Friday, April 11, 2014

Rihla (Journey 42): Qalhãt, Oman – The Tears of Maryam

Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355 CE) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian, Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years.

This rihla is about Qalhãt, Oman.

I had a place to stay among those departing,
It was far away and time destroyed it.
Those departing left sadness behind for me;
What a wretched friend is Sadness.
(Tãrîkh al-Mustabsir)

The core behavioural attribute of the Arabic psyche, of old and new, is the notion of respect: respect for clan affiliations and respect for precedent in terms of genealogy, hierarchy and agreements made; be they personal, political, judicial or religious.  In the past the primary vehicle used to transmit that notion of respect was a nomadic love of storytelling and this spilled over into an abundance of secular Arabic literature, a long time before widespread literacy was established in Europe. 

The 13th century traveller and businessman Ibn al-Mujãwir (Abu Bakr b.Muhammad b.Mas’ud b.’Ali b.Ahmed Ibn al-Mujãwir al-Baghdadi al-Nisaburi) from Khursan province (a Persian province in what now would be an area covering the intersection of NE Iran, southern Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and western Afghanistan) quoted the stanza above when writing about his visit to Qalhãt, Oman in 626 AH or 1229 CE (the year the Papacy formally established the Inquisition).

Qalhãt is a storytellers dream and for me, it provided an opportunity to visit a place where the hero of my rihlas, Ibn Battuta and other travellers such as Marco Polo had come previously. 

The ‘Sadness’ that had descended on Ibn al-Mujãwir's Qalhãt holds true to this day however, and the old coastal Omani capital is now, largely, a disconsolate backwater off to the side of the new motorway from Muscat to Sur in Oman. There is a sign on the road pointing out the turn-off to the ancient and historical city but not many people remember the extent of that history and the particular importance of Qalhãt as the launching pad for the Arab colonisation of Oman or how it later attracted sailors, merchants, journeymen and thieves to its shores. Qalhãt was once the capital of Oman and as a consequence in many of the early European maps of Arabia, Qalhãt (Calyate) is one of the few consistently place-names described.

Recent French excavations suggest the foundation of the city ( or at least a city with mortar and stone preserved) to be sometime in the early 12th century but if Arab history, and a fair degree of storyteller's licence, is to be believed then the city is far older than that.

Around 50BCE the South Arabian or Qahtanite tribe of Azd, nomadic Arabs of the southern Sarawat mountains in today’s northern Yemen became subject to the Kingdom of Himyar after that kingdom’s defeat of the Saba (Sheeba) in 100BCE and were moved to the plateaux around the famous Marib Dam. The earthwork and stone faced dam, in existence for 1000 years, had had a major breach in its structure while the Kingdoms of Raydan and Saba were at war around 145BCE and this breach provided the opportunity for Himyarite kingdom to attack and conquer.

Perhaps the Azd were forced into providing maintenance for the dam but when an opportunity arose late in the second century CE, when a resurgent Saba and Himyar resumed hostilities, the Azd tribe under the four sons of Amr b.Muzaquiya decided en mass to migrate out of Yemen. One group under Jafna b.Amr headed north to Syria founding the kingdom of the Ghassenids. The next under Thalabah b. Amr settled in Yathrib (Medina) and the third group under Haritha b.Amr settled on the northern part of the Hejaz coastline.

The fourth group under Imran b.Amr split into two sections. The northern section led by Imran and Amr b.Fahm headed northeastwards for al-Bahrayn but the southern section lead by Malik b.Fahm migrated through the Ramlat al-Sab’atayn to the Hadraumat and as far as the old port of Qana. At this point Malik b.Fahm decided that he was going to confront the Persians and there must have been good reason for this gamble.

In 660BCE there is documentary evidence of the Assyrian King Ashurinpal receiving tribute from the King of Qadé, resident in Iskie, the still extant town of Iski on the western side of the Heggar mountains in north-eastern Oman. The Oman region, known for millennia in Old Persian as Maka, in Elamite as Makkash, in Akkadian as Makkan and Sumerian as Magan came under the direct control of the Achaemenid empire under Darius the Great (c.510BCE).

Ibn-al-Kalbi the Arab historian dated the Azd incursion into Oman to the time of Darius III, the Achaemenid King defeated by Alexander the Great in 330 BCE but this is a ‘storyteller’s’ invention. A more accurate assessment would be to the early 2nd century. At this time the Parthian Empire’s direct Iranian control of the Oman was from the province of Fars and the governor, a man called Haftanboxt (from the Achaemenid title hafta(x)uwa-patar or guardian of the seventh part of a province) was defeated by Adashir I, around 220CE during his rise to be the founder of the Sasanian Empire five years later.

It was the notion of a weakened Parthian state and control of the Oman coast that almost certainly encouraged Malik b.Fahm around 220CE to transport his clansmen by sea in order to surprise the Parthians. Rounding the Ras al-Haad headland at the entrance to the Gulf of Oman Malik’s ships, made of Indian teak with coconut fibre caulking, made landfall at the safe harbour of what was subsequently to be called Qalhãt.

The Azd brought, it is said, about 6,000 tribesmen to the area and came to an arrangement, after a brief stand-off, with the local Persian wali to gather themselves before moving on. Malik b.Fahm decided that once a foothold had been gained to head further into Oman and he subsequently defeated a Parthian army at the Battle of Sulat. As a consequence Qahtanite presence was firmly established in Oman. Subsequently Malik b.Fahm joined up with his brother Amr and fellow tribesmen in al-Bahrayn to form the Tanukh confederation which then migrated further northwards to establish an Arab presence at the top of the Persian Gulf and near Basra.

In true storytelling fashion Ibn al-Mujãwir relates two stories concerning the naming of the town one being that the name Qalhãt was derived from the practice of Malik b.Fahm trying to drum up trade for his new town by wandering along the shoreline and shouting to the crews of a passing ship to ‘bring her in’ or qul hat in Arabic.

By 1200CE the Oman coast was under the control of the Khwarezm Shah’s and the Governor of the Kirman province stored silk and horses in Qalhãt. Al-Mujãwir reports that the walls of Qalhãt were built around 1219CE. Following the Mongol invasions of Persia refugees established a new colony on the island of Hormuz off the Iranian coast. Subsequently the history of the Oman coastline and Qalhãt in particular were to be linked to the new Kingdom of Hormuz.

Early in the 12th Century, around the time the walls of the town were built, Qalhãt became the nominal capital of Oman. In 1291, 60 years after al-Mujãwir visit, Marco Polo docked in Qalhãt (Kalayati) on his voyage home from China. He reported (in his Book of the Marvels of the World dictated to Rustichello da Pisa while in prison in Genoa in 1298) that Qalhãt was a large exporter of horses and often became the bolthole of the King of Hormuz whenever there was conflict with the King of Kirman on the Iranian mainland.

Even today when you travel on bitumen roads through the harsh landscape of the south-eastern corner of Oman you wonder at the logistical effort it would have taken in the 10-16th centuries to herd thousands of Arabian horses across Oman, through the al-Heggar mountains, for marshalling and transport to Iran and India. 

In 1331, 40 years after Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta (who also was to later dictate rather than write himself his travel stories) another famous traveller arrived in Qalhãt…on foot after an expected short walk from Sur turned into a very difficult journey. Ibn bemoaned that his feet were so sore that he had to rest up for six days in the town. He reports that there was an ‘exceedingly’ beautiful mosque in the town, decorated with Qashani tiles and which ‘occupies a lofty situation overlooking the town and the harbour’.

On the 15 August 1507 the Portuguese naval commander Afonso de Albuquerque’s ships anchored off the port of Qalhãt (Calayate). De Albuquerque sent a small boat ashore to try and determine the ‘lie of the land’. Through an interpreter Gasper Rodriques De Albuquerque was informed that Qalhãt was the gateway to Hormuz. The Portuguese came to an agreement with the local governor and no pillage or massacres (unlike shortly afterwards in Curiat and Muscat) took place. De Albuquerque’s commentaries described Qalhãt as a good harbour with many old edifices, which had been partly destroyed by an earthquake.

The following August 1508 Qalhãt was not so lucky. De Albuquerque returned and with a smaller force decided to sack the city despite efforts of the local commander to come to an agreement. After two days of fighting the local forces were defeated (including a Pedreanes Lamprea who had deserted from the Portuguese forces in Hormuz six months previously) and after plundering all they could De Albuquerque ordered the city razed including the beautiful sea shore mosque which he described as having seven naves all covered with tiles and porcelain, an arcaded entrance and a terrace that looked out towards the sea as well as cutting off the noses and ears of all surviving prisoners. I suspect Lamprea was not so lucky and his fate as a captured renegade, although not reported, was particularly brutal.

In Qalhãt today the city walls and the foundation of the sea-shore mosque have been rediscovered by the efforts of a French archaeological team. It is interesting to see the aerial plan of their work and compare it to the map of al-Mujãwir of 700 years ago.

The one edifice that still partly stands on the high ground in an added enclosure to the west of the old city walls is a mausoleum built by Bahuddin Ayez, a native of Qalhãt and second King of Hormuz, in honour of his wife Bibi Maryam in 1312. You will note from the maps above that this second triangular enclosure at the apex of the aerial modern map does not appear on al-Mujawir's map as he had visited before it's construction. The mausoleum was the ‘mosque’ noted by Ibn Battuta on a ‘lofty’ setting and is built in a Seljuk Khanid style and its rare architectural squared footprint sophistication has earned it UNESCO citation.

The beautiful sea-shore Friday mosque must have been built at a later date as it was not noted by Ibn Battuta. The mosque and the town completely gutted by De Albuquerque was never to recover and all Qalhãt’s administrative functions moved to Muscat.

The horses had bolted and the Sadness of al-Mujawir had descended, leaving just the Tears of Maryam.

Saturday, March 15, 2014


Forgotten Boundaries

Today, midday
Before the Atlantic shroud
Storm to the west descends
I reach the horizon of low water
And a sea-lost river’s bend
Where the periwinkle-plum
For picking lay attached

The gatherer with the yellow-bag
And barnacled waders
Not seen now
One even two years hence
Like the Albatross
Far away
Shell-shocked perhaps

Retreating from the flood-tide
Across the old oyster beds
Seedless now
Diurnal memories and rotting kelp
And a slimed wall tumbles
Into a past and a future
Which is forgotten.  

Friday, February 28, 2014


In a recent statement Arnaud Montebourg, the French socialist government’s industry minister, announced France’s intention to create a state-owned mining company with a world-wide remit by saying,

Colbertism is coming back and that is good.

Jean-Babtiste Colbert

Jean-Babtiste Colbert (1619-1683) was the Controller-General of Finances and Minister of the Maison du Roi during the reign of Louis XIV, the Sun-King of France having being recommended to Louis by the former Chief Minister Cardinal Mazarin. Louis has an insatiable and extravagant need for money and Colbert spent a great deal of his energies in trying to reform the French tax system, to ensure equitable taxation of the non-tax paying nobility at its core, but with the ultimate objective of directing much of this newly acquired gains in the direction of his King.

Taxation and money-raising schemes were the flavour of the times (the Thirty-Years War and the Fronde taxation rebellions at home had exhausted much of France’s wealth) as Cardinal Mazarin tried to balance the books. Into this heady mix of need and greed around 1648 strode Lorenzo de Tonti, a Neapolitan banker who had sought exile in France after a failed revolt against the Spanish viceroy in Naples.

Tonti first proposed an annuity-based life-insurance money-raising scheme (a scheme for which ever after would be known as a Tontine) for the State to Cardinal Mazarin, which the Cardinal quickly adopted and attempted to establish.

A Tontine schema as John Houghton, a London apothecary, pointed out as early as February 1683, in an analysis of such a proposal by the East India Company and its bankers, was a scheme that provided for an,

“a yearly increase in wealth, by subscriptions, to advance money at interest, for lives of whatsoever age or sex, under ten several ranks or classes; which subscriptions will produce great advantage to the survivors…”

A Tontine was an all or nothing scheme in which the subscribers or their nominees earn a fixed annuity based on the interest earned by the combined initial capital of the age cohort into which their subscription is invested, but in addition the surviving subscribers of the scheme would divide up the interest owed to any deceased member of the scheme amongst themselves. The attraction of Tontines over life-annuity schemes was that income rose rapidly with advancing age ( and the death of other subscribers) whereas life-annuity income was constant.  That said Tontines were a gamble on the mortality risks of the subscribers and the last man or woman standing potentially derived the maximum benefit by accumulating all the interest owed to every original subscriber while the original capital devolved to the State.

As Tonti himself wrote in a letter to Colbert in 1665,

"the great advantage to His Majesty would be, that, without opening his purse, he would inherit the revenues of each class by the death of the last survivor in it, and would thereby find himself relieved from payment of the interest..."

Tonti’s original 1649 French proposal never got off the ground as it was blocked by the Parlement of Paris in 1653 on the grounds that the cost to the State could not be accurately estimated and that the interest proposed of 5% at all ages was much lower than existing annuity rates. A second Tonti proposal in 1656 dressed up as a Royal Bank scheme and which also included an innovative lottery component also failed to materialise and it was not until 1689 that the first successful French tontine was introduced by one of Colbert’s successors as Controller-General of Finances, Louis Phélypeaux, the comte de Pontchartrain.

Comte de Pontchartain

The first successful operative Tontine scheme was in the Dutch municipality of Kampen in 1670 and throughout Europe and further afield they soon established as well utilised tool in generating private, local government and State capital finance. 

Tontines were also the impetus to start gathering and publishing accurate mortality data, the basis of all actuarial life insurance business today.

There were obvious drawbacks of course. As a basis for murder if other surviving subscribers could be isolated and eliminated is one but more commonly in a time of ledgers and accounts clerks, and poor communication facilities generally, the documentation of identity and death of subscribers to a Tontine scheme, particularly in times of strife where many of those subscribers resided in different countries was extremely difficult, in addition to the forgery of documentation intended to maintain a flow of income to an already dead subscriber.

In France after 1689 Tontines for the next 120 years successfully became the basis of a huge amount of the French-government and private cash generation schemes until the catastrophic failure of the private Caisse Lafarge scheme in 1809 after which the State of France declared Tontine schemes illegal.

Tontine Coffee House,
New York

In England all three State tontine schemes up from the first in 1693 to the last in 1776 failed and by the following year Tontines to all intents and purposes were banned. In 1777 the English Parliament because,

"it hath been found by experience that the making insurances on the lives or other events wherein the assured shall have no interest hath introduced a mischievous kind of gaming”,

enacted the Life Assurance Act of 1777 (also known as the Gambling Act :14 Geo. 3 c.48) an act

"for regulating Insurances upon Lives, and for prohibiting all such Insurances except in cases where the persons insuring shall have an interest in the Life or Death of the Persons insured.”

Not so in Ireland where the 1777 Life Assurance (Gambling) Act was not incorporated until 1866 (and still in force!). There were three Irish State Tontines, fully subscribed to, particularly by the burgers of Geneva, in 1773, 1775 and in 1777. 

Marie Antoinette
Queen of France

The 1775 Tontine scheme subscriber list makes interesting reading. At the top of the second class of subscribers was Her Majesty Marie Antoinette, Aged 20, the “Present Queen of France” who had subscribed £100.

1775 Irish Tontine Subscriber List
(the D next to name indicate Death on a later accounting)

Marie Antoinette (by then called Madame Capet by the French Revolutionary Council) was guillotined on the 16 October 1793 at the age of 38 years. All future interest on her Irish Tontine 1775 subscription would be divided out amongst the other surviving subscribers.

From Tontine to Guillotine!

The originator of the Tontine schemes was not to be all that lucky himself. Sanctioned by Mazarin Tonti was to have received a pension of 6,000 livres per annum from 1649 for his proposal and there is a plaintiff letter to Jean-Babtiste Colbert in October 1663 where he complains that,

“I have submitted a petition to the King, humbly begging him to consider, that for three years I have only received 3,000 livres of the pension of 6,000 livres a year which His Majesty had caused to be paid to me from the year 1649 down to 1660, in consideration of my services: and as I am pursued by my creditors, am bound to give honourable subsistence to my family of seventeen persons, according to my position. I have had recourse to His Majesty to receive of his goodness the wherewithal to remedy my present necessities. I very humbly entreat you to support it with your protection, and to continue to me your favours, which will secure my lasting obligation.”

Tonti’s pleas fell on deaf ears and eventually either Louis XIV but more likely Colbert got fed-up with him and had him imprisoned in the Bastille from 1668-75. He died in obscurity around 1684 although one of his “seventeen” dependents, his son Pierre was to be the co-founder of the great US city of Detroit with Cadillac by establishing the fort of Fort Pontchartrain du Detroit in 1701. It is ironic to note that the fort was called after the French Controller-General who finally put his father’s ‘great’ scheme into operation and not Jean-Babtiste Colbert who had put Tonti into prison.


Mc Keever, K. A Short History of Tontines. 2010 Fordham Journal of Corporate & Financial Law, 15;2:491-521
Weir, DW. Tontines, Public Finance, and Revolution in France and England, 1688-1789. 1989 Journal of Economic History, 49, 1: 95-124