shipwrecked on its shores. Treacherous winds and currents meantthat those who attempted to sail directly through the Strait of Hormuz-ormiscalculated their route, the weather, or the sea-often met their deaths onMusandam, Arabic for "anvil."
To the west and south of the Hajars begins the country'ssecond most striking geological feature-its deserts, which cover about twothirds of today's Oman. Only a small portion of this territory is desert in theclassic sense of golden sands and rolling dunes; most is simply barreninhospitable land, with habitats ranging from arid plains to boulder fields tosalt flats.
The most famous of Arabia's deserts, the Rub' al-Khali,begins in Oman's far west. The world's largest sand desert, covering 225,000square miles-most of today's Saudi Arabia-the Empty Quarter receives almost norainfall and holds few settlements. Along its edges live dozens of Bedouintribes, known among the Arabs as the Bedu.
Throughout most of human history, Arabia's deserts wentlargely ignored by everyone but the Bedu. With the arrival of oil companies onthe peninsula in the mid-1900s, the desert suddenly took on a far greaterimportance, but only modest oil reserves have been found in Oman.
Finally, to Oman's far southwest is Dhofar, a large,distinctive region that has at times functioned as a separate state. TheDhofari people differ from the Omani people both physically and linguistically,and their land differs as well. Its rolling hills and plateaus, surrounded bymountains, receive the rains of the summer monsoons and for months every year,Dhofar's slopes are thick with mists. Along its coastal beaches, coconuts,bananas, and papayas grow. Dhofar fell under loose Omani rule about a thousandyears ago, but when Seyyid Said rose to power, it was governed by a renegademerchant prince infamous for piracy and smuggling.
Seyyid Said lived most of his formative years and firstdecades in power on the Omani coast, where he absorbed what was by then aprosperous, cosmopolitan maritime atmosphere. But always at his back were themountains and the deserts, harboring forces that threatened to bring down hisrule, his family, and his empire.
During Seyyid Said's time, and still in many ways today,Oman was a land of fiercely independent tribes. Numbering in the hundreds andvarying widely in size, degree of influence, and cohesiveness, most of thetribes were organized around a common ancestor and had a great deal ofautonomy, often going their separate ways when they disagreed with thecountry's ruler. Each tribe was led by a sheikh, who represented it duringnegotiations or conflicts with outsiders. The sheikh was usually a member of anelite family, but the office was not hereditary. He was chosen by a consensusof his peers.
The tribes of Oman were of two types: the Hadr, orsettled, and the Bedu. The Hadr were the country's farmers, craftsmen,teachers, religious leaders, and merchants, living in villages, towns, andcities under the rule of Sharia, or Islamic law. The Bedu were the country'scamel breeders, herdsmen, and semi-nomads, living at the edges of thesettlements and deserts under the rule of tribal law.
As with most tribal peoples, the Omanis were never aneasy people to rule. Wrote one early chronicler: "Now the people of Omanare endowed with certain qualities, which it is my hope they may never lose.They are people of soaring ambition, and of haughty spirit; they brook not thecontrol of any Sultan, and are quick to resent affront; they yield only toirresistible force, and without ever abandoning their purpose."
In the second half of the first millennium b.c., thewealthy Greek and Roman empires began trading with Dhofar, Oman's often-independentsouthwestern region. Dhofar is one of the only areas in the world where thefrankincense tree grows. Then in great demand throughout the lands of theMediterranean, Dhofar's frankincense was collected by slaves and loaded ontoships that headed north to the Mediterranean through the Red Sea.
The Greeks and Romans used frankincense-believed by theancient Egyptians to be the sweat of the gods fallen to earth-for religious andmedicinal purposes, burning it on altars, using it in embalming and to ward offevil, and flaunting it as a sign of power and wealth. In the first centurya.d., the Roman historian Pliny remarked that Emperor Nero had burnt moreincense at his wife's funeral than all of Arabia produced in a year. Pliny alsonoted that the people of southern Arabia-meaning Yemen and Dhofar-were thewealthiest in the world. And wealthy they would remain until the fourth centurya.d., when the spread of Christianity, which did not use incense at first,brought about the collapse of the frankincense trade.
Not all of the early frankincense traders transportedtheir cargo on sailing ships; some traveled overland, via camel caravan routesestablished in Arabia as early as 2000 b.c. These caravans traveled from oneoasis to the next, allowing for man and camel to replenish themselves beforemoving on to the next stop-often weeks away. One of the most famous of thesestops was the legendary lost city of Ubar, believed to have been located insouthern Oman. Mentioned in the Quran, Ubar dazzled visitors with its preciousmetals, jewels, and monuments. The city flourished for thousands of years, untilGod destroyed it for its greed and wanton ways-or so the pious believe.Excavations near Shisr in southern Oman have revealed a walled settlement,surrounded by smaller settlements, which was suddenly destroyed when itsunderground water caverns collapsed, plunging the town into an enormoussinkhole.
During the sixth century b.c., northern Oman was seizedby the Persians, then ruled by the Achaemenid king Cyrus the Great, whoestablished an empire that at one point reached as far east as India and as farwest as the Aegean Sea. The Persians would occupy Oman, except for relativelybrief intervals, for the next 1,200 years. Their presence was greatly resentedby the Omanis, but they gave the country an important gift whose value cannotbe overestimated: an ingenious irrigation system made up of underground waterchannels. Known as qanat in Persian and as falaj (sing.) and aflaj (pl.) inArabic, the channels were dug twenty yards or more beneath the ground's surfaceand drained the water from the mountainsides into the arid regions,transforming desert into habitable land. By the time the Persians left Oman,the country boasted about ten thousand aflaj, many of which are still inoperation today.
Excerpted from The Sultan's Shadow by Christiane Bird Copyright © 2010 by Christiane Bird. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Christiane Bird is the author of A Thousand Sighs, A Thousand Revolts: Journeys in Kurdistan; Neither East Nor West: One Woman’s Journey Through the Islamic Republic of Iran; and The Jazz and Blues Lover’s Guide to the U.S. A graduate of Yale University and former travel writer for the New York Daily News, she lives in New York City with her family.
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