The Last Sultan of Zanzibar

This relatively modest semi-detached house at 24 Victoria Grove, Southsea (Portsmouth) was, for over 50 years, the home in exile of Sayyid Jamshid bin Abdullah, the last Sultan of Zanzibar. This was not the life he would have expected. How did he end up here?

Sayyid Jamshid was born into privilege on 16 September 1929 in Zanzibar and would have spent his youth flitting between palatial residences like this country palace at Kibweni. He acceded to the throne in July 1963 following the death of his father Sultan Abdullah bin Khalifa Al-Said. He could not have imagined that his reign would only last seven months.

Zanzibar is an archipelago off the East African coast. The islands are famous for spices, particularly cloves. It was ruled by Oman from 1698 to 1858. A branch of the Omani Al-Busaid royal family ruled Zanzibar as Sultans as commemorated in this stamp marking their bicentennial in 1944. Zanzibar came under British protection from 1890 until December 1963 when it became an independent constitutional Sultanate. A month later the Sultan was deposed by a bloody revolt in which the majority black African population overthrew the minority Arab elite. Many Zanzibaris of Arab or mixed African/Arab descent relocated to Oman in 1964 fleeing riots that left thousands dead.

Sayyid Jamshid escaped to Oman, hoping to be granted permission to settle but when this was denied he flew to London with his entourage of 61 close family members and retainers. He spent some time in London hotels but was running short of money until he was granted a lump sum of £100,000 and a monthly allowance of £1500 by the British Government.

This money allowed him to settle in Southsea on the southern English coast. Why did he pick Southsea? Perhaps he liked the look of Portsmouth’s crest with its Islamic-style moon and crescent motif. Or maybe the seaside reminded him of his island paradise of Zanzibar. Or perhaps it was just better value for money compared to living in London.

It must have been a major culture shock for the former Sultan. He kept a low profile and his neighbours described him as a quiet and respectful man. Those who visited his home were often shown his complete collection of Zanzibari stamps from 1860s to 1960s bearing the portraits of himself and his 10 ancestor sultans.

The stamps told the history of his life, with the first set of his reign commemorating Independence (Uhuru) from Britain which took place just six months after he became Sultan. The following month he was deposed and his portrait was defaced with an overprint proclaiming a republic (Jamhuri). Later that year, Zanzibar merged with Tanganyika to form Tanzania.

He continued to lobby for permission to move to Oman, the country of his ancestry, but these requests were rejected by Oman on security grounds, perhaps feeling that having two Sultans in the country could be destabilising. Many of his family members however were allowed to relocate to Oman in the years that followed.

Sayyid Jamshid bin Abdullah, age 91, arrived in Oman in September 2020

In September 2020, after 56 years in exile, as a humanitarian gesture, he was finally given permission to return to Oman to spend his remaining years. He will have plenty of company. Tens of thousands of his former subjects and their descendants live in Oman after being granted citizenship in the 1970s and 1980s.

Here are some old photos of Stone Town, Zanzibar.

The main shopping street in 1936 decorated for the silver jubilee of the Sultan Sayyid Khalifa bin Haroub (the ninth Sultan of Zanzibar and grandfather of Jamshid bin Abdullah).

The same street from a different perspective. Perhaps taken during the 1960s judging by the car and the movie poster for Beau Geste.

An older view of the same street (now called Kenyatta Road) with Shangani Post Office on the right. A look on Google Maps Street View shows that the buildings are still all there, the only differences are that the Indian tailors have been replaced with tourist souvenir shops.

The yellow building on the right is now the Freddie Mercury Museum. Freddie Mercury (the Queen singer) was born in Stone Town Zanzibar with the name Farrokh Bulsara and came from a Parsi family. He and his parents, along with many other South Asian families, also fled Zanzibar in 1964.

Zanzibar looks an interesting place. I’ll have to visit one of these days.

Oman In The Seventies

Some time ago I posted a blog about Ibri in Oman in 1979 and a reader has asked me if I have any other photos of Oman from that period.

I have been through a few of my old photo albums and found these snaps taken by me on a vintage Kodak Instamatic camera. Sorry for the poor photo quality (blame the photographer) but they give an idea of what the place was like at that time.

The old road linking Muttrah to Muscat via Riyam was the only way to get to Muscat until the corniche was completed. Photo taken around 1979.
The mobile post office at Medinat Qaboos in 1979/80.
Not 100% sure of the location but could have been Muttrah High Street in 1979.
One of the gates to the walled town of Muscat. The streets were decorated with British and Omani flags in honour of the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Oman on 28 February 1979.
Muttrah Corniche on the same day in 1979.
Muttrah Corniche looking in the opposite direction. The grey American cars are the motorcade of Sultan Qaboos and Queen Elizabeth.
Salalah in 1976/77.
The British Bank of the Middle East’s Salalah Branch where I worked for two years from 1976-78. Many roads in Salalah were not tarmac at that time.
The main shopping street in Salalah. There was not much to buy so a good place to save money.

I may have some more photos somewhere which I’ll share if I find them.

Oman’s Cultural Heritage

When I lived in Oman in the late 1970s it was often described as a cultural desert. There were no museums, no art galleries and no theatres. There was just one cinema in Bait al Falaj called the Star which mainly screened Hindi movies for migrant workers, though I do recall seeing a James Bond film there once (Moonraker?). Music concerts were a rarity. Sister Sledge (or was it The Three Degrees?) were scheduled to perform at the Intercontinental Hotel but the show had to be cancelled at the last moment since they were unaccompanied females and could not obtain visas to enter the country.

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Painting by Salim Al Salami on sale for OMR 845 at Ghalya’s Museum of Modern Art in Muscat.

On my short revisit to Oman earlier this year I was pleased to note that the cultural scene is much improved. I toured five museums and art galleries just within the Muscat/Muttrah area. No doubt there are more in the wider Capital Area and elsewhere in Oman. There is even a Royal Opera House which looks very grand indeed. Oman is still a very conservative country but they are proud of the their cultural heritage and have made the most of what they have.

Here are a few of the paintings, photos and exhibits which caught my eye during my look around the museums.

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An old watchtower on the Corniche between Muscat and Muttrah has been opened to the public. There are nice views from the top.

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Photo by Hamed Al Geilani on show at Bait Al Zubair, Muscat.

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‘Fishing Trip, Taqah’ by the same photographer.

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‘Masirah Sunset’ again by Hamed Al Geilani. 

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‘Membam Village’ oil on canvas by Bader Al Atbi on show at the National Museum.

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Eight hundred year old gravestones belonging to Sultan al-Wathiq, son of the Rasulid Sultan of Yemen, who ruled Dhofar from 1293 to 1311CE.  The stones are on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London to the National Museum in Muscat. In my opinion they should be donated permanently to Oman where they will be better appreciated and would be well looked after in this first class museum. 

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Niche (mihrab) from the al-Uweyna Mosque in Saih al-Hail village on display in the National Museum, Muscat.

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Gate of ash-Shibak Fort, Ibra, 1126AH/1714 CE on display at the National Museum. The carving features calligraphic and floral motifs together with a representation of the British Coat of Arms, signifying the strong commercial and political ties between Oman and India during that period.

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A portrait of Sultan Qaboos during his younger days.

 

Muscat – Then & Now

Muscat-then-and-now

I had a stopover in the Omani capital of Muscat last week, a place where I worked for a few years in the late 1970s / early 80s.

The capital area has grown enormously since I was there and is today built up all the way from Seeb Airport to old Muscat town, a distance of around 35 km.

In this blog post I am showing a few photos of the historic Muscat harbour area to show how it has changed over the years.

Muscat-in-1904

Muscat in 1904. This old photo shows the city walls and gates which were locked at 6 pm every evening and anybody venturing out after dark had to carry a lantern.

Sultan-Said-bin-Taymur

Sultan Said bin Taimur, father of the current Sultan. Under his reign, Oman was a feudal, backward and divided country. There were almost no roads, schools or hospitals. Citizens had to obtain the permission of the Sultan to buy a radio or to wear spectacles. He was overthrown by Sultan Qaboos in 1970.

Muscat-in-the-1970s

By the early 1970s the town looked much the same. The rugged mountains surrounding Muscat are made from ophiolite, a rock formed from magma under the oceanic crust and uplifted and exposed above sea level. Oman’s outcrops are considered as some of the best examples of this type of landscape.

muscat-bait-greizaBait Bait Greiza (above centre) was built in the early 19th century and demolished in the 1970s. The name Greiza originated from ‘igreja’ (Portuguese for church) as a church once stood nearby.

Muscat-bait-mughub

Bait Mughub served as the American Embassy until 198o, following which is was demolished, along with the nearby British Embassy, to make way for a new wing of the Sultan’s palace complex.

Muscat-Bait-Faransa

Bait Faransa was built between 1820-1840. It became the French Consulate in 1896.

Muscat-Bait-Faransa-Today

Muscat-Omani-French-Museum

Bait Faransa is now the Omani-French Museum and showcases the long standing relationship between France and Oman, which is a bit of a cheek because the Gulf region was never really France’s bailiwick. Britain has had a much deeper relationship with Oman but has no museum to commemorate it. Still, it is a nice museum and here are a couple of photos on display inside:

Muscat-Jean-Beguin-Billecocq

Jean Béguin-Billecocq, Vice Consul, pictured in 1904 feeding his parrots on the terrace of the Consulate in Muscat, probably wishing he had studied Vietnamese instead of Arabic at l’École des Langues Orientales de Paris. At least he had his wife Louise for company.

Muscat-Louise-Beguin-Billecocq

Louise Béguin-Billecocq at Sur (Oman). Oddly she appears to be wearing a Japanese kimono but perhaps she found the silky material and full length cut to be more appropriate for local climate and cultural conditions than typical western attire of the period.

Muscat-al-Khor-Mosque

Al Khor Mosque is one of the oldest in Muscat although it has been renovated a number of times. It is overlooked by Al Mirani Fort.

Muscat-al-Mirani

Muscat-Al-Mirani-fort

Al Mirani Fort is one of the twin forts guarding the entrance to Muscat harbour. Both forts were built by the invading Portuguese who bombarded and burnt Muscat around 1507 AD. The tower on the right is a more recent addition and conceals a lift shaft. Unfortunately neither fort is open to the public.

Muscat-al-Jalali

Al Jalali Fort is the other fort guarding the harbour. It served as the country’s main prison up until the 1970s and jalali was the generic term for prison during my time in Oman.

Muscat-harbour-2018

Left to Right: Al Jalali Fort, Extension to the Royal Court, the 1970’s Al Alam Palace. A semicircular lawn has been added in front of the palace on reclaimed land. A couple of modern naval guns are mounted on the sea wall to provide additional protection against sea-borne attackers.

Muscat-harbour-19th-century

Muscat-harbour

This is the same harbour front in the 19th century. The British Embassy (where my parents lived and worked in the 1980s) was on the left. The taller building sticking up behind the British Embassy was the American Embassy.

Muscat-al-Zawawi-mosque

The Al-Zawawi Mosque, built inside the city walls at the beginning of the 20th century, is unusual for its square tower minaret, said to be built in the Portuguese style in favour in India at the time, and looking rather church-like.

Muscat-national-museum

Facing the Al Alam Palace a red-paved mall has been constructed, perhaps imitating the one in front of Buckingham Palace, flanked by gardens and stately colonnades and leading up to the impressive National Museum of Oman.

Muscat-BBME-1970s
You could cash a cheque here if you had a few hours to spare.

This is how The British Bank of the Middle East, Muscat looked in the 1970s when I worked there. The building was completed in 1956. Prior to that the bank had operated from premises in Bait Faransa.

BBME-Muscat

The bank is now demolished.

Muscat-Grindlays-Bank

One of our competitors at the time.

muscat-gate-museum

Thanks to Muscat Gate Museum where most of these old photos were obtained.

Ibri, Oman in 1979

Ibri souq 1979 (or maybe Nizwa)

A country that I have not yet written about on this blog is Oman. I lived there for just over four years from November 1976 to February 1981 when I was a very young man working for The British Bank of the Middle East (now HSBC Bank Middle East).

I have very few photos remaining from this period of my life and those that do survive have faded to a nasty brownish monotone as you can see.

In 1979 I was working as a leave relief officer and was sent to numerous branches all over Oman to enable the branch managers to attend training courses or take ‘local leave’. One such assignment was to Ibri, a small oasis town in the back of beyond, several hours drive from the capital, Muscat.

BBME Ibri 1979

BBME Ibri in 1979.

With hindsight you have to wonder why the Bank ever opened a branch in Ibri. There was very little commercial activity other than small traders and builders. The interior of Oman was fairly impoverished in those days and most of the personal savings and current accounts had very low balances. Over half of the customers were illiterate and transactions were evidenced by thumbprints and account holders were identified by the photo stapled in their savings passbook. The staff too had very little schooling.

Apart from the bank manager there were only two westerners in the town – they worked for the US Peace Corps and were married to each other. For entertainment. the manager would occasionally drive 100km (round journey) to the Strabag camp near Bahla to watch a film and have a beer (Strabag, an Austrian/German construction company, were building a road nearby).

Lunch Venue

Restaurant (with the ‘Bebsi Cola’ logo).

My favourite mid morning snack was an omelette, flavoured with thin slices of fiery green chillies and rolled up in Arabic bread. It was delicious.

Ibri Fish Souq

Ibri Fish Souq in 1979. Sharks with fins removed?

Considering Ibri was so far from the sea, its fish market had quite an array of fish but with no fridges or ice in sight it didn’t smell great!

Grocery traders and BBME customers

Grocery traders and BBME customers

Town Centre Ibri 1979

Bank Land Rover (white) in front of the branch and, if I’m not mistaken, my old Toyota Corona hatchback next to the pick-up.

Shaking hands was (and probably still is) the main social pastime in Ibri. I would have to shake hands with each of my staff and say Kaif Halak? (how are you?) several times a day. Needless to say, after 4 years in Oman I was completely barmy!

Bank Manager's Residence Ibri 1979

The Bank Manager’s Residence in Ibri, 1979. Note the generator on the porch.

After a hard day in the office helping his staff to look for the cash shortage and balance the general ledger the bank manager returned to this palatial home for a stiff gin and tonic, an inedible meal and a lonely evening-in listening to Abba cassettes before the power went out. I was only there for a few weeks but we all felt sorry for the poor guy who was the regular manager.

Ibri was not an easy assignment for a young bachelor and the Bank recognised this by rotating the manager out and back to civilisation (i.e. Muscat) after less than a year.

Oman 1979

Ibri, Nizwa, Buraimi or Bahla? I can’t remember. My memory is as faded as the photo.

 

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