Trade, Traders & Travellers
|Spices in a Hormozgan bazaar|
Hormozgan and Trade
In our introductory page we had noted that Hormozgan was a junction point of ancient land and sea Aryan trade routes and that its fame as an international trading port and traveller's destination continued into medieval times when world travellers such as Marco Polo (1254-1324) from Italy, Ibn Battuta (1304-c.1368) from in Morocco and Zheng He (1371-1435) from China, made Hormuz their destination along their travels. [Hormuz is also spelt Hormoz.]
Hormuz's International Trade Reputation
Marco Polo noted, "Merchants come thither (to Hormuz) from India, with ships loaded with spicery and precious stones, pearls, cloths of silk and gold, elephants' teeth, and many other wares, which they sell to the merchants of Hormos, and which these in turn carry all over the world to dispose of again. In fact, 'tis a city of immense trade." In scattered remarks throughout his account, Marco Polo informs us of the extent of Hormuz's international trade - pearls to China, horses to Madras and the southeast coast of India. Atabek Abu Bakr of Fars, noted that 10,000 horses were annually exported to the region around the southeast coast of India and the sum total of their value amounted to 2,200,000 dinars.
The Cyclopædia of India and of Eastern and Southern Asia by Edward Balfour, Madras, 1873, Vol. 4, p. 268 notes: "Ormuz town was for ages the great emporium of trade in the Persian Gulf. It had a colony of Arabs (in all likelihood, a colony of Omanis with whom the Aryans had historic contact noted in the Shahnameh), and the city appears to have enjoyed centuries of peace and commercial prosperity. The merchants of Syria, Egypt, Roum, Fars, Khorassan, Irak and Mawur-ul-nahar, as well as the inhabitants of Java, Bengal, Socotra, Tenasserim, Malabar, Guzerat and Arabia all made their way to this port, with rare and precious articles the sun and the moon, and the rains had combined to bring to perfection. At present a few ruins, scattered amidst wild deserts of salt, on a dreary islet, alone testify to the former wealth of Ormuz."
The 1911 Encyclopaedia inform us that Cesare de' Federici, a Venetian merchant visited at Hormuz about 1565 and spoke of the great trade in spices, drugs, silk and silk stuffs, and pearls of Bahrain, and in horses for export to India.
Trade, the State and Prosperity
|The caravan of Marco Polo traveling to India. Source: Catalan Atlas by Abraham and Jehuda Cresques (1375).|
Image credit Wikimedia Commons
Trade was vital to the prosperity of Hormuz City and Hormozgan. Not only did the rulers of Hormozgan obtain tariffs from its own traders but from international traders as well. They obtained these revenues through the imposition of duties or tariffs on merchants traversing their territory, a duty paid at Hormuz City after which the merchants could proceed to nearby ports.
To ensure the safety of local traders and caravans entering the land of states traversed by its traders, the local king paid a royalty that after the Arab conquest, came to be called muqarrariyya to the rulers of those states and collected locally by their representatives (and partially used by them to fund their diplomatic missions in Hormuz). Any delay in payment could lead to an immediate halt of caravan traffic. There are indications that some delayed payments led to an attack on Hormozgan from its mainland neighbours - which is another reason why Hormuz Island was used as the entrepôt for its precious cargo.
Land Trade Routes From Hormuz
The Portuguese writer Baiao, described two of the several caravans land routes from Hormozgan (known to him as Mughistan) to Kashan, Tabriz and beyond. The northern arm went through Sirjan, Nodushan and Ardestan to Kashan, while a southern route went through Lar, Shiraz and Isfahan to Kashan. From Shiraz one road branched towards Baghdad. From Kashan, the route continued on to Qom, Saveh, Sultaniya, Mianeh and Tabriz, with Tabriz being a junction for various routes. One went to the Mediterranean ports of the Levant, another to Brusa in Turkey and beyond to Europe, and yet another went to Moscow. On of the main Silk Road branches went through Kerman to Yazd. Yet another route had Bokhara and Samarkand in Central Asia as its destination. Of course, there were several routes going in every direction from Hormuz with some going to Central Asia and others to Baluchistan and further eastward.
Trading Expertise of India's Parsi Zoroastrians
The trading expertise that the Zoroastrians of Iran fleeing in the face of invading Arabs took with them to their new home in India, would make them prosperous in their new home. That expertise included their knowledge of sought after goods and their business connections in China, Aden, the Eastern African coast, and the coast of India as well. It was an expertise that was developed over centuries in Hormuz (also spelt Hormuz) and elsewhere in the Aryan lands.
We must remember as well, that when Aryans in general and Zoroastrians in particular pursued their trade, they, more so than their neighbours, established trading colonies in the countries with which they traded - colonies settled by members their families. It is quite possible that some Zoroastrian trading families were already established in Hormuz city and the west coast of India even before they fled their Iranian homeland in the centuries after the Arab invasion of c 650 CE.
In the nineteenth century, the Zoroastrians in Africa, Aden, Hong Kong, Bombay and elsewhere, were for the main part traders, merchants and mercantile agents. In addition, their trade spawned ancillary enterprises in manufacturing, shipping and transportation, international banking, and the development of land for colonies, estates and mercantile centres. The various Zoroastrian enterprises in Bombay are an example.
The Zoroastrians of India were also ship-builders.
Marco Polo's Enigmatic Observations About the Abraiaman
In Chapter 20 of Yule's translation of Marco Polo's Travels, Marco states, "Lar is a Province lying towards the west when you quit the place where the Body of St. Thomas lies; and all the Abraiaman in the world come from that province. You must know that these Abraiaman are the best merchants in the world, and the most truthful, for they would not tell a lie for anything on earth. [If a foreign merchant who does not know the ways of the country applies to them and entrusts his goods to them, they will take charge of these, and sell them in the most loyal manner, seeking zealously the profit of the foreigner and asking no commission except what he pleases to bestow.]" Another translation quoted in Wikipedia states that the 'Abraiaman' or 'Brahmin' were "the best and most honourable merchants that can be found. No consideration whatever can induce them to speak an untruth, even though their lives should depend upon it. They have also an abhorrence of robbery or of purloining the goods of other persons. They are likewise remarkable for the virtue of continence... ." We are also told that the Abraiaman travel far and wide in search of precious stones and pearls.
Polos reference to world trader 'Abraiaman' merchants is mixed in with a description of a people that the translators call 'Brahmins'. While Brahmins are respectable people, we know of no tradition where they were world traders known for their honesty. That tradition is more aptly applied to Zoroastrian traders.
Polo continues his description which includes what we may recognize in Brahmin and even Jain traits. This mixture of traits has led many authors to criticize Marco Polo. However, they have not paused to separate the different trait groups. It could be that in India's caste system, Zoroastrians and their priests were included in a group introduced to foreigners as 'Brahmins', or a confused Polo is simply constructing a description of a single group from several peoples he had very briefly encountered years earlier. This possible confusion is no criticism of Polo. We don't know what his note-keeping and map-making abilities were. If he was relying on memory, then that he could have remembered the thousands of details acquired over many years is a feat in itself. The confusion is only natural. Some of the confusion could also have been introduced by those who copied and translated his original work.
The sequence in which Polo mentions Lar and even Gujarat would place the two somewhere between modern-day Kerala and Mumbai (Bombay). We know that to be in error. We know that Polo's statement that "all the Abraiaman in the world come from that province (of Lar)" could not apply to either Zoroastrians, Brahmins or Jain, given his placement of Lar. We must therefore make allowance for the error and build on other references in his account.
The province of Lar can be taken to mean to corruption of a name for old Gujarat. However, it is also the name of various regions in Iran, some being in Sistan-Baluchistan and Fars, both of which would fit the stated 'westerly' location of Lar.
In his description of the province of Gujarat, Marco Polo describes a special 'cotton' tree some 20 to 30 feet tall (6 to 9 m). Translator Henry Yule notes that the fibre from the tree was "specially used for the manufacture of turbans, and for the Brahmanical thread, and probably afforded the groundwork of the story told by [Greek author (c 170-247 CE)] Philostratus of the wild cotton which was used only for the sacred vestments of the Brahmans, and refused to lend itself to other uses. One of Royle's authorities (Mr. Vaupell) mentions that it was grown near large towns of Eastern Guzerat, and its wool regarded as the finest of any, and only used in delicate muslins." We are not clear as to what fibre i.e. 'cotton' Polo was referring. Yule discusses the possibilities of the silk-cotton tree and wild cotton as being candidates.
The description the raw fibre being used for the Brahmanical thread and sacred vestments sounds very much like the Zoroastrian sacred thread (the kusti) and vestment (the sudreh). The references to 'Brahmins' using these articles of faith along with incense makes them sound more like Zoroastrian priests than Hindu priests. In his work, the Brahmins are associated with the Abraiaman who originate in Lar.
Zoroastrian Era Trade - c 3000 BCE - 650 CE
The strategic position of the archaeological sites found in the Old Hormuz-Minab region, combined with the archaeological evidence of contact by sea with India, suggests that the region and Kingdom of Hormuz, was already actively involved in long-distance trade by the 1st millennium BCE. Parallels with Tepe Yahya in particular, suggest that we may, however, push back the threshold of inter-regional contact and trade into the 3rd millennium BCE. By the time of Nearchus' voyage (see previous page) up the Persian Gulf (c.326 BCE?), there was clearly a substantial enough settled coastal population to have left some impression in the Greek sources. The presence of Red Polished Ware from the Indian sub-continent suggests that Hormuz was as important to Indian Ocean trade in the Zoroastrian era as it was in the more recent historic past (D. T. Potts at Encyclopaedia Iranica).
Post Zoroastrian Era Trade - c 650 CE onwards
While Zoroastrian-Sassanian rule of Iran succumbed to the Arab invasion around 650 CE, and while Hormuz itself fell into the clutches of the Arab hordes a few years later, Zoroastrian involvement in Hormozi trade continued for several centuries after the Arab conquest.
As we noted in the previous page, Hormozgan was known as Mughistan, the home of the Magians or Zoroastrians. In the 17th century, Bandar Abbas was known as Gabrun, a name similar to Mughistan. The retention of the names Hormuz and Hormozgan speak perhaps to continued Zoroastrian influence after the Arab invasion until the second great Zoroastrian migration in the 18th century, when any remaining Zoroastrian influence outside of Yazd and Kerman finally became insignificant. Even as a miniscule minority, Zoroastrians could still have exerted a significant influence on commerce as they did in India until eventual that influence disappeared altogether. The slow demise of Hormuz as a world trading centre could very well have paralleled the every decreasing number of its Zoroastrian traders.
Hormuz Island's standing as a strategic trading and maritime centre was significant enough for it to be invaded and occupied by the Portuguese first in September 1507 and finally in 1515. Hormuz then became part of a string of Portuguese controlled maritime centres that stretched from Hormuz down the Indian coast - centres that included Diu, Daman, Bombay and Goa. Perhaps there is some connection in Diu, Udvada (close to Daman) and Bombay eventually becoming destinations for Zoroastrian refugees from Iran.
Hormuz's international trade might even have been have continued in a significant but diminished extent until Iranian ruler Shah Abbas wrested control of Hormozgan ports from the Portuguese in 1614. For their own reasons (perhaps because of Hormuz's Zoroastrian roots?), Shah Abbas and his successors did not want Hormuz to continue as a powerful trading and commercial port. They therefore neglected the Hormuz Island once they had regained control from the Portuguese. The island's buildings were then demolished to provide construction materials for the expansion of Bandar Abbas and the community dwindled to those of a few fisher folk.
Whatever the influence of Zoroastrians in post-Arab Hormuz, the vibrancy of the trade that continued for many centuries after the Arab conquest stands as a legacy to Zoroastrian-Aryan prowess in the past.
Hormozgan in the Accounts of Medieval Travellers
|Marco Polo at the gates of Hormuz City?|
Image credit: Livres des Merveilles, Snark, Bibliotheque Nationale
We are indebted to the medieval travellers who have left us records of their travels and observations. Some of the more noted are Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta and Zheng He.
Marco Polo (1254-1324)
Marco Polo (c 1254-1324) was an Italian world traveller whose home town was Venice. His father Niccolo and uncle Maffeo who had travelled to China via the traditional Aryan trade routes, the Silk Roads, took Marco with them on a second journey which lasted from 1271 to 1295 CE.
The Polos' destination on both trips was the court of Kublai Khan in China. Such was the international reputation of Hormuz, that the Polo's made the port their interim destination on both outward and homebound journeys. Their outward journey which took three and half years, was primarily an overland journey via Hormoz, while the homebound journey used a sea-route from China to Hormuz. From Hormoz, the Polo's journey home was by land until they reached the Mediterranean.
On leaving the service of Kublai Khan in China, Polo was entrusted with the task of escorting a princess from Kublai Khan's Chinese court to Iran where she was scheduled to wed a Mongol overlord of the Iranian lands. The three Polos left Kublai's empire in 1292 with the princess, a fleet of fourteen large ships and 600 other passengers from a port in southern China. The armada sailed through Indonesia to Sri Lanka and India and onto its final destination at the Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. Of the passengers who had accompanied the flotilla, only eight survived the journey by the time the ships arrived at Hormuz. The surviving passengers included the Princess who could not wed her intended fiancée because he had died in the interim. She married her intended's son instead.
Once again we see that Hormuz was the primary land and sea route junction point and a destination for trade and travel to and from China.
On Macro Polo's return, Venice was at war with Genoa and Marco was imprisoned. It was during his imprisonment that he dictated his travel account to a cell mate. These notes were later published. However, today there is no single version of Macro Polo's original notes - several versions exist. There is nevertheless sufficient consistency. Further Marco Polo's accounts provide us with a wealth of information and we can make allowances for errors.
The English translation we cite in these pages is by Henry Yule The Book of Ser Marco Polo (London, 1875). In addition to a translation of Macro's own account, the Yule's book contains extensive and helpful notes by the translator. Marco's narrates his first visit to Hormuz enroute to China from Venice in greater detail than the second for obvious reasons - he had already covered most details in the account of his first visit. This first visit is recorded in Chapter 19 of Yule's translation. We quote Polo and Yule (second edition, revised) extensively in these pages.
Ibn Battuta (1304-c.1368)
Like the Polos, Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan traveller from Tangiers also made China his destination and passed through Hormuz twice, first in 1331 or 1332 CE and later in 1347. Of his visit he notes: "I travelled next (from the land of Oman) to the land of Hormuz. Hormuz is the city on the sea-coast also called Mughistan. Opposite it in the sea is New Hormuz which is an island, and between them is a sea passage of three farsakhs (nine miles)." We quote Battuta further in these pages.
Zheng He / Cheng Ho (1371-1435) & Ma Huan
|The treasure ships of Zheng He / Cheng Ho. Image: Artist unknown|
Zheng He (also spelt Cheng Ho), was a Hui-Chinese mariner, explorer, diplomat and fleet admiral. Like Polo and Battuta, he too visited Hormuz twice. But unlike Polo and Battuta his was not a family or personal understaking - his travels were sonspored by the court of China. Zheng He was accompanied by nearly 30,000 men and an armada of ships - enough to mount a small invasion if he so chose.
|A treasure ships of Zheng He compared to Christopher Columbus' Santa Maria.|
Image: Artist unknown
From 1405 to 1433, Zheng He commanded seven voyages to South Asia, East Africa, and the Middle East with stops along the way. These voyages are referred to as the travels of "Eunuch Sanbao to the Western Ocean" (for Zheng was a eunuch) or "Zheng He to the Western Ocean".
Zheng He's last four expeditions were recorded by Ma Huan, a Muslim Chinese, who accompanied the missions as a translator. Huan published his account under the title The Overall Survey of the Ocean's Shore (Ying-yai Sheng-tan). In 1414, after sailing for 25 days with 63 vessels and 28,550 men, Zheng He's fourth voyage arrived in Hormuz known to the Chinese as the 'country of Hulomossu (Huromoz)'.
The seventh and last voyage - which lasted from 1431 to 1433 - also sailed to Hormuz. This time the journey took 34 days and was undertaken with 100 ships and 27,500 men. In his record of this visit, Ma Huan remarked on the prosperity of Hormuz observing that, "there are no poor families. If a family meets with misfortune resulting in poverty, everyone gives them clothes and food and capital and relieves their distress (a very Zoroastrian ethic)... . The limbs and faces of the people are refined and fair; they are stalwart and fine-looking."
Ma Huan goes on to say that Hormuz was linked by overland routes to the major cities of Iran, Central Asia and Iraq. "Foreign ships from every place, and foreign merchants traveling by land, all come to this country to attend the market and trade. Hence the people of the country are all rich." While Ma Huan does not refer to Hormuz island, a map reputed used on the voyages shows Hormuz island.
Macro Polo's Account of His Visit to Hormuz. Henry Yule's Comments
Henry Yule's translation (published in 1902-3) of Marco Polo's account starts the section on Persia (chapter 13) by noting, "Persia is a great country, which was in old times very illustrious and powerful; but now the Tartars (Turkic allies of the Mongols) have wasted and destroyed it." Chapter 19 Of The Descent to the City of Hormuz follows chapters that describe Marco Polo's journey through the provinces of Yazd and Kerman to Hormuz. The following is an excerpt of Chapter 19. We have made minor language changes to the original translation by Yule:
"The plain of which we have spoken extends in a southerly direction for five days' journey, and then you come to another descent some twenty miles in length, where the road is very bad and full of peril, for there are many robbers and bad characters about. When you have got to the foot of this descent you find another beautiful plain called the Plain of Formosa (Hormoza?). This plain extends for two days journey; and you find in it fine streams of water with plenty of date-palms and other fruit-trees. There are also many beautiful birds, francolins, popinjays, and other kinds such as we have none of in our country. When you have travelled these two days you come to the ocean sea, and on the shore you find a city with a harbour which is called Hormuz."
Yule adds in his notes that the port of Hormuz [which had taken the place of Kish as the most important market of the Persian Gulf (H. C.)] stood upon the mainland. A few years later it was transferred to the island which became so famous, under circumstances which are concisely related by Abulfeda (1273-1331, a Kurdish historian, geographer and sultan). Yule further states, "Hormuz is the port of Kerman, a city rich in palms, and very hot. One who has visited it in our day tells me that the ancient Hormuz was devastated by the incursions of the Tartars, and that its people transferred their abode to an island in the sea called Zarun (Jerun), near the continent, and lying west of the old city. At Hormuz itself, except some of the lowest order, no inhabitants remain." (As quoted in Büsching, IV. 261-262.)
Polo continues: "Merchants come to Hormuz from India with ships loaded with spices and precious stones, pearls, cloths of silk and gold, elephants' tusks, and many other wares, which they sell to the merchants of Hormuz who in turn carry all over the world to dispose of again. In fact, it is a city of immense trade. It is a very sickly place, and the heat of the sun is tremendous.
"There are plenty of towns and villages under it, but Hormuz is the capital. The King is called Ruomedam Ahomet. If any foreign merchant dies there, the King takes all his property.
"In this country they make a wine of dates mixt with spices, which is very
good. When any one not used to it first drinks this wine, it causes
repeated and violent purging, but afterwards he is all the better for it,
and gets fat upon it. The people never eat meat and wheaten bread except
when they are ill, and if they take such food when they are in health it
makes them ill. Their food when in health consists of dates and salt-fish
(tunny, to wit) and onions, and this kind of diet they maintain in order
to preserve their health.
"Their ships are wretched affairs, and many of them get lost; for they have
no iron fastenings, and are only stitched together with twine made from
the husk of the Indian nut. They beat this husk until it becomes like
horse-hair, and from that they spin twine, and with this stitch the planks
of the ships together. It keeps well, and is not corroded by the
sea-water, but it will not stand well in a storm. The ships are not
pitched, but are rubbed with fish-oil. They have one mast, one sail, and
one rudder, and have no deck, but only a cover spread over the cargo when
loaded. This cover consists of hides, and on the top of these hides they
put the horses which they take to India for sale. They have no iron to make
nails of, and for this reason they use only wooden trenails in their
shipbuilding, and then stitch the planks with twine as I have told you.
Hence 'tis a perilous business to go a voyage in one of those ships, and
many of them are lost, for in that Sea of India the storms are often
"The people are black, and are worshippers of Mahommet. The residents avoid
living in the cities, for the heat in summer is so great that it would
kill them. Hence they go out (to sleep) at their gardens in the country,
where there are streams and plenty of water. For all that they would not
escape but for one thing that I will mention. The fact is, you see, that
in summer a wind often blows across the sands which encompass the plain,
so intolerably hot that it would kill everybody, were it not that when
they perceive that wind coming they plunge into water up to the neck, and
so abide until the wind have ceased. [And to prove the great heat
of this wind, Messer Mark related a case that befell when he was there.
The Lord of Hormos, not having paid his tribute to the King of Kerman the
latter resolved to claim it at the time when the people of Hormos were
residing away from the city. So he caused a force of 1600 horse and 5000
foot to be got ready, and sent them by the route of Reobarles to take the
others by surprise. Now, it happened one day that through the fault of
their guide they were not able to reach the place appointed for their
night's halt, and were obliged to bivouac in a wilderness not far from
Hormos. In the morning as they were starting on their march they were
caught by that wind, and every man of them was suffocated, so that not one
survived to carry the tidings to their Lord. When the people of Hormos
heard of this they went forth to bury the bodies lest they should breed a
pestilence. But when they laid hold of them by the arms to drag them to
the pits, the bodies proved to be so baked, as it were, by that
tremendous heat, that the arms parted from the trunks, and in the end the
people had to dig graves hard by each where it lay, and so cast them
"The people sow their wheat and barley and other corn in the month of
November, and reap it in the month of March. The dates are not gathered
till May, but otherwise there is no grass nor any other green thing, for
the excessive heat dries up everything.
"When any one dies they make a great business of the mourning, for women
mourn their husbands four years. During that time they mourn at least once
a day, gathering together their kinsfolk and friends and neighbours for
the purpose, and making a great weeping and wailing. [And they have women
who are mourners by trade, and do it for hire.]
"Now, we will quit this country. I shall not, however, now go on to tell
you about India; but when time and place shall suit we shall come round
from the north and tell you about it. For the present, let us return by
another road to the aforesaid city of Kerman, for we cannot get at those
countries that I wish to tell you about except through that city.
"I should tell you first, however, that King Ruomedam Ahomet of Hormos,
which we are leaving, is a liegeman of the King of Kerman.
"On the road by which we return from Hormos to Kerman you meet with some
very fine plains, and you also find many natural hot baths; you find
plenty of partridges on the road; and there are towns where victual is
cheap and abundant, with quantities of dates and other fruits. The wheaten
bread, however, is so bitter, owing to the bitterness of the water, that
no one can eat it who is not used to it. The baths that I mentioned have
excellent virtues; they cure the itch and several other diseases."
Ibn Battuta's Account
Ibn Battuta visited Hormoz twice, once in 1331-32 and again in 1347. Of his visit to Hormozgan and New Hormoz he wrote:
"I travelled next to the country of Hormuz. Hormuz is a town on the coast, called also Mughistan, and in the sea facing it and nine miles from shore is New Hormuz, which is an island. We came to New Hormuz, which is an island whose city is called Jarawn. It is a fine large city, with magnificent bazaars, as it is the port of India and Sind, from which the wares of India are exported to the two 'Iraqs (that is Eraq-e Arab or present day Iraq, and Eraq-e Ajam or Iraq controlled by Persia. Ajam is a derogatory term used by the Arabs for Iran. It means mute), Fars and Khorasan. It is in this city that the sultan resides, and the island in which it is situated is a day's march in size. Most of it is salt marshes and hills of salt, namely the Darabi salt; from this they manufacture ornamental vessels and pedestals on which they place lamps. Their food is fish and dried dates exported to them from al-Basra and Oman. They say in their tongue 'khurma va mahi luti padishdni', which means 'dates and fish are a royal dish'. On this island water is an article of price; it has water-springs and artificial cisterns in which rain-water is collected, at some distance from the city. The inhabitants go there with water-skins, which they fill and carry on their backs to the sea (shore), load them on boats, and bring them to the city."