TONB (GREATER AND LESSER), two tiny islands of arguable strategic importance in the eastern Persian Gulf, south of the western tip of Qešm island. They are referred to as Tonb-e Bozorg (26°15′ N, 55°18′ E) and Tonb-e Kučak (26°14´ N, 55°08′ E) in Tehran, Ṭunb Kubrā (or Ṭunb) and Ṭunb Suḡrā (Nabi Ṭunb) in the Arab capitals. The most common name variations are Ṭonb and Tomb, and there are other combinations of t/ta+a/o/u+n/m+/-b. Previously the name was written by the British as Tomb, Tamb, Tumb.
Present status. The Tonbs are considered by Iran as village units of the Abu Musā township (šahrestān) in Hormozgān Province (Nurbaḵš, p. 192; Afšār Sistāni, pp. 119, 126). They are claimed by the Shaikhdom of Ras al-Khaimah (Raʿs al-Ḵayma, United Arab Emirates) as the successor to the tribal patrimony of the ubiquitous Qāsemi tribe, a branch of which administered the port of Langa for the Persian government from ca. 1789 to 1887 (Mirfendereski, 1985, pp. 312-60). Lesser Tonb was viewed briefly as having a separate status (Abdullah, pp. 235-36), but in practice its ownership has been determined by that of Greater Tonb (Lorimer, II, p. 1909; Mirfendereski, 1985, pp. 96-103).
Geographical description. Greater Tonb lies ca. 27.2 km southwest of Qešm island, ca. 41.6 km south of Langa, and it is ca. 73.6 km north of the Al-Ḥamrā island (peninsula), the closest point on the Arabian littoral. It is circular in shape and measures about 4 km in diameter, rising to the maximum height of 52.5 m. The island’s flora consists of coarse grass and shrubs, which cover the island in late winter and early spring, and banyan and palm trees, which occur with greater density in the central and in southwestern areas of the island. The fauna consists primarily of birds, lizards, and snakes; in the past, it boasted a robust population of goats, antelopes, and hare, which the British officers hunted for recreation. The well water is adequate but brackish. The best approach to the island is found off its eastern coast.
The lesser island lies about 11.2 km to the west, at a distance of 38.4 km from Langa and 72 km from Al-Ḥamrā; 1.6 km long (north to south) and 1.2 km wide at its base in the south, this nearly triangular island rises to about 36 m in height and is devoid of drinking water. The flora consists of a generous cover of the prickly-leaved salsolaceous [salt-tolerant] vegetation. The abundant bird population shares the island with snakes, which are also present in the nearby waters.
As for resources, the islands’ prospect for oil has not panned out, while Greater Tonb’s red oxide deposits have been proven commercially inferior in the past, and its pearling is all but extinct. Fisheries, therefore, are the sole viable resource of the island for now (Mirfendereski, 1985, pp. 8-12, based on Lorimer, II, pp. 630, 1908-09; Persian Gulf Pilot, pp. 17-18; Nurbaḵš, pp. 284-85, 289-95; Afšār Sistāni, pp. 105-10, 123-26; Mitchell, p. 566).
Closer to Langa than the Arabian littoral, Greater Tonb “is indeed geographically a Persian island.” (British Foreign Office Records, F.O. 371/13777 , Persia E4369/19/34: G. W. Rendel’s minutes, 10 September 1929 [emphasis in original], discussed in Mirfendereski, 1985, p. 119). The zoogeographic evidence, with respect to the distribution of the Short-nosed Desert Lacerta lizards(Eremias brevirostris) on Greater Tonb, suggests that this island was in the distant past connected with the Iranian mainland (Anderson, pp. 318-19).
Early references. The unnamed “other island” noted between Qešm and Farur islands, off which the fleet of the Greek admiral Nearchus moored in 325 B.C.E. (Arrian, Indica 37), is conjectured to be Greater Tonb. While the island’s identification with Tabiana in Claudius Ptolemy’s Geographia (ca. 168 C.E.) is weak, one may be on firmer ground to conjecture that the name of the island likely figured among the litany of islands off Pārs (Fārs) named in such Persian geographical works as Ebn al-Balḵi’s (fl. early 12th cent.) Fārs-nāma, written ca. 1111 (504 A.H), or in Ḥamd-Allāh Mostawfi Qazvini’s Nozhat al-qolub, written ca. 1340 (? 740 A.H.; Mirfendereski, 1996b, pp. 300-301; identified in Mirfendereski, 1985, pp. 685-98).
Toponymy. The toponymy of Tonb is in all likelihood of Persian origin. In the local Persian dialect(s) of southern Persia, the noun tonb, with its diminutive tonbu, as it applied to Lesser Tonb (Nāmiuh or Nābiuh Tonb), means “hill” or “low elevation” (Eqtedāri, p. 123). The terms have the same meaning in the larger Dari Persian language system; this explains in part the traces of tonb and tonbu in the toponyms found in the Bušehr and Langa regions, some 300 miles (480 km) apart. (Nurbaḵš, pp. 41, 284-86, citing ʾAbbās Anjāmruz, a learned resident of Langa). In addition, there are other toponyms such as Tonb-e Seh in Tangestān and Tonbānu on Qešm island (see Lorimer, II, pp. 1556, 1869, discussed in Mirfendereski, 1996b, pp. 306-7). The traces of the morpheme /tonb/ can be seen also in such 10th-century southern Persian toponyms as Ṭasuj Tonbuk, Ṭamastān, and Tonbuk al-Murestān, as reported in the geography of Abu Eshāq Ebrāhim Eṣṭaḵri (d. 960) (discussed in Mirfendereski, 1996b, p. 307).
The absence of the word tonb from the Arabic lexicon is held out as evidence of the Iranian character of the toponym, and even of the island (Nurbaḵš, p. 286). However, this view ignores the plausible origin of the name from Arabic tunub, which is written with the letter tā, the same as in the earlier Persian spelling of the name (for the earliest reporting of the spelling of the name in Persian/Arabic, see Niebuhr, 1772, p. 328; Persian practice until the 1920s is discussed in Mirfendereski, 1996b, p. 297, n. 1). In Arabic, the word tonb connotes “habitat” or place of “settlement” (Hans Wehr, A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, ed. M. Cowan, Ithaca, N.Y., 1976, p. 570).
The foregoing notwithstanding, there have been a number of quintessential Persian appellations for the Tonbs, even though these forms were not very frequent or long-lived. Chief among them were Nāz (Greater Tonb) and Nāmaʿan (Lesser Tonb) in reference to the islands’ amenities and lack thereof, respectively, or Gombad (“dome”), or in reference to snakes (mār). The Italian isola Doma (“Dome island”) mentioned by Giovanni Ramusio (1550), whether an original European name or a direct translation/corruption of a local name, may well be the link between Ebn Balḵi’s Dmh and Gonbad-e Bozorg and Kučak (Vincent, 1797, p. 357), to Zembo (ca. 1810), likely from Portuguese zimborio “dome,” and to Gumbaz (Curzon, 1892, II, p. 448) (discussed in Mirfendereski, 1996b, pp. 301, 304-7).
In the Book of Duarte Barbosa, the island which is named “Fomon” (read: Tomon) is identified as Tonb island. While the name Tomon may have been in all likelihood the corruption of Tonb from its Persian plural form (? Toman), the island is given unambiguously by Barbosa as being among the islands which belonged to the kingdom of Ormus [Hormoz] in Persia (Dames, pp. 80-81).
Human geography. Lesser Tonb is not known to have been inhabited, at least on a permanent basis, but the larger one was frequented in successive historical periods by visitors from the Persian and Arabian mainlands for purposes of grazing herds, fishing and pearling, hunting, piracy, red oxide and oil prospecting, recreation and smuggling. Its permanent population originated traditionally from both sides of the Gulf (for details see Lorimer, II, pp. 630, 1908-09; Nurbaḵš, pp. 284-95; Mirfendereski, 1985, pp. 8-13, 112-14, 138-40, 141-51, 168-92, and 1996b, pp. 310-12).
The specifics are wanting with respect to the human settlement on Greater Tonb prior to the middle of the 19th century. The composite picture from a few marine surveys and gazetteers depicted the Tonbs as uninhabited; the flocks of goats or antelopes, however, afforded game to the officers of the vessels lying off Qešm island, and the fisheries attracted fishermen from the Arabian shore for periods of a week or ten days at a time (Mirfendereski, 1985, pp. 174-76).
Niebuhr, who toured the Persian Gulf in 1763-65, recorded that both Tonbs (Tumb and Namiuh Tumb) were uninhabited. On his way from Mysore in India to Constantinople by way of BasÂra, in 1786, Ḵvāja ʿAbd-al-Qāder found Greater Tonb (written in Persian script as Ṭm with the letter tā) lying in ruins, but with many herds of deer and a large garden on its (? northern) shore (Mirfendereski, 1996b, pp. 308-9). On the authority of Harford Jones, the factor in Basra at the time and the future British envoy to Persia (1807-11), Vincent’s 1797 description of the islands referred to them as uninhabited, but frequented seasonally by fishermen (Vincent, p. 357).
Not mentioned in the European description of the Tonbs was the fact that Greater Tonb, along with the other islands in its vicinity, often yielded good seasonal pasturage and that invited the various tribes of the Arabian and Persian sides of the Gulf to go to them to graze their herds. Inevitably, concurrent use of an island would degenerate into inter-tribal quarrels. The earliest documented episode of such a perennial grass war dates to 1788-89, when a row between the Qāsemi and Marāziḡ of Langa over Greater Farur, Serri, and Abu Musā was mediated by Hādi Khan Bastaki, the Persian governor of the Jahāngira District in southern Persia, whose costal domain included the area from Bandar ʿAbbās to the west of Langa (Mirfendereski, 1985, pp. 312-60). By contrast, the settlement of Greater Tonb by the Ebn Jomʿa clan in 1856 ended after one year, due to a severe drought on the island. ʿObayd b. Jomʿa of the Āl-e Bu Falāsa section of the Bani Yās tribe, having fallen out with his cousin, the ruler of Dubai, moved his clan of fifteen families with their thirteen pearling boats to Greater Tonb; when the drought hit in 1857, his group abandoned the island and settled on Hangām island farther east (Kabābi, pp. 132-33).
The reports of the grass wars at Greater Tonb in the second half of the 19th century painted a picture of chaos. The Bani Yās, whose earlier proceedings in 1864 on Abu Musā had raised the ire of the Qāsemi of the lower Gulf (Abdullah, p. 233), eventually would establish a presence on Greater Tonb, where they (in two huts) and immigrants from the Persian port of Langa (in one hut) constituted the island’s permanent population in 1908 (Lorimer, II, pp. 1908-09). In 1871-73, the Qāsemi of the lower Gulf were complaining again about the Āl-e Bu Samayṭ and others from the Persian coast going to Greater Tonb for grazing herds and cutting grass, while at the same time the Qāsemi governor of Langa was grievous about the people from Dubai, ʿAjmān and Umm al-Qaiwain (Omm al-Qaywayn) being allowed on Greater Tonb (Abdullah, p. 234). The Āl-e Bu Samayt continued to go to Tonb, however, and this resulted in more complaints by the Qāsemi of the lower Gulf in 1877 and 1884; meanwhile the Qāsemi governor of Langa himself had proceeded to plant date offshoots on the island (Abdullah, pp. 236-37).
Even though the Qāsemi of the lower Gulf believed Tonb to be uninhabited in the period 1878-87 (Mirfendereski, 1996a, p. 125), the year-round activities of the governor of Langa and others from the Persian coast with respect to the island proceeded apace. The records dating to 1885 indicated that in that year connected with Tonb were one “Aḥmad of Tamb,” originally from Lār in southern Persia, who engaged in the tobacco trade; the deposed local ruler of Qešm island, who had taken refuge on Tonb under the protection of the governor of Langa; and the mediator nominated by the governor for a dispute on Kiš island, who had been sent previously to settle a matter on Tonb (Mirfendereski, 1985, p. 382, and 1996a, pp. 125-26).
The clamor in 1903-04 over the arrival of the Persian customs service at Tonb, the preemptive planting of the Sharjah (Šarja) flag on the island and its removal by the Persian customs officers, the hoisting of the Persian flag and its subsequent removal, and the re-hoisting of the Sharjah flag was followed in 1912-13 by the installation of a lighthouse on the northern shore of the island. The description of the island as uninhabited by the French vice-consul at Bušehr (1920) may have been the result of the same phenomenon which caused a contemporaneous decline in the populations of Farur (100 percent), Hengām (50 percent), and Kiš (66 percent) (Mirfendereski, 1985, pp. 179-82). This state of depopulation may have lasted for a while, as a 1927 description of the island described it as barren and uninhabited except for snakes, seafowl, and swallows (Wilson, p. 244).
The population count for Greater Tonb in the period 1929-71 is murky at best, as a proper count itself was influenced by the distance of Tehran and London from the island and the chasm that separated the two governments over the ownership of the island. The Iranian count of 60 inhabitants (30 Arabs and 30 Persians) in 1929 was reduced by the British to 25 Arabs and 4 Persian men, of which the Persians endured the summer on the island while the Arabs left for the lower Gulf. In 1930-31, the British government’s own count went from 20 to 30 families (November) to 13 families (January 1931), of which 9 families were Arabs and 4 were Persians. Yet, according to a 1932 British source, the island was barren and uninhabited. In the mid-1930s, an Iranian count had the population consisting of 25 persons, of whom 9 were from the Iranian coast and the rest from Dubai and Ras al-Khaimah, while a British source, reporting on the feasibility of the island as the future site for a football and cricket grounds, put the head count at 50 (Mirfendereski, 1985, pp. 183-86). By 1938 the population had increased to 100 people (Nurbaḵš, p. 291).
In 1941, Greater Tonb had a population of 100 people (Afšār Sistāni, p. 117), which increased to 150 by 1950 (Nurbaḵš, p. 115). In 1953, while one Iranian source put the population count at 100 families (Mirfendereski, 1985, p. 187), another source listed the Tonbs as uninhabited (Razmārā, p. 87). Regardless, a decade later, an Iranian visitor found the island inhabited by 100 souls, who lived by fishing, pearling, and small-scale agriculture; by 1970, the population had soared to 250 people, which was served by a 20-Kw power generator (Mirfendereski, 1985, p. 187). On the last day of British rule in the Gulf (30 November 1971), Reuters News Agency reported the number of the inhabitants at 70 people, but a week later the representative of Ras al-Khaimah told the emergency session of the Arab League that Iran had ferried some 350 inhabitants of the islands to the lower Gulf (Mirfendereski, 1985, pp. 187-89), while another source put the population at the time at 150 (Nurbaḵš, p. 293).
The island’s population has continued to vary widely—from 200 in 1971-72, down to 100 in 1973-74 (Afšār Sistāni, p. 117), to 81 souls making up 19 families in 1976-77 (Nurbaḵš, p. 295). In 1977, the Iranian government transplanted 70 families from Langa, Mināb, Hormoz, Qešm, and Bandar ʿAbbās to the island, but due to lack of necessities and services the majority of them left the island (Nurbaḵš, pp. 294-95). In 1980, the population stood at 200 (Afšār Sistāni, p. 117). By 1983, four years after the Revolution of 1978-79, the only inhabitants of the island consisted of Iranian military personnel (Nurbaḵš, p. 294), no doubt a byproduct of the military situation in the Persian Gulf in the early 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88. In 1992, the Tonb population numbered 350 (Afšār Sistāni, p. 117).
Originally Published: July 20, 2005
Last Updated: September 25, 2012