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Hengam
Island

June 18, 2001
The Iranian

HENGAM ISLAND. Variations, e.g., Hangam, Hanjam, Henjam. 26038'N 55055'E. An island-village of Qeshm county, Hormuzgan Province of Iran. It is one of the foursome of islands that traditionally have comprised the offshore dependencies of Bandar Abbas, on the northern littoral of the Strait of Hormuz. The others are Qeshm, Hormuz, and Larak islands. Qeshm's present-day name derives from the sixteenth century Portuguese appellation Queixime, a corrupted form of Keshmesh, as in keshmesh, a small stoneless raisin, once a celebrated product of this island and also Larak. Larak owes its present-day name to L'Arek, the eighteenth century French orthography for the name Arack (or Arek), probably referring to a sort of arrack, meaning "brandy," that mariners and traders could procure there.

In contrast, the names of Hormuz and Hengam predate the modern era and are quintessential in their Persian character. In 1300 A.D. Amir Baha ed-Din Ayaz Seyfin, the beleaguered ruler of the Kingdom of Hormuz, a principality on the northern shores of the Persian Gulf, moved his capital from Hormuz on the mainland, near Minab, to Gerun/Jerun Island, which he had purchased from the ruler of Kish Island; henceforth the name Hormuz came to apply to the island. The name Hengam is even older, as notice of it is given by name in Ibn Balkhi's Farsnameh (written ca. 1111).

The toponymic origin Hengam is not clear. In Persian, the word hengam/angam refers to "time" and "season;" bi-hangam means "out of season" or "not good at any time." Both concepts could have applied to an island which, as reported in modern times, has been noted for being habitable only for a part of the year due to humidity, heat, and pesky insects, a variety of which could have been the same as the hangami insects, which are called such because of appearing and disappearing quickly. While the name Hormuz is Persian and of pre-Islamic origin, the name Hengam is characteristically Persian because it includes a gaf -- or g in the Persian alphabet -- a sound or character that is absent in Arabic; it is replaced with j in Arabian and Arabic-based European appellations for the island, resulting in Henjam, which, incidentally, in the form of hanjam means, among other things, "good-for-nothing."

In modern times, under Portuguese and English influences, two strains of names developed around Hengam/Henjam. The earlier Portuguese practice produced Angan; this evolved into the eighteenth century English designation Angaum, until the latter part of the nineteenth century when the British adopted Henjam, the Arabicized name for the island. The British marine practice also referred to Hengam as Angar, a likely contraction of langar, meaning "anchor," as in an island reputed for its good anchorage, particularly off Masheh on the north side of the island, or where one would procure anchors made of blocks of iron ore native to the island.

The replacement of sound/letter g in Angam and Angaum with j produced the name Anjam, which found acceptance both in Arabic and Persian because the word anjam could have referred to the island that marked the "end" of a long voyage from the interior of the gulf or from India. In this connection, Hengam and the Salamah-wa-Binatha (Salama-wa-Binat) off the Musandam Promontory comprised a group of islands scared to the rituals observed by the mariners who entered or exited the Strait of Hormuz.

Alexander the Great's admiral, Nearchus, noted the island [Hengam] to be sacred to a local divinity which he equated with Poseidon, the Greek god of the seas. Off Musandam, mariners held in great regard the islands known as "Salamah and her daughters," which the Portuguese called Quoins because of their resemblance to the coin (quoin) of a gun. These were Salama (Great Quoin), Little Quoin, and Gap Island. The Persian-speaking inhabitants of Kumzar called them, respectively, Mu-Mar ("mother" or "snake"); Dideh-Mar ("daughter" or "eye of the snake") or Shena-Kuh ("floating rock"); and Fana Kuh ("mount of perdition") or Panah-Kuh ("mount of refuge"). At the sight of these rocky and dark three isles or Hengam, the mariner would offer the greeting salami salamat-anjam or sa'adat-anjam to mark the safe start or end of the journey.

Hengam is located two kilometers off Qeshm's southern coast, across a channel that is on the average about eight fathoms deep. It is 9.5 kilometers long and five kilometers wide. Geologically, it is a salt plug, just like Hormuz, Larak, and Abu Musa islands: It has a rocky topography that is dominated by multiple hills and pocked by caves and salt-pits; the highest elevation, about 105 meters, obtains toward the northern end of the island at Tappeh Mitra (also Tappeh Miz, lit., "Table Hill"). There is a modest wildlife consisting of pesky insects, quadrupeds, sea birds, and some hare who owe their presence here since 1882 to the enterprising director of the Persian Gulf Telegraphs. The flora is even less impressive. Irrigation is obtained from wells; fresh water is in good supply, but rain is meager and so is pasturage. In the late spring and summer months, heat and humidity make the climate insufferable.

In the north lies the village-town of New Hengam, once called Masheh, on a bay of the same name, which was regarded as offering very good anchorage. The Old Hengam, the island's main village in the years past, is located on the island's south side, in a flat, open area. On the western coast of the island is Ghil, a small village, with a legendary supply of drinking water: It is five kilometers to the northwest of Old Hengam and eight kilometers to the south west of New Hengam. At the end of the nineteenth century, the population of Hengam was estimated at 450 souls and the island boasted 250 houses. In 1949 its population was estimated at one thousand, subsisting on small-scale agriculture, salt mining, fishing, pearling, stevedoring, and seasonal labor on the Persian mainland. The island's contact with the Persian mainland consisted of trade with and seasonal employment at Lingeh, Bandar Abbas, Minab, and Jask. The ruins of hundreds of homesteads and other structures on the island indicate a greater degree of habitation and human activity on the island in the preceding centuries, especially in the days of the Portuguese dominion over the Kingdom of Hormuz between 1507 and 1622.

The ethnic Arabs of Hengam could trace their arrival there to the migration of 1856. In that year, one Ubaid ibn Jumah, of the Al Bu Falasah section of the ubiquitous Bani Yas tribe of the lower gulf, fell out with his cousin and brother-in-law, Sheikh Hashir ibn Maktum, the ruler of Dubai. Consequently, Ubaid and 15 families, with 13 pearling boats, set out from Dubai and sought refuge on Great Tonb Island. A year later, a severe drought befell Tonb, and this forced Ubaid and his people to immigrate further east to Hengam.

During the reign of Nadir Shah the chief of the Bani Ma'ini tribe of Bandar Abbas succeeded in obtaining from Persia a lease that covered Bandar Abbas and its dependencies, including Qeshm and Hormuz islands; Hengam was not specifically listed though. In consequence of quarrels between the Bani Ma'ini and the ruler of Oman over the control of Bandar Abbas, in 1794, the Persian government transferred the lease to Sultan ibn Ahmad bin Sa'id, the ruler of Muscat.

In 1800-1801, the British began openly coveting Hengam as a trade post and a naval base to be used by the East India Company. In that year, John Malcolm, the Company's emissary, asked Fathali Shah Qajar to cede the island to the Company, which the Shah refused. In consequence of the Company's naval operations against the "piratical" Arab tribes of the lower gulf, in 1809 the Company wished to establish a naval presence on Hengam, but this came to naught. The British interest in the island for that purpose was realized in 1819-1820, when they occupied Hengam and a part of Qeshm in the course of the expedition that ultimately pacified the Arab tribes of the lower gulf, chief among them the Qasemi/Joasemee. When challenged by the Persian government, the Company replied that it made use of the islands on the basis of the permission that it had obtained from the ruler of Muscat. In May 1820, the Persian government rejoined with the statement that Hengam and Qeshm were dependencies of Bandar Abbas, and that the ruler of Muscat was in no position to consent to anything, as he too was a subject of Persia.

In consequence of the internecine strife of succession among the Omani princes, the Persian government canceled the Bandar Abbas lease in 1854. An Omani/Muscati fleet appeared off Bandar Abbas in order to capture the town. A few skirmishes later, the parties concluded in 1856 the Perso-Muscati Agreement, by which Persia leased Bandar Abbas and its dependencies, including Qeshm and Hormuz, to Sultan Sa'id and his heir for the period of twenty years; again, Hengam was not specifically mentioned. On the murder of Sultan Said's son, Thuwaini, in 1866 the Persian government took the position that the lease was no longer in effect as it had been personal to Sai'd and his heir, Thuwaini. Thuwaini's murderous son, Salim, now sought an extension of the lease, which the Persian government refused. The British took the view that the lease was still valid because it had another ten years to run until expiry.

In March 1868, the Indian government formally asked Persia for permission to move its telegraph station from Musandam to Hengam. Following the conclusion of the Anglo-Persian Telegraph Agreement on April 2 of that year the Hengam station opened. In connection with this, in July the British authorities in India assured the Persian government that the fact of the station would not affect Persia's sovereignty over the area covered by the Bandar Abbas lease, which in the British view included Hengam as well. On August 4, 1868, Persia granted to Sultan Salim the lease for Bandar Abbas and its dependencies for a term of eight years; Hengam again was not specifically mentioned. In September, Salim was overthrown, and Naser ed-Din Shah Qajar terminated the lease forthwith. A subsequent effort by the ruler of Muscat in 1871 to obtain a renewal/extension of the Bandar Abbas lease came to naught.

The Persian Gulf (British) Telegraph's sub-station on the Jask-Bushehr line opened on Hengam in 1869 and continued until 1881 when the line was abolished. In 1904 the Indo-European (British) Telegraph Department resurrected the line and with it the station on Hengam. As a visible reminder of Iranian sovereignty over the island later in 1904 the Iranian customs service opened a post on Hengam and began flying the Iranian flag. The Hengam telegraph was connected to Bandar Abbas in 1905 by means of a cable running across Qeshm.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth century, whenever the British government discussed counter-measures to any potential Russian penetration into the Persian Gulf, Hengam was mentioned as one of the few locations on the northern shore of the Strait of Hormuz that the British would seize and secure by force, regardless of the sentiments of the Persian government on the matter. During World War I, Great Britain took over and used the island as a naval base. Since 1934, Iran has maintained a naval and quarantine station on it.

During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), Hengam played a pivotal role in the efforts of the Iranian navy and revolutionary guards to police the ships and oil tankers suspected of aiding the Iraqi war effort, including ferrying out Kuwaiti oil under the protection of the U.S. navy. Dozens of Iranian launches and gunboats stationed at Hengam and Abu Musa Island kept the U.S. navy busy and on watch. Amid an intense Iranian and American naval confrontation in the waters near Hengam, in which Iranian units from Hengam were also involved, on July 3, 1988, the American destroyer Vincennes, fired a missile that downed the civilian Iran Air Flight 655, killing the 290 passengers on board. Some of the reminder of this tragedy washed ashore on Hengam.

In recent years, Hengam has become all the more valuable to Iran. Militarily, the Great Khaibar war games, conducted by the Iranian navy in September 1995, underscored Hengam's place in Iran's amphibian operations; the island gives its name to a class of small landing ships employed by the Iranian navy. On a commercial level, the island's limestone, rock salt, sulphur, red ochre, and iron ore deposits pale in comparison to the oil and gas reserves that have been discovered on the Iran-Oman maritime boundary directly south of Hengam. The Omani side has been exploiting the West Bukha/Hengam field since the early 1990s; in June 2000 Iran and Oman agreed in principle to the joint development of the field.

The increased oil and gas activities near Hengam, its proximity to Qeshm Island, which is a free trade zone, and the Iranian naval presence on Hengam have contributed to the development of the island's infrastructure in recent years; there has been a corresponding rise in the population as well; as of April 2001 it numbered an estimated 2,500 inhabitants.

Author

Guive Mirfendereski is a professorial lecturer in international relations and law and practices law in Massachusetts.

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