On the home strait to Hormuz in the Middle East

On the home strait to Hormuz in the Middle East
Shrimp boats prepare to put to sea on Hormuz Island. Picture: Dan MacCarthy.

There is hardly a more politically-charged fulcrum of international affairs in the world than the Straits of Hormuz in the Middle East.

An ideological battleground for thousands of years between the Persian Empire, the Mongol Empire, the Ottomans, the Muslims, even Alexander the Great was there. And the British of course.

And the Americans. Irish people are renowned for global peregrinations and while we never sullied other shores with an imperial footprint we did serve in their ranks.

The British East India Company, pushing its trade boundaries further east towards India, booted the Portuguese garrison under Albuquerque out of Hormuz Island in 1622 on the invitation of the Persian ruler Shah Abbas.

Four hundred years later and different alliances prevail in the current standoff between Iran and the US/UK alliance.

A high percentage of the East India Company’s soldiery was Irish and the likelihood of them being involved in this engagement is very high.

When the Irish Examiner visited Hormuz last year the evidence of the British (and Irish?) bombardment of the Hormuz fort was plain to see, with much of the fortress in ruins.

However, 300 years before this another Irishman set foot on Hormuz.

Friar James of Ireland, in common with the longstanding tradition of scholarship among Irish monks, (St Brendan, St Colmcille, St Finan) had travelled to Europe to continue his studies at a Franciscan centre.

While abroad he encountered a fellow Franciscan friar who informed James of his audacious plan to travel to Cathay (modern day China) to spread the word of Jesus. In 1318, Odoric of Pordenone went on to visit Constantinople, Baghdad and Mumbai on his way to China.

Friar James accompanied him at least part of the way but certainly to Hormuz.

Odoric referred to “Ormes, [Hormuz, also spelled Hormus and Ormus] a city strongly fortified and abounding in costly wares, situated on an island 5 miles distant from the main... visited more than once by Ibn Battuta … was a great and fine city rising out of the sea, and serving as a mart [market] for all the products of India, which were distributed hence over all Persia.

The hills on the island were of rock-salt, from which vases and pedestals for lamps were carved.” Ibn Battuta was the renowned Muslim scholar who travelled most of the known world and in whose footsteps Odoric and friar James were to travel. A certain Marco Polo also visited.

It is not known how successful Odoric and his Irish friend were at proselytising in the Muslim kingdom but certainly they emerged with their lives where other Franciscans in the region had been put to the sword.

The two set sail from Hormuz to India and travelled on to China. On the pairs’ return in 1329 a presentation of two marks was bestowed to James by the city of Udine who was mentioned by the public records office as being a “companion of the blessed Brother Odoric, loved of God and Ordoric”.

The journey appeared in an account in the Italian city of Udine where the Franciscans had an order.

Today’s Hormuz is a different affair to the splendours of the past and were it not for its location in the great oil-trading strait of the world would be a sleepy backwater. It is primarily a tourist destination for mainly Iranians and a trickle of foreigners.

The island’s standout characteristic is its red sand which is used in the manufacture of lipstick and as a dye in carpets. Its blazing hues can be seen all over the lovely beaches and the Portuguese fort ruins.

On arrival by ferry from the mainland city of Bandar Abbas the first thing that hits you is the wall of heat — in the 50s! Visitors are offered tours of the island on bockety tuk tuks — effectively three-wheeled golf buggies that whisk you around to the other sites.

Hormuz is also famous for its multicoloured rocks derived from its unusual geology and for its salt mountains.

The population of about 6,000 works in fishing and what’s left of the tourist industry after Trump tore up the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal.

How to get there: Fly to Tehran with Turkish Airlines and onwards to Bandar Abbas. Ferry to Hormuz.

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