The Republic of Maldives (ދިވެހިރާއްޖޭގެ ޖުމްހޫރިއްޔާ — Dhivehi Raa’jeyge Jumhooriyya), is a South Asian island country, located in the Indian Ocean, situated in the Arabian Sea. It lies southwest of India and Sri Lanka. It consists of 1,192 coral islands grouped in a double chain of 26 atolls, along the north-south direction, spread over roughly 35,000 square miles (90,000 square kilometers), making this one of the world’s most dispersed countries. Comprising a territory spanning roughly 115 square miles (298 km²), the Maldives is also as the smallest Asian country by both land area and population, with a little over 393,500 inhabitants. It lies between latitudes 1°S and 8°N, and longitudes 72° and 74°E. Malé is the capital and most populated city, traditionally called the “King’s Island” for its central location.
The atolls are composed of live coral reefs and sand bars, situated atop the Chagos-Maldives-Laccadive Ridge, a vast submarine mountain range 600 miles (960 km) long that rises abruptly from the depths of the Indian Ocean and runs north to south. Only near the southern end of this natural coral barricade do two open passages permit safe ship navigation from one side of the Indian Ocean to the other through the territorial waters of the Maldives. For administrative purposes, the Maldivian government organised these atolls into twenty-one administrative divisions. The largest island of Maldives is Gan, which belongs to Laamu Atoll or Hahdhummathi Maldives. In Addu Atoll, the westernmost islands are connected by roads over the reef (collectively called Link Road). The total length of the road is 9 miles (14 km).
With an average ground-level elevation of 4 feet, 11 inches (1.5 meters) above sea level, the Maldives is the world’s lowest country, with even its highest natural point being the lowest in the world, at 7 feet, 10 inches (2.4 meters). In areas where construction exists, however, this has been increased to several meters. More than 80 per cent of the country’s land is composed of coral islands which rise less than one meter above sea level. As a result, the Maldives are at high risk of being submerged due to rising sea levels. The United Nation’s environmental panel has warned that, at current rates, sea level rise would be high enough to make the Maldives uninhabitable by 2100. Due to the subsequent risks posed by rising sea-levels, the government pledged in 2009 to make the Maldives a carbon-neutral country by 2019.
The World Bank classifies the Maldives as having an upper middle income economy. Fishing has historically been the dominant economic activity, and remains the largest sector by far, followed by the rapidly growing tourism industry. Along with Sri Lanka, it is one of only two South Asian countries rated “high” on the Human Development Index (HDI), with its per capita income the highest among South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations.
The Maldives was a Commonwealth republic from July 1982 until its withdrawal from the Commonwealth in October 2016 in protest at international criticism of its records in relation to corruption and human rights.
The name Maldives may derive from the Malayalam words maala (garland) and dweepu (island) or the Tamil maalai (garland / evening) and theevu (island), or මාල දිවයින (Maala Divaina, “Necklace Islands”) in Sinhala. The Maldivian people are called Dhivehin. The word theevu (archaic heevu, related to Tamil தீவு, dheevu) means “island”, and Dhives (Dhivehin) means “islanders” (i.e., Maldivians).
Some medieval travelers such as Ibn Battuta called the islands Mahal Dibiyat (محل دبيأت) from the Arabic word mahal (“palace”), which must be how the Berber traveler interpreted the local name, having been through Muslim North India, where Perso-Arabic words were introduced to the local vocabulary. This is the name currently inscribed on the scroll in the Maldive state emblem. The classical Persian/Arabic name for Maldives is Dibajat. The Dutch referred to the islands as the Maldivische Eilanden, while the British anglicized the local name for the islands first to the “Maldive Islands” and later to “Maldives.”
Comparative studies of Maldivian oral, linguistic and cultural traditions and customs indicate that one of the earliest settlers were descendant of Tamils and Malayalis from ancient Tamilakam in the Sangam period (300 BC–AD 300), most probably fishermen from the southwest coasts of present India and the northwestern shores of Sri Lanka. One such community are the Giraavaru people. They are mentioned in ancient legends and local folklore about the establishment of the capital and kingly rule in Malé.
A strong underlying layer of Dravidian population and culture survives in Maldivian society, with a clear Tamil-Malayalam substratum in the language, which also appears in place names, kinship terms, poetry, dance, and religious beliefs. Malabari seafaring culture led to Malayali settling of the Laccadives, and the Maldives were evidently viewed as an extension of that archipelago. Some argue that Sindhis also accounted for an early layer of migration. Seafaring from Debal began during the Indus valley civilization. The Jatakas and Puranas show abundant evidence of this maritime trade; the use of similar traditional boat building techniques in Northwestern South Asia and the Maldives, and the presence of silver punch mark coins from both regions, gives additional weight to this. There are minor signs of Southeast Asian settlers, probably some adrift from the main group of Austronesian reed boat migrants that settled Madagascar.
The earliest written history of the Maldives is marked by the arrival of Sinhalese people, who were descended from the exiled Magadha Prince Vijaya from the ancient city known as Sinhapura. He and his party of several hundred landed in Sri Lanka, and some in the Maldives circa 543 to 483 BC. According to the Mahavansa, one of the ships that sailed with Prince Vijaya, who went to Sri Lanka around 500 BC, went adrift and arrived at an island called Mahiladvipika, which is being identified with the Maldives. It is also said that at that time, the people from Mahiladvipika used to travel to Sri Lanka. Their settlement in Sri Lanka and the Maldives marks a significant change in demographics and the development of the Indo-Aryan language Dhivehi, which is most similar in grammar, phonology, and structure to Sinhala, and especially to the more ancient Elu Prakrit, which has less Pali.
Philostorgius, a Greek historian of Late Antiquity, wrote of a hostage among the Romans, from the island called Diva, which is presumed to be the Maldives, who was baptized Theophilus. Theophilus was sent in the 350s to convert the Himyarites to Christianity, and went to his homeland from Arabia; he returned to Arabia, visited Axum, and settled in Antioch.
Buddhism came to the Maldives at the time of Emperor Ashoka’s expansion, and became the dominant religion of the people of the Maldives until the twelfth century AD. The ancient Maldivian Kings promoted Buddhism, and the first Maldive writings and artistic achievements, in the form of highly developed sculpture and architecture, are from that period. Before embracing Buddhism as their way of life, Maldivians had practiced an ancient form of Hinduism, ritualistic traditions known as Śrauta, in the form of venerating the Surya (the ancient ruling caste were of Aadheetta or Suryavanshi origins).
In the early eleventh century, the Minicoy and Thiladhunmathi, and possibly other northern Atolls, were conquered by the medieval Chola Tamil emperor Raja Raja Chola I, thus becoming a part of the Chola Empire.
According to a legend from Maldivian folklore, in the early twelfth century AD, a medieval prince named Koimala, a nobleman of the Lion Race from Sri Lanka, sailed to Rasgetheemu island (literally “Town of the Royal House”, or figuratively “King’s Town”) in the North Maalhosmadulu Atoll, and from there to Malé, and established a kingdom. By then, the Aadeetta (Sun) Dynasty (the Suryavanshi ruling cast) had for some time ceased to rule in Malé, possibly because of invasions by the Cholas of Southern India in the 10th century. Koimala Kalou (Lord Koimala), who reigned as King Maanaabarana, was a king of the Homa (Lunar) Dynasty (the Chandravanshi ruling cast), which some historians call the House of Theemuge.
The Homa (Lunar) dynasty sovereigns intermarried with the Aaditta (Sun) Dynasty. This is why the formal titles of Maldive kings until 1968 contained references to “kula sudha ira“, which means “descended from the Moon and the Sun”. No official record exists of the Aadeetta dynasty’s reign. Since Koimala’s reign, the Maldive throne was also known as the Singaasana (Lion Throne). Before then, and in some situations since, it was also known as the Saridhaaleys (Ivory Throne). Some historians credit Koimala with freeing the Maldives from Chola rule.
Several foreign travelers, mainly Arabs, had written about a kingdom of the Maldives ruled over by a queen. This kingdom pre-dated Koimala’s reign. al-Idrisi, referring to earlier writers, mentions the name of one of the queens, Damahaar, who was a member of the Aadeetta (Sun) dynasty.
The conversion to Islam is mentioned in the edicts written in copper plates from the end of the 12th century AD.
The famous Moroccan traveler Ibn Batutta, who visited the Maldives in the fourteenth century, wrote how a Moroccan, one Abu Barakat the Berber, was believed to have been responsible for spreading Islam in the islands. Even though this report has been contested in later sources, it does explain some crucial aspects of Maldivian culture. For instance, historically Arabic has been the prime language of administration there, instead of the Persian and Urdu languages used in the nearby Muslim states. Another link to North Africa was the Maliki school of jurisprudence, used throughout most of North Africa, which was the official one in the Maldives until the seventeenth century.
The Maldives was the first landfall for traders from Basra, sailing to Sri Lanka or Southeast Asia. Bengal was one of the principal trading partners of the Maldives. Shell currency imported from the Maldives was used as legal tender in the Bengal Sultanate and Mughal Bengal, alongside gold and silver. The Maldives received rice in exchange for cowry shells. The Bengal-Maldives cowry shell trade was the largest shell currency trade network in history. In the Maldives, ships could take on fresh water, fruit and the delicious, basket-smoked red flesh of the black bonito, a delicacy exported to Sindh, China and Yemen. The people of the archipelago were described as gentle, civilized and hospitable. They produced brass utensils as well as fine cotton textiles, exported in the form of sarongs and turban lengths. These local industries must have depended on imported raw materials.
The other essential product of the Maldives was coir, the fiber of the dried coconut husk. Cured in pits, beaten, spun and then twisted into cordage and ropes, coir’s salient quality is its resistance to saltwater. It stitched together and rigged the dhows that plied the Indian Ocean. Maldivian coir was exported to Sindh, China, Yemen, and the Persian Gulf.
“It is stronger than hemp”, wrote Ibn Battuta, “and is used to sew together the planks of Sindhi and Yemeni dhows, for this sea abounds in reefs, and if the planks were fastened with iron nails, they would break into pieces when the vessel hit a rock. The coir gives the boat greater elasticity, so that it doesn’t break up.”
On December 16, 1887, the Sultan of the Maldives signed a contract with the British Governor of Ceylon turning the Maldives into a British protected state, thus giving up the islands’ sovereignty in matters of foreign policy, but retaining internal self-government. The British government promised military protection and non-interference in local administration in exchange for an annual tribute. The status of the islands was akin to other British protectorates in the Indian Ocean region, including Zanzibar and the Trucial States.
The first stamps used in the islands were overprinted stamps of Ceylon issued on September 9, 1906 (Scott #1-6). When those ran out, un-overprinted stamps of Ceylon were used until the first stamps inscribed MALDIVES were issued on May 15, 1909 (Scott #7-10), the stamps portraying the minaret of Juma Mosque near Malé. These were redrawn and issued in new colors and denominations in 1933 (Scott #11-19). The definitives issued December 24, 1950, portraying a palm tree and seascape with a dhow, were the first to be inscribed MALDIVES ISLANDS (Scott #20-28).
In 1957, the British established an air base, RAF Gan, in the strategic southernmost atoll of Addu, paying £2000 a year, employing hundreds of locals. This served as a staging post for British military flights to the Far East and Australia, replacing RAF Mauripur in Pakistan which had been relinquished in 1956. The base was closed in 1976 as part of the larger British withdrawal of permanently stationed forces ‘East of Suez’ initiated by Labour government of Harold Wilson.
In 1953, there was an abortive attempt to form a republic, but the sultanate survived. In 1959, objecting to Ibrahim Nasir’s centralism, the inhabitants of the three southernmost atolls protested against the government. They formed the United Suvadive Republic and elected Abdullah Afeef as president and chose Hithadhoo as capital of this republic.
In line with the broader British policy of decolonization on July 26, 1965, an agreement was signed on behalf of His Majesty the Sultan by Ibrahim Nasir Rannabandeyri Kilegefan, Prime Minister, and on behalf of Her Majesty The Queen by Sir Michael Walker, British Ambassador designate to the Maldive Islands, which ended the British responsibility for the defense and external affairs of the Maldives. The islands thus achieved full political independence, with the ceremony taking place at the British High Commissioner’s Residence in Colombo. After this, the sultanate continued for another three years under Muhammad Fareed Didi, who declared himself King rather than Sultan.
On November 15, 1967, a vote was taken in parliament to decide whether the Maldives should continue as a constitutional monarchy or become a republic. Of the 44 members of parliament, forty voted in favor of a republic. On March 15, 1968, a national referendum was held on the question, and 93.34% of those taking part voted in favor of establishing a republic. The republic was declared on November 11, 1968, thus ending the 853-year-old monarchy, which was replaced by a republic under the presidency of Ibrahim Nasir. As the King had held little real power, this was seen as a cosmetic change and required few alterations in the structures of government.
The final stamps inscribed MALDIVE ISLANDS was a set of four commemorating the Olympic Games in Mexico City, issued on October 12, 1968 (Scott #288-291). The first stamps to bear the name REPUBLIC OF MALDIVES were released on November 11, 1968 (Scott #292-293).
Tourism began to be developed on the archipelago by the beginning of the 1970s. The first resort in the Maldives was Kurumba Maldives which welcomed the first guests on October 3, 1972. The first accurate census was held in December 1977 and showed 142,832 persons residing in Maldives. Political infighting during the 1970s between Nasir’s faction and other political figures led to the 1975 arrest and exile of elected prime minister Ahmed Zaki to a remote atoll. Economic decline followed the closure of the British airfield at Gan and the collapse of the market for dried fish, an important export. With support for his administration faltering, Nasir fled to Singapore in 1978, with millions of dollars from the treasury.
Maumoon Abdul Gayoom began his 30-year role as President in 1978, winning six consecutive elections without opposition. His election was seen as ushering in a period of political stability and economic development in view of Gayoom’s priority to develop the poorer islands. Tourism flourished and increased foreign contact spurred development. However, Gayoom’s rule was controversial, with some critics saying Gayoom was an autocrat who quelled dissent by limiting freedoms and political favoritism.
A series of coup attempts (in 1980, 1983, and 1988) by Nasir supporters and business interests tried to topple the government without success. While the first two attempts met with little success, the 1988 coup attempt involved a roughly 80-person mercenary force of the PLOTE Tamil militant group who seized the airport and caused Gayoom to flee from house to house until the intervention of 1600 Indian troops airlifted into Malé restored order.
A November 1988 coup was headed by Muhammadu Ibrahim Lutfee, a small-businessman. On the night of November 3, 1988, the Indian Air Force airlifted a parachute battalion group from Agra and flew them over 1,200 miles (2,000 km) to the Maldives. The Indian paratroopers landed at Hulule and secured the airfield and restored the government rule at Malé within hours. The brief, bloodless operation, labelled Operation Cactus, also involved the Indian Navy.
On December 26, 2004, following an earthquake off the coast of Indonesia, the Maldives were devastated by a tsunami. Only nine islands were reported to have escaped any flooding, while fifty-seven islands faced serious damage to critical infrastructure, fourteen islands had to be totally evacuated, and six islands were destroyed. A further twenty-one resort islands were forced to close because of serious damage. The total damage was estimated at more than US$400 million, or some 62% of the GDP. One hundred and two Maldivians and six foreigners reportedly died in the tsunami. The destructive impact of the waves on the low-lying islands was mitigated by the fact there was no continental shelf or land mass upon which the waves could gain height. The tallest waves were reported to be 14 feet (4.3 meters) high.
During the later part of Gayoom’s rule, independent political movements emerged in Maldives, which challenged the then-ruling Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (Maldivian People’s Party) and demanded democratic reform. The dissident journalist Mohamed Nasheed rose to challenge the autocratic rule of Gayoom. Nasheed was imprisoned a total of 16 times under Gayoom’s rule. Persisting in his activism, he founded the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) in 2003 while in exile. His activism, as well as civil unrest that year, pressured Gayoom into allowing for gradual political reforms.
These movements brought about significant change in political structure. In 2008, a new constitution was approved and the first direct presidential elections occurred, which were won by Mohamed Nasheed and Mohammed Waheed Hassan (as Vice-President) in the second round. The 2009 parliamentary election saw the Maldivian Democratic Party of President Nasheed receive the most votes with 30.81%, gaining 26 seats, although the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party, with 24.62% of the vote, received the most seats (28).
The government of President Mohamed Nasheed faced many challenges, including the huge debts left by the previous government, the economic downturn following the 2004 tsunami, overspending (by means of overprinting of local currency rufiyaa) during his regime, unemployment, corruption, and increasing drug use.
Taxation on goods was imposed for the first time in the country, and import duties were reduced in many goods and services. Social welfare benefits were given to those above 65 years of age, single parents, and those with special needs. On November 10, 2008, Nasheed announced an intent to create a sovereign wealth fund with money earned from tourism that could be used to purchase land elsewhere for the Maldives people to relocate should rising sea levels due to climate change inundate the country. The government reportedly considered locations in Sri Lanka and India due to cultural and climate similarities, and as far away as Australia.
On December 23, 2011, the opposition held a mass symposium with as many as 20,000 people in the name of protecting Islam, which they believed Nasheed’s government was unable to maintain in the country. The mass event became the foundation of a campaign that brought about social unrest within the capital city.
On January 16, 2012, the Maldives military, on orders from the interior ministry, unconstitutionally arrested Judge Abdulla Mohamed, the chief justice of the Maldives Criminal Court, on charges he was blocking the prosecution of corruption and human rights cases against allies of former President Gayoom. On February 7, Nasheed ordered the police and army to subdue the anti-government protesters and allegedly told them to use force against the public. Police came out to protest against the government instead.
President Mohamed Nasheed resigned on February 7, 2012, by letter, and followed that with a televised public address informing Maldivians of his resignation. Later Nasheed told foreign media that he was deposed by a military coup led by President Waheed. There have been disputes over exactly what happened that day. Nasheed’s vice president, Mohammed Waheed Hassan, was sworn in as President in accordance with the Constitution at the Peoples majlis in front of the Chief Justice.
Many countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, were quick to abandon Nasheed, instead endorsing his successor. The United States backtracked in late 2012 in response to widespread criticism. On February 23, 2012, the Commonwealth suspended the Maldives from its democracy and human rights watchdog while the ousting was being investigated, and backed Nasheed’s call for elections before the end of 2012. On October 8, Nasheed was arrested after failing to appear in court to face charges that he ordered the illegal arrest of a judge while in office. However, his supporters claim that this detention was politically motivated in order to prevent him from campaigning for the 2013 presidential elections. He was convicted in March 2013 under the country’s terrorism laws for ordering the arrest of an allegedly corrupt judge in 2012 and jailed for 13 years.
The elections in late 2013 were highly contested. Former president Mohammed Nasheed won the most votes in the first round. Contrary to the assessment of international election observers, the Supreme Court cited irregularities and annulled it. In the end, the opposition combined to gain a majority. Abdulla Yameen, half-brother of the former president Gayoom, assumed the presidency.
Yameen implemented a foreign policy shift towards increased engagement with China, establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries. Yameen employed Islam as a tool of identity politics, framing religious mobilization as the solution to perceived Western attempts to undermine Maldivian national sovereignty. Yameen’s policy of connecting Islam with anti-Western rhetoric represented a new development.
On September 28, 2015, there was an assassination attempt on President Abdulla Yameen as he was returning from Saudi Arabia after the haj pilgrimage. As his speedboat was docking at Male there was an explosion on board. Amid screams, the right door of the boat fell on the jetty and there was heavy smoke. Three people were injured, including his wife, but the President managed to escape unhurt.
In a probe of the explosion targeting president, on October 24, 2015, Maldives vice president Ahmed Adheeb was arrested at the airport upon his return from a conference in China. Seventeen of Adheeb’s supporters were also arrested for “public order offences”. The government instituted a broader crackdown against political dissent. Though the popular image of the Maldives is that of a holiday paradise, its radicalized youths are enlisting in significant numbers to fight for Islamic State militants in the Middle East.
On November 5, 2015, as per the State of Emergency bill made by the President, the people’s Majlis decided to rush the process for the removal of Vice president Ahmed Adeeb by a no confidence vote that was submitted by PPM Parliament than the originally intended period. As a result, the Majlis passed the no confidence vote with a majority of 61 members favoring it, removing Adeeb from the post of Vice President in the process.
In October 2016, the Maldives announced its withdrawal from the British Commonwealth in protest at allegations of human rights abuse and failing democracy. The Maldives enjoys close ties with Commonwealth members Seychelles and Mauritius.
The Maldives issued a set of eight stamps on April 27, 1978, portraying various watercraft (Scott #735-742). Additionally, a souvenir sheet of two (Scott #742a) was released containing a copy of the 4-rufiyaa high value (Scott #742) and a 1-rufiyaa stamp utilizing the design of the 2-larees denomination (Scott #736). All were printed by Format International Security Printers Ltd. using the lithography process and perforated 14½. Following the liquidation of Format Printers in 1988, a number of perforated and imperforate proofs came onto the market as well as full uncut press sheets.
The 1-larees stamp in the set portrays a small Phoenician ship. Famous for their mastery of ancient maritime navigation and shipbuilding, the Phoenicians were likely the first to survey the Mediterranean Sea, creating the beginning of the modern field of geography, and they were the first Mediterranean people to venture past the Strait of Gibraltar into the Atlantic Ocean. Their ships were designed and built with the best techniques available.
Phoenicia (from the Greek Φοινίκη — Phoiníkē, meaning either “land of palm trees” or “purple country”) was an ancient Semitic thalassocratic civilization situated on the East Mediterranean coastal part of the Fertile Crescent, on the coastline of what is now Lebanon, Israel, Gaza, Syria and south west Turkey, though some colonies later reached the Western Mediterranean and even the Atlantic Ocean, the most famous being Carthage. The enterprising, sea-based Phoenician civilization spread across the Mediterranean between 1500 BC and 300 BC.
The Phoenicians were the first state-level society to make extensive use of alphabets. The Phoenician alphabet is in fact generally held to be one of the major ancestors of all modern alphabets. By their maritime trade, the Phoenicians spread the use of the alphabet to Anatolia, North Africa, and Europe, where it was adopted by the Greeks, who in turn transmitted it to the Romans. The Phoenicians were also excellent glass makers, and produced rare purple dyes and various other luxury goods for trade throughout the Mediterranean world. Given the demand for their trade goods, the Phoenicians became adept in the maritime arts, and are often noted in ancient histories as masters of trade and shipbuilding.
The Phoenicians built two major types of ships. Trading ships known as gauloi, or “round ships,” were built with rounded hulls and curved sterns. The gauloi had a giant rectangular sail in its center, which hung from a yard and could turn to catch the wind. It used an oar-like blade, attached to the port (left) side of the ship, to steer. Storage, as well as space for the crew, was near the rear of the ship in the quarterdeck. Phoenician warships were slightly different; they were longer and narrower than cargo ships, in order to hold large numbers of people. The Phoenician warship carried two sails and coverings on the deck to hide officers. At the bow (front) of the ship was the forecastle, an area that was used by bowmen or catapults during battle. The military ship was equipped with a “rostrum,” a bronze tip fitted on the bow of the vessel in order to ram other ships.
Phoenician ships were decorated with various carvings and paintings. These included eyes that were intended to help the ship “see” and to frighten enemies, as well as horses’ heads to honor their god of the sea, Yamm. Phoenician-style ships were so advanced that they were even used after their empire had faded. Both the Greeks and the Romans used similar designs in their own fleets. Not only did the Phoenicians design great ships, but they also created many new navigational tools. These innovations helped the Phoenicians to maintain their sea power for centuries.