How Arabs brought luster to Sri Lanka’s historic pearl trade

COLOMBO: When Ibn Battuta arrived in northern Sri Lanka, the ruler of the Jaffna Kingdom greeted him with pearls, more beautiful than any he had ever seen in his life.

The famous Moroccan explorer’s ship arrived at Puttalam in September 1344, and he spent several days on the island, entertaining the king, who was interested in his travels, and visiting Adam’s Peak, a mountain considered by Muslim pilgrims as Site of the footprint of Muslim pilgrims was worshiped. the first man and prophet.

Ibn Battuta recorded the voyage in his “Travels”, and gave a detailed description of it, focusing much of his attention on pearl reefs and pearl hunting – one of the main sources of income for the Jaffna king’s coffers.

He wrote in his memoir that the gems he was given were “wonderful pearls, the largest and most beautiful pearls in the world!”

But he was not the first Arab visitor to the island.

Those who arrived in Sri Lanka centuries before Ibn Battuta were the ones who developed pearl fishing and who raised the precious stone formed by molluscs to become the most valuable aquatic resource of the island.

Abdul Raheem Jesmil, development officer at Sri Lanka’s Department of Archaeology, whose research focuses on the history of Sri Lankan Muslims, estimates that the first Arab visitors arrived on the island in pre-Islamic times, around the 3rd century AD. century BC

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At that time, trade with the island was entirely in the hands of the Arabs, who came mainly from the Arabian Peninsula and parts of Mesopotamia.

“They came in search of spices like cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and white pepper,” Jesmil said.

“When they stayed here, they found that some parts of the island’s ocean were full of pearls… They diverted their business to pearl diving.”

Pearl diving has been practiced for thousands of years and in many communities of the Arabian Gulf was the main source of wealth in ancient times. Men from these regions would spend months on expeditions at sea during the pearl season, while families waited for them on the shore and performed rituals for their safety.

When Arab traders reached Sri Lanka, they immediately understood the wealth of its pearl beds and explored the northwest coast of the island.

Pearls were initially mostly found in oysters in the Gulf of Mannar, off the towns of Mannar, Chilaw and Kalpitiya.

They were highly valued among the aristocracy of ancient Rome, where chroniclers in the 2nd century

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As the industry grew in importance and expanded over the centuries, divers also began to explore the areas south of the Pearly Gulf.

“They found new places from Beruwala to Hambantota, running from the west coast to the south,” Jesmil told Arab News, adding that the industry was so lucrative that many of the Arab pearl traders settled in Sri Lanka have married local women. mostly from the Tamil communities involved in their business.

While little is known about any remaining artifacts that document the presence of pre-Islamic merchants from the Middle East, after the advent of Islam such evidence is abundant, especially since Arab influence also entered the sphere of culture and religion.

“The first mosque in Sri Lanka was built by these Arabs… Al-Abrar Mosque is a monument of Arab culture,” Jesmil said, referring to a mosque in Beruwala that was built in 920. considered to be the first mosque in Sri Lanka.

Later manuscripts by Europeans show that until the 19th century, the collection of pearls from the sea, their processing and trade were dominated by Arabs and Tamils, who were considered the best divers.

For a century, the pearl fishery was under the control of the Portuguese, who entered into a pact with the coastal communities in Mannar. During that time, the industry reportedly employed about 50,000 people. When the Dutch expelled the Portuguese in the mid-17th century, they expanded it to 200,000 employees.

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It was under another colonial power, Britain, which took over a century later, that pearl fishing began to struggle. The waters, which for more than two millennia were one of the richest sources of natural pearls in the world, began to lose their oyster colonies.

After the British made a series of unsuccessful experiments to revive the industry, in the 1920s it received a final blow with the introduction of cultured pearls by the Japanese.

Some pearl hunting continued after Sri Lanka gained independence, but today it is almost extinct.

While Sri Lanka is still a well-known jewelry producer, the gems that once gained its fame are no longer in the spotlight.

Rizan Nazeer, chief executive of the annual FACETS Sri Lanka International Gem and Jewelry Trade Show in Colombo, said the pearls used by local artisans are hardly native.

“Pearl fishing is a dying industry in Sri Lanka, the gems have been replaced,” he said.

“We get pearls from Japan and Australia.”

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