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Islamic kingdoms
Rise of the sultanates

From the year 1300 the political and cultural centre moved from the South to the North of Sumater, tied to the arrival of a new religion, the Islam. Until the 14th century the big kingdoms were located in Palembang or Jambi. Now a big number of less important kingdoms settled through the fast-flowing rivers along Malaca Strait at the northeastern coast of the island.

These kingdoms were the first to adapt to the Malay language, the islamic religion and the literairy tradition which used the Arabic writing. The inlands of Sumatra, in the East protected by swamps and in the West by mountains, people kept speaking dozens of languages, which didn't understand eachother at all, outside that, they also kept their own religious and cultural traditions.

Along the northern coast of Sumatra are numerous small rivers where ships from India and the Middle-East docked to take aboard new food and water. In the 13th and 14th century lifely trading harbours founded here and islam got it's first base in the Indonesian archipelago.
Until that time the island was called Java or Java Minor by travellers and merchands, but now it got the name of a booming harbour in the north, Samudra (Sanscrite for ocean), or Sumatra.
In 1292 the Venetian traveller Marco Polo stayed in Samudra for five month for the turn back to Europe. His expedition disembarked, "and from the scare of these animal-like inhabitants which kill people for food, we dug a big trench around our camp, and whithin this enforcement we lived for five months". In the time of Marco Polo Samudra was a small principalty which practiced the same animistical sjamanism as the populations in the inlands. However, he reported that the neighboring Peurlak (close to the nowadays Langsa) alreade became islamic, due to the contact with Saracean merchants which frequently embarked there.

Islamic trading network

Ibn Battuta, an Arabic traveller, visited Samudra in 1323. In that time, is was a developed, islamic sultanate which trades with far countries like Southern India and China. There lived many Southern Indian islamic traders in the city, which got the muslem name of Pasai. Under this name golden coins were introduced, and a system was developed to write Malay in Arabic writing. Pasai was the earliest centre of science in Southeastern Asia. The knowledge which was gathered hyere, was used by later sultanates like Malakka and Aceh.

From Samudra-Pasai, islam travelled with the traders along the eastern and western coast of Sumatra, towards Malakka and the northeastern coast of Java. Towards the 16th century several important Sumatran cities were ruled by islam, and the islamd had started to attack the Minangkabau, the densely populated gold-rich area in the central mountains. This was also the place where Adityavarman founded his Buddhist principalty.

The Sumatran rulers greatly accepted the islamdic legends about Alexander the Great, for muslems Iskandar Zulkarnain. The queen of Pagarruyung in the highlands of Minangkabau developed a theory that Alexander the Great send three sons to rule the world: one in China, one in Rum (the Roman-Byzantian principalty), and the third in Minangkabau.

At the start of the 15th century the Chinese euneuch from the emperror Zhenghe visited Samudra, and he probably informed them about the needs of China. Probably that was the trigger for Samudra to start growing peppers, introduced from India. It remained the most important product of export until into the 19th century; Sumatra also was the most important distributer of pepper in that time.

Pepper politics

Samudra-Pasai was just one of the principalties along the northern coast of Sumatra. When the Portuguese arrived in Southeastern Asia in 1509, there were independent states in Barus, Aceh, Daya and Lamri (near the current Banda Aceh), Pidia (near Sigli and Aru (near Medan). After they conquerred Malakka, and the islamic traders were dislogded, the Portuguese tried to get influence in Pasai and Pidia by negotiating by common arguments over successions.

The result of this was that the rich islamic traders were forced to go to Aceh, where a new anti-portuguese sultanate was founded on the ruins of the earlier kingdom of Lamri in the 16th century. The first ruler over this new kingdom, sultan ali Mughayat Syah, managed to conquer Daya, Pidia and Pasai and to scare the Portuguese out of Northern Sumatra. This was the start of a century full of conflicts with Christian arrivals.

The Portuguese attacks on islamic trade and the hostile reaction of Aceh, brought elements of a holy war to the island. From 1540 to 1630 Aceh started more than 12 big expeditions against the Portuguese in Malakka. The last and biggest fleet that was send to Malakka, lead to the downfall of both powers. In 1629, the Acehenese fleet with 19,000 men and a few hundred ships was catched and destroyed by a Portugugese fleet which arrived unexpectedly from Goa in India. Aceh never fully recovered from this action.

Aceh's golden century

During the last half of the 16th century and the start of the 17th century half of Europe's pepper was delivered by Aceh. Venetian representatives in Cairo and Constantinopel remarked that ships in Djedda or Suez were always fully loaded with peppers from 'Assi'. Aceh was then known as the 'gate to Mecca' (serambi Mekka), because the islamic pilgrims embarked in Southeastern Asia for their journey to the Holy Land.

Because of the rich pepper trade and the strong aversion against Catholic Portuguese, the Protestant Europeans made Aceh into their first harbour of embarkation in Asia. The Dutch were welcomed in 1598, and the English in 1600. At their official first meeting at the palace they were overwhelmed with presents like sarongs and knifes. The relation between the Acehnese and the Dutch didn't stay that friendly. The first Malay dictionary was written by Frederik de Houtman (later he became governor of Amboina) during a year of emprisonment in Aceh.

Aceh reached the hight of it's power and wealth under the very smart but ruthless sultan Iskandar Muda (the young Alexander , 1607-1636). Wealthy parties and impressive rituals stunned visitors. Hundreds of decorated elephants and thousands of flag-carriers guided the sultan from the palace to the mosque in a weekly procession on Friday. On the most important islamic festivities, the procession was dressed up even more.
In the beginning of the 17th century Aceh was one if the most important areas in Asia. The real power stretched from the coast near Padang in the west, and Tanjung Balai in the east. The Karo and Simalungun Batak and the Minangkabau< were subjected to the Acehnese power. On the Malay peninsula Aceh ruled over Kedah and perak, and over the conquerred remote areas like Johor and Pahang Thousands of prisoners were taken back to celebrate the vistory and to man the fleet of warships, and to do some hard labour in the capital. Three thousand women served the sultan in his palace where meals were served on golden plates.

By war and little use of good building materisla most of this glory is gone by now. The city (currently Banda Aceh) is never fortified by a wall, a fact that an Acehnese writer connected with the fact that there were elephants that were trained like the best soldiers. In 1874 the palace complex as well as the big wooden mosque were destroyed by the Dutch. Everything that remains are some strange limestone gunongan and pintu khob, ornaments of the royal court which were built along the banks of the Krueng Daroy, just south of the palace. The mosque of Indrapuri, about 20 kilometres upstream of Banda Aceh, also built in the time of the same sultan, and in the same style of the destroyed big mosque.

Iskandar Muda's last years were branded with signs of insanity. He killed people in his close environment, under them his own son. His son-in-law Iskandar Thani successed him in 1631, but died in 1641. After a big dispute over the succession of the throne the daughter of Iskandar Muda, Taj al-Alam successed him. During her rule the strong autocracy which her father imposed was loosened. Merchands were safe again in the capital, and the local royalty could consolidate their power.

However it's not following the islam and the local tradition, the experiment of the female leader succeeded and the next three leaders were also queens. Only in 1699, when female leaders were forbidden by islamic rules, the leader was a king again. After the defeat at Malakka in 1629, where the entire fleet was destroyed, Aceh slowly came to a halt. The Dutch succeeded in stealing leadership from Aceh over the pepper producing areas on Sumatra as well as the tin-mining areas. The richness of Aceh after this was gold and elephants, which were never seen as a royal treasury before.

Economic recession

Demand for pepper reached a top in the middle of the 17th century. From 1650 the seaports which ruled over Sumatra since the 15th century, collapsed, as well as the trade which held them strong. In Aceh a long period of internal conflicts started, the uleebalang (local leaders) which dominated the areas around the mouths of rivers, became almost independent from the capital.

The abcense of any political power envited the Buginese in South Sulawesi and the Arabs from Hadhramaut and the Minangkabau from Western Sumatra, to take power by war, marriages with ruling families and strategical treaties. In the seaports more and more European ans South Indian merchands were put to work as shahbandars or trade-official.

Literature and theology

In the 17th century, Malay was the common-used language in Aceh and many of the best Malay literature was written here too. The earliest islamic-Malay syair (poetic verses of four centences) which is still in tact, was the work of Hamzah Fansuri, which lived at the end of the 16th century. Syech Syamsudin from Pasai, which was the most important kadi (islamic judge) of Aceh, also had influence on Iskandat Muda. As well as Hamzah, he was an advocate of the mystical wujuddiya, which emphasised unification with God that much, that it would fanish the differences between them, as said by critics.

During the reign of Iskandar Thani the orthodox religion got the overhand. Pieces of Hamzah and Syamsuddin were burned and several of their followers were tried. This orthodox reaction was lead by the most productive classic-Malay writer, Nuruddin ar-Raniri, which wrote dozens of theological pieces, and also the biggest encyclopedia about politics and history in Malay, the Bustan al-Salatin He was impopulair among inhabitants of Banda Aceh and when his protector, Iskandar Muda, died, he was banned from Aceh by a huge crowd of people.

The most influencial religious scientist from the second half of the 17th century, Abdur'rauf from Singkel, succeeded in combining strong religion with tolerant view over mystical devotion and ideas, and is nowadays named the biggest holy person of Aceh. His grave at the mouth of the Aceh-river is still honoured, they remember him as Syech Kuala (the Syech from the river mouth). The state university is named after him.

Last revised on September 02, 2011
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