A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Battle of Bayt al-Falaj, Muscat, January 11, 1915

If you have a penchant for military history (and regular readers have probably detected that I do), and if you have a chance to visit Muscat, definitely drop by the Sultan's Armed Forces Museum in Bayt al-Falaj. Though housed in an 18th-century fort known as Bayt al-Falaj, it is a modern and well done museum without the mustiness that characterizes some Middle Eastern military museums (though, like all of them patriotic fervor sometimes gets in the way of objectivity). I visited in the 1990s, but based on its website, it's the same today. But my purpose today is not to promote Omani tourism, but to talk about an obscure battle on the imperial periphery of the First World War: the Battle of Bayt al-Falaj, January 11, 1915, 100 years ago today. The battle took place along the ridge just west of the fort that is today's Armed Forces Museum.

Strictly speaking, this was not a battle of the Great War, but rather a battle in Britain's imperial wars, in which British and Indian forces supported a local client ruler in putting down a rebellion. But the British were convinced that German intelligence had a role in supporting the rebels, and thus saw it as part of the broader struggle.

Certainly German intelligence agents were highly active on both sides of the Persian Gulf, especially in Iran. In a report for the Arab Bureau by Gertrude Bell, originally published in the then-secret The Arab Bulletin on October 26, 1916 (republished in Gertrude Bell, The Arab War) and called "The Rebellion Against the Sultan of Muscat May 1913 to July 1916," she says:
Evidence of extensive intrigue by German agents in the interior was not wanting. It was generally believed by the tribes that the Germans were victorious, that the Kaiser and his followers had embraced Islam, and that  the moment was propitious for driving the Sultan and the English out of the country.
Certainly German agents were active in Iran and around the Gulf. Whether there were German agents involved in Oman or just the extensive German and Ottoman propaganda aimed at encouraging uprisings among British colonies and protectorates in the Muslim world, the actual rebellion itself predated the war and, in fact, represented a longstanding tension between the tribes of the interior of Oman and the towns of the Muscat coast that dated back centuries. (This dichotomy is a reason why in the British era, the country was known as "Muscat and Oman," rather than just Oman.)

Those of you who studied early Islamic history may well have encountered the ancient, and traditionally pre-Islamic, distinction and rivalry between "northern" and "southern" groups of Arab tribes. Tribal groups claiming separate northern or southern origins and different semi-legendary genealogies frequently clashed with each other in the early Islamic period from the Umayyads onward. "Northern" and "southern" do not refer to where the tribes lived in historical times, as they were often intermingled, but to their pre-Islamic, semi-legendary origins.In Syria and Lebanon these were usually called Qays or Mudhar (northern) and Yaman or Kalb (southern), and in other parts of the Arab world these rivalries were sometimes known by other, local, tribal names (Azdi and Qahtani for the southerners; Nizari or ‘Adnani for the northerners, among others in the peninsula). Even today most tribes in the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula identify with one or another of these factions, if only through tradition.

In Oman, the northern identity came to be associated with the Ghafiri tribal confederation, and the southern or Yamani faction with the Hinawi tribal confederation.

Overlaying this identity was another, sectarian one. Oman is one of the two places in the world where the minority Ibadi sect of Islam survives, the other being in Algeria and parts of Libya. Neither Sunni nor Shi‘ite, they are the surviving remnants of the Kharijite sect of early Islam, which rejected both ‘Ali and his Sunni opponents. Most varieties of Kharijites insisted on making war against both Sunni and Shi‘ite and predictably were exterminated; the Ibadis were more tolerant and managed to hold on in remote peripheries like Oman (which is separated from most of Arabia by the Empty Quarter and has made its history on the Indian Ocean from Zanzibar to the Subcontinent); and in North Africa. Ibadi Islam survived on the peripheries: the Mzab Oasis in Algeria, Jabal Nafusa in Libya, and Djerba in Tunisia on the one hand, and on the other end of the Arab world, in Oman. In addition, Ibadis are found in the former Omani empire in Zanzibar and neighboring parts of East Africa. Oman is the one country where Ibadism is dominant, with about 75% of the population. The Hinawi were overwhelmingly Ibadi; the Ghafiri both Ibadi and Sunni.

In keeping with the traditions of Kharijism, Ibadism believed in an elective Imamate not dependent on ancestry or (necessarily) hereditary. Several dynasties did rule, and in the 1700s the new Al Bu Sa‘id dynasty, not using the title of Imam but merely that of Sayyid, moved the capital in 1783 from Rustaq in the interior to Muscat and adopted the title of Sultan.

As a result, the Ibadi tribes of the interior regularly elected an Imam for Ibadi religious leadership, but the Sultans on the coast, though Ibadi themselves, exercised political power. Sometimes this worked; sometimes the interior tribes and their Imams rebelled against the Sultan and the dominance of Muscat. This periodic rivalry continued into the mid-1950s, when the last Ibadi Imam, Ghalib, was deposed by British troops at Nizwa; he had gained Saudi support during the Buraimi Oasis dispute.

The 1915 battle was one more episode in this ongoing rivalry between the desert interior and the coast, between Imams and Sultans.

Sultan Taymur bin Faisal
There had been a major challenge to the Sultan in 1895, and in 1913 a new revolt broke out. The Sultan at the time was Taymur bin Faisal Al Sa‘id, grandfather of the current Sultan Qaboos. The Imam, Salim ibn Rashid al-Kharusi, revolted in 1913. The British responded with naval bombardments of Imamate ("rebel")-held coastal towns, and also garrisoning the forts around Muscat.

The fort that today houses the Military museum was built as a Sultan's retreat from the humidity of the Indian ocean and fortified against attack. it became the home base of the British garrison.

The small Anglo-Indian garrison had consisted of the 102nd King Edward's Own Grenadiers, reinforced from India late in 1914 by six companies of  95th Russell's Infantry.

A steep ridgeline runs just to the west of the fort (now the museum) and the British and Indian forces set up pickets atop the ridgeline. On the evening of January 10, the Imam's forces attacked, and succeeded in overrunning the first picket post despite strong resistance by the Indian troops.Withdrawing troops hd to cope with the steepness of the ridge.

The Battlefield
The next morning, the main garrison force from the fort assaulted the ridge, recapturing the lost picket post, equipped with two machine-guns. After some heavy fighting, the attackers withdrew, unable to attack against the British machine-guns.

You can find a discussion of the battle online here, including a discussion of medals awarded, as well as in the Operations in Persia volume of the British Official History.

The old fort remained and became the headquarters of the Omani Army until after the accession of Sultan Qaboos, who converted it into a museum.

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