Against the end of the 13th century the trading posts and small principalities which were scattered along the coast of Aceh, had developed into the first Islamic states of Indonesia. Marco Polo visited Aceh in 1292. He told about the Islamic principalities of Peurlak and Samudra.
During the 'Golden Age' in the early 17th century, under the rule of the strict and tough Sultan Iskandar Muda, Aceh was one of the biggest trading centres of Asia. In the most important harbour, Kotaraja, (Banda Aceh), over a dozen languages was spoken. Ever since the 17th century, Aceh has the name to be the most strong Islamic place of entire Southeastern Asia. It did survive Asian and European conquerors, and was independent for a long time.
After a long, hard battle against the Dutch colonial troops (1873 - 1903), Aceh got under Dutch rule. The independent spirit of the Acehnese was actually never broken. In 1953, a revolt broke out against the central government in Jakarta, which should last for ten year. The result of that was, that Aceh was named dearah istimewa ('special area'), and got a certain level of autonomy for what concerned religion, rights and education. Only the sultan of Yogyakarta has a comparable status.
Nowadays Aceh has a thriving economy, because of a population of only 3 million. The discovery of natural gas resources near Lhokseumawe and Lhoksukon brought in a fast pace of economical growth. Most gas is being transported to Japan in the form of liquid gas (LNG (Liquid Natural Gas). Aceh also has reasonable reserved of oil, gold, silver, copper and coal. Since 1980, Aceh contributed between 2 and 3 billion US dollar to the Indonesian government. The BNP per head in Aceh is the highest of the entire country.
Unless periods of unrest and the delays in the construction of roads, schools and hospitals, the rural economy still is very flexible. Aceh's small but fertile coastal plain has seen an overproduction of rice and other market products for centuries. Modern fertilizers have enlarged the rice production and the coastal population is wealthy for Indonesian standards.
More than 50 per cent of the population lives in the coastal plains, however big cities are not there. Even the capital, Banda Aceh, does not have more than 80,000 residents. The largest city after Banda Aceh, Sabang, does only have 25,000 residents, but it's located on the island of Weh. The 600 km long coast between Banda Aceh and Medan is scattered with smaller villages and cities, which are connected with each other by a good main road.
The rough and isolated inland of Aceh forms a big contrast with the coastal plains. Along both sides of the central valley there are giant mountains. This densely forested and low-populated area is the area of the Gayo, a separate ethnic group which admits a form of Islam which has strong pre-Islamic features.
Aceh is an ideal place for travellers who want to avoid ridden paths. Some knowledge of Indonesian is necessary, and an healthy respect for religious feelings of the Acehnese is also very welcome.