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WATCH: The Omani Empire

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Video transcript

This is the city of Muscat on the Arabian  Peninsula. Today, it's the capital of a nation-state called Oman. Only two centuries ago  however, it was the heart of a thriving Omani Empire, extending from Persia to Zanzibar.  When it comes to Arab and Islamic empires, most people imagine big sprawling territories  stretching across the Afro-Eurasian landmass. That's because, we are normally taught  that Asia had land-based empires, and Europe is where you found oceanic empires.  The Omani Empire however doesn't fill with that line of thinking. Unlike the land-based empires of  early modern Afro-Eurasia, the Omani Empire was a thriving maritime empire whose influence drifted  across the waves until the mid-19th century. Hi, I'm Nate Bowling. I wanted to learn more  about this remarkable time and place in history,  so I talked with two experts about the Omani  Empire and its legacy and how it challenges some of our assumptions about empire and culture. Today, we're focusing on the Omani Empire, and my guest is Fahad Bishara, and we're gonna be talking about the story of the Omani Empire. One of the things that I think about is that like I know about the Roman Empire, I know about Greek Empire, Persian Empires, Ottoman Empire, but I don't know  so much about the Omani Empire. So let's just start off with this. If we're talking chronologically, which time could we talking about and when was the peak of the Omani Empire? Sure, we might think  of the Omani Empire really as taking off in the mid 1600s. The Omani emperors were in many ways  sort of the heirs to the Portuguese empire. They slowly kicked them out of south and east Arabia  and then followed them down into the East African coast and dislodged them from one port city after  another. At its peak, the Omani Empire covered most of the southeast corner of the Arabian  Peninsula, parts of the coast of what's today Iran and Pakistan and then extended down into East  Africa, from the northern tip of the Somali Coast all the way down to what's today Mozambique.  There were flows of people, flows of goods, flows of money between Arabia and East Africa that was  facilitated by the expansion of the Omani Empire. To what extent do you consider Oman to be an  empire? It was not very imperial in the sense that we associate with say the British Empire or the  Ottoman Empire. We have a sense in the classroom of what an empire looks. Like we look at maps  of empires all the time, and we see these giant sheets of sovereignty of jurisdiction that tell  us these are the areas that these empires ruled. The Omani Empire did not look like those empires.  Oman did not start off as an empire but gradually came to be one. It started off as a loose  collection of ports under the control of a single dynasty. We might think of it as a webby kind of  empire. Through their encounters with Europeans, they were able to reinvent themselves as an empire  and were reinforced as an empire because remember the British and others wanted a single sovereign  to do business with. They didn't want to do business with all sorts of different people.  They wanted one person to do business with, and so over the course of Omani expansion, as  they came into contact with various other empires, they became styled as an empire, and  they styled themselves as an empire. So, it was a very sort of loosely knit collection  of ports scattered around the Indian Ocean that only over time began to cohere as an empire,  but even at its height did not have the kinds of armies or the kinds of bureaucracies that we  associate with all of the other empires. Would you consider the Omani Empire to be an Arab empire? The Omani Empire was ruled by an Arab elite, but it was categorically not an Arab empire. The  Omani Empire was what I would call a multi-ethnic empire. The rulers were often Arab. Many of the  sort of political officials throughout the Omani Empire were Swahili. They were not Arab, and  then many of the bankers in the Omani Empire were Indian from northwestern part of India. And  then of course, there were many Africans as well, so it's a-it's very much a multi-ethnic empire,  not an Arab empire, but ruled by an Arab elite. My conversation with Fahad was starting to  challenge a lot of my assumptions about what makes something an empire. The Omani Empire didn't paint  the map like the Ottoman or the Mughal empires, and it didn't have huge overseas colonies like  the British, but it did develop a strong sphere of influence, and as I talked more with Fahad,  it became clear that the Omani Empire reshaped life around the Indian Ocean facilitating  new networks of trade and migration. What was the lasting influence of  the Omani Empire on East Africa? The Omani Empire really reshaped the East African  coast in incredibly important ways. Through the Omani Empire, we see the migration of South Asians into East Africa as money lenders, as financiers, as shopkeepers. The South Asian presence in East  Africa is enormous today. We see the sort of steady flow of Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula  who end up settling on the East African coast, who end up marrying locally. Their children are  there. Their children move back and forth. So how did Oman historically relate to its South Asian  and other Indian Ocean neighbors? Well, we often think of Oman today as forming part of the Middle East because we as people tend to think in terms of land categories. But the Omanis were very much  maritime people. They were oriented towards the sea much more so than they were oriented towards  the land, and when we look out across the sea from Oman itself, the closest place is of course India.  As the Omanis began expanding into East Africa, the Indians were among the main beneficiaries  of this. They effectively bankrolled Omani extension into East Africa. One might say that  the Omani Empire collapses boundaries between particular parts of the world. When we start  thinking of the Omani Empire, when you start telling people that the Omanis ruled the East  African coast for a couple of hundred years, then we begin to think of the distinctions between  say the Middle East and Africa very differently.   We begin to see the connections between these  places, and then once you introduce Indian merchants and money lenders into the mix, then  India, Arabia, East Africa all sort of blend in with one another. So for students of world history  thinking through something like the Omani Empire challenges us to think through different  geographical categories, challenges us to think beyond Africa, Middle East, South Asia  and to start seeing the connections between these different places throughout world history.  As a geography and history teacher, I feel like I know quite a bit about empires. Still listen to  Fahad, the Omani Empire sounded pretty different from the ones I knew about. I mean it only  occupies a small amount of actual territory, but its influence extended across the waters  reshaping communities from India to Zanzibar. After our conversation, I was left wondering how  did this remarkable historical empire shape the modern nation-state of Oman today. So I reached  out to Kamala Russell, an anthropologist who studies modern Oman. She reveals the surprising  legacies of the Omani Empire in present-day Oman. How was the modern state of Oman shaped by its  imperial history? You can see the greatest impact of the Omani Empire today in the coastal towns and regions like Muscat, the capital,  and other areas mostly in the north. Coastal  towns were mixing pots, melting pots for traders from many different places coming in and out of  the area, and they were really important centers valuable to different regional powers. So current  day Oman is really a patchwork of its imperial history, which means that there's people from  all of these different communities that are of Arab descent communities, that were Persian descent,  people who have ethnic origins in Africa as well. So the historical Omani Empire had a larger  footprint geographically than the modern state of Oman, so I'm wondering where do  we see the influence of the Omani Empire in East Africa or elsewhere? So there's certainly  some cultural impacts of the Omani Empire in the Eastern part of Africa and in Zanzibar which was  the former Omani imperial capital. It has its own kind of ethnic and linguistic diversity because it  was the capital of this like huge maritime empire, and there were Arabs, Persians, Indians, and other  kinds of people who were moving goods, people, ideas, and cultures all through this one island. Oman  is a really interesting topic of study because it sat for such a long time at the crossroads  of trade routes between these major empires. Oman and the Arabian Peninsula in general is really  an emblem of how important the Indian Ocean has been in world history, so it shows us that bodies  of water can connect people just as much as land and really makes us think differently about how  communities and networks take shape over time. The Omani Empire rose to power over three  centuries ago. It was an empire that didn't really look like one. Nonetheless, this patchwork  of ports, sailors, and merchants grew into an influential regional power that reshaped the  history and cultures of the Indian Ocean. The modern nation-state of Oman is very  different from the Omani Empire that once was, and yet this maritime imperial past left enduring  impressions on the streets of Muscat and other ports stretching from the Arabian Gulf to Zanzibar  and India. My conversations with Fahad and Kamala left me with pretty big questions. The big one of  course is, was the Omani Empire actually an empire? What do you think? When you compare with the  other empires you've encountered in this course, does the Omani Empire seem imperial? Would you  group it with the maritime empires of the British, the Dutch, and the Portuguese? With  the great Islamic empires of Asia, like the Ottomans and the Mughals in  India? Or was it something else entirely?