Bulletin 22 - March 1984: Italian Historical and Ecological Research in the Arabian/Persian Gulf

Italian Historical and Ecological Research in the Arabian/Persian Gulf

by Dr. C. Marinucci

An interdisciplinary study of the Gulf is currently being undertaken by a committee comprising the University of Naples, and the French Centre National des Reserches Scientifiques (Unite de reserche Archaeologique) under the patronage of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The research is funded by the Italian Ministry of Public Education and the Italian Institute for Culture in Teheran. The general theme is a study of commercial capitalism in the Gulf within the broader market economy of the Indian Ocean during the thousand years prior to the discovery of the Americas, when a geographical shift of wealth away from the Indian Ocean occurred.

The main aim of the research is to outline a history of the Gulf through a study of its main emporia, that is, Siraf, Qays and Hormuz, which dominated its history in immediately successive periods (eighth to tenth centuries, eleventh to thirteenth and thirteenth to fifteenth centuries respectively).

Scientific interest was attracted from the first by the Gulf's peculiarly central position on the main routes of intercontinental traffic. This centrality was undoubtedly a privilege, situated as the Gulf was at the cross roads of the two great north-south routes (Africa and Asia) and the east-west ones (China, South-east Asia, east Africa, the Levant and Europe). A favoured position, certainly, but it was only its combination with the keen activity of its cities that made this sea the heart of the commercial and industrial activity of the larger area of which it is part: the Indian Ocean.

The north-south route was favoured above all by specific political circumstances, which ceased to exist after 1517 AD when the Mamluk Kingdom was conquered by the Ottoman Empire which thenceforth claimed the monopoly of various transactions and their respective trade routes. Not until the twentieth century did this route become reused, and then only as a result of circumstances connected with the two world wars. On the other hand the east-west route survived well after 1498, being a permanent geographical feature, and it gives the Gulf an undeniable historical and cultural identity.

Certain general areas have already been singled out for research, and include

(i) the geographical and human environment of the Gulf;

(ii) land and sea communication routes;

(iii) the Gulf fleet, including timber resources; shipyards, harbours and parts; navigational techniques; coastal and intercontinental traffic; ship owners and trading families; piracy; and the maritime decline of the sea in the sixteenth century;

(iv) political and dynastic -- events in the thousand years up to the sixteenth century, including the destabilisation of the Gulf after the end of Sasanid thalassocracy; after the internal crises of the Byzantine Empire and the pressing Arab tribal movements in Arabia around the fifth century; the establishment of Medina and the political emergence of an Islamic state; Islam itself; political unification of the Gulf in the seventh century and its decline; the new Iranian dynasties -- Buhids (ninth to eleventh century Fars), Seljuks (eleventh to thirteenth century) , and Hormuz, a de facto independent kingdom from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century.

It is anticipated that the research will cover a period of years. The first phase, in 1982 and 1983, concentrated on the Hormuzgan, pivot of the Gulf and link zone with the Indian Ocean. The first real survey took place from February to April, 1983, concentrating on the area along the Iranian coast from Bandar-e Length to Jask, including the "Harra (Mangrove) National Park" and the islands of Qeshm and Hormuz. The aim was to look into a range of environmental problems which -- during the course of centuries -- directly or indirectly have influenced or conditioned life and settlement. A preliminary report is expected later this year from the Istituto Lombardo, Accademia di Scienze e Lettere, Milano. The winter of 1983-84 has seen a new survey, concerning settlement patterns, natural history and anthropology in the Bandar-e Lengeh region and the oasis behind the basin of Bandar Abbas and Rud-e Koll.

Specific problems to be dealt with in future research include:

  1. The complex of environmental problems which have affected the processes of peopling the area.
  2. The trading empire of Fars, or more precisely of Shiraz, and the two great emporia of Siraf and Qays. In this context historical Bahrain and the Arabian coast and Oman, and their links with India and China in the fifth to eighth centuries will also be investigated.
  3. The political and economic rivalry of Kerman and Seljuk in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, followed by the hegemony of Hormuz until the arrival of the Portuguese in 1498 A.D. and the subsequent vassalage of Hormuz between 1517 and 1622.
  4. The economies of Kerman and Fars.
  5. The general economic and commercial systems of the area, bearing on barter, money and exchange, the family firms of Shiraz with agents in Europe, Africa and Asia, and the independence of Hormuz, founded on an aristocracy of Omani merchants, themselves owners of the kingdom's merchant fleet.
  6. Craftsmen, mainly indigenous, and local and long-distance migration.

The method of research involves a study of available literary sources combined with site reconnaissance. It is anticipated that recourse to other disciplines such as geobotany, the social sciences, anthropology and ethnology will also be necessary.

Dr. Carmine Marinucci,
Via C. Morin, N. 28
00195 Rome


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