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Friday, 18 March 2011

Acheh is The Ottoman Military Academy

There is an excellent source on the web that outlines the genesis and growth of the Ottoman-Acehnese diplomatic relationship using Turkish sources. It noted the first diplomatic contact from the Sultan of Aceh to the Ottoman Empire as occurring in 1547 but that there were no Turkish sources to expand on it. There was some debate also as to whether it was later, 1562 but that argument is unlikely to be settled unless new evidence is discovered. In addition, the well known historian of Southeast Asia, Anthony Reid, implied that the relationship may have existed since the 1520s. Both sources agreed that it was possible that the first Ottoman military assistance to Aceh was in the late 1530s when sailors from the Ottoman Fleet that had fought at Diu in India continued down to Aceh to help the Acehnese fight the Bataks and Portuguese.

Aceh's first confirmed diplomatic approach to the Ottoman Empire was in 1566 when the Sultan of Aceh, Alaaddin Riayet Shah al-Kahhar (r 1537-71) sent a letter dated 7 January 1566 with an ambassador to the Ottoman Emperor, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. This letter referred to Ottoman cannoneers who had arrived safely in Aceh and appealed for more assistance. The death of Suleiman that year and a rebellion in Yeman delayed and then downscaled the assistance that the Ottomans eventually sent in 1568 or 1569, possibly more cannons and experts to make them locally in Aceh. It should be noted that the original plans by the Ottomans were substantial including at least 15 galleys carrying artisans skilled in ship building and siege warfare.

Aceh made good use of the cannon makers and established a local foundry, turning out some very large cannons. There were two very large cannons that still existed in Aceh into the late 1800s according to a Turkish visitor. They were only taken when the Dutch occupied Aceh and this is potentially borne out.

The Ottoman letter to Acheh Sultanet collection 1566

The fact that the Sultan of Aceh could write a letter such as mentioned above and receive the assistance that he did showed the importance of Aceh's trade, mainly pepper, with the Ottomans and also an already existing relationship of some depth. The Ottomans no doubt felt well disposed to assisting the Acehnese as that aid would make life hard for the Portuguese. Interestingly the historian Michael Charney in his book stated that the Turks were looking for allies in the Indian Ocean to prevent the Portuguese from outflanking the Ottomans.

The Ottoman Academy
Turning now to the military academy, there was agreement amongst the sources that such an academy existed in Aceh, although there was little detail. The academy was called Askari Bayt Al-Mugaddas (Sacred Military Academy), although according to an Indonesian sourcethe name was changed to become Askar Baitul Maqdis, since that was closer to the Acehnese pronunciation. It was not clear what subjects were taught nor how long the teaching period was. At least one student was female, Kumala Hayati, who later went on to lead the Acehnese fleet against the Portuguese in Melaka (Malacca). The attacks on Melaka, although unsuccessful are attributed to the knowledge imparted by this academy, as well as the broader Islamic network that Aceh was a part of. Reid stated that at least one attack on Melaka was assisted by the forces of four Indian Muslim sultans. The dearth of information was frustrating but the fact that this academy existed demonstrated an important role for Aceh in the strategy of the Ottoman Empire.


The academy, the cannons and the planned dispatch of the Ottoman Fleet clearly showed that Aceh was part of the Ottoman's efforts to balance Portuguese expansion. The relationship did wane later and was revitalised as Aceh faced the threat of Dutch colonialism but by that stage Turkey was the sick man of Europe and the Ottoman splendors were becoming memories. Nevertheless, it was an interesting relationship that highlighted that western colonialism was just one strand of the dynamics in Southeast Asia. It may also have helped to improve the military capabilities of the Acehnese Sultanate and hence the surrounding lands just as Western colonialism began.

Sources/Further Reading

Ismail Hakki GOKSOY, 'Ottoman-Aceh relations According to the Turkish Sources' presented at the First International Conference of Aceh and Indian Ocean Studies, 24-27 February 2007.
Anthony Reid, 'Working Paper 36: The Ottomans in Southeast Asia' Asia Research Institute, Singapore, 2005
Michael W. Charney, Southeast Asian Warfare, 1300-1900(Handbook of Oriental Studies/Handbuch Der Orientalistik)
Asoybanget, Aceh's relations with Islamic countries during the Ottoman Period, (in Indonesian) on Indoforum


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