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by Khoo Salma Nasution

Aceh, at the westernmost point of the Indonesia archipelago, was a meeting point for traders from Persia, Arabia, India, Southeast Asia and China. Its sheltered harbours became sites of Indonesia's earliest Islamic kingdoms.

The Acehnese occupy the areas along the long coastline, while the Gayo and Alas are indigenous to the southern highlands.

Pictured top: Baiturrahim Mosque, Ulee Lheue.

The Gujerat-Aceh trade brought great prosperity and ushered in Aceh's golden age, exemplified by the court cultures of Sultan Iskandar Muda (1607-1636) and Iskandar Thani (1636-1641). Aceh became a station for the pilgrimage to Makkah (hence the name, 'Serambi Makkah' or Verandah of Makkah) and also nurtured a pantheistic, mystical Sufism best illustrated by the poetry of Hamzah Fansuri amd Shamsul-Din. This Sufism has long been supplanted by modernist Islam and the Acehnese pride themselves as an example of orthodoxy. Nevertheless, Aceh can be thought of as the place where the influences of Persian Islamic culture and Sufi philosophy were translated into indigenous arts, crafts and architecture and from here spread to the rest of Southeast Asia. Early Chinese influence is also strongly represented in Acehnese artifacts.

While the Acehnese Sultan controlled the trade with foreigners in the ports near Kota Raja (Banda Aceh), the powerful regional chieftains, the uleebalangs, held sway elsewhere, and grew rich from growing pepper which was the main export in the 19th century. To escape the Sultan's taxes, many rich Acehnese merchants traded directly with foreign ships, including American ships. Among those who based themselves in the British port of Penang, the most famous was Tengku Syed Hussain Al-Idid, who established an Arab quarter and mosque in Acheen Street, Penang.

The Dutch invaded Aceh in 1873, and destroyed the Achense pepper trade. The Acehnese resistance based in Penang wrote to Ottoman Turkey for assistance against the Dutch, without success. For many decades, the Dutch only managed to occupy the capital, 'Kutaraja', while Acehnese patriots remained in control of the hinterland. These fiercely independent people fought the Dutch for 40 years, and maintain that even the Dutch occupation from 1903 onwards was de facto but never de jure. After 3 years of Japanese Occupation, Indonesia declared independence in 1945.

Pictured top: This historical Kerkoff Peucut war cemetery
inundated during the December 2004 tsunami.

Today, most of Acehnese society still revolves around rice cultivation, as well as plantation crops such as rubber and oil palm. Every village has a mosque (by far the most prominent building) and Islamic religious school called 'diah'. As a province, Aceh's wealth comes from its incredible oil and gas deposits which is mainly worked by foreign oil companies in partnership with the central Indonesian government. Sabang on Weh island has been developed for international tourism, while domestic tourists take advantage of the good highway which connects Banda Aceh and Medan. Since 1959, Aceh has a special status as an autonomous district (Daerah Istimewa Aceh) in modern Indonesia.

Recommended readings

• Leigh, Barbara, Tangan-Tangan Trampil, Seni Kerajnian/ Hands of Time: The Crafts of Aceh (bilingual). Jakarta: Penerbit Djambatan, 1987.

•  Oey, Eric M. (editor), Sumatra (Indonesia Travel Guides), Singapore: Periplus, 1994. This contains an essay 'Old Islami Harbors of the North' by E. Edwards McKinnon. Reid, Anthony, An Indonesian Frontier: Acehnese & Other Histories of Sumatra. Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2005.
 


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