A feature of Southeast Asian history that has always fascinated me is the presence of markers illustrating the spread of Islam.
Like stars scattered across a vast, dark sky, these tiny fragments offer a window into the past that is both thrilling and frustrating for those seeking to see through.
Two types of markers are particularly fascinating.
One type are tombstones, made of rock originating in the westernmost fringes of India which must have been carried on the long sea voyage via South India. Over a dozen of these distinctive white marble monuments have been found across the region. Like so much in history however they potentially raise more questions than they answer.
Were these stones treasured and brought to the region at great expense and effort, suggesting that Islam was locally established and adopted by the wealthy and influential? Or were these stones mere ballast for the vessels, tossed away like trash when their usefulness was past and recycled by local Muslims unable to access more prestigious materials?
A second type, Islamic grave markers known as batu Aceh (Aceh stones), are more common. For readers interested in further details I highlight a favourite academic paper here, while some further pictures are available here, here and here.
The majority of batu Aceh have been found around northwest coastal Sumatra, especially around Banda Aceh, as well as in Malaysia, with the Patani Kingdom (located around present day Pattani state in the deep South of Thailand) being the approximate northernmost fringe of the known distribution. Regrettably an unknown number (possibly a high percentage) may have been lost in the tsunami in late 2004.
At one time in my life I revelled in learning to recognise the various sub-types of batu Aceh, but found it very lonely knowledge. I struggled then, and now, to find anyone else interested who wasn’t merely being polite.
To me, batu Aceh are among the most precious and interesting artefacts in Southeast Asia and, with their potential significance in world history, I’d happily discuss them all night.