June 18, 2001
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
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
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
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
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.
Guive Mirfendereski is a professorial lecturer in international relations
and law and practices law in Massachusetts.