The small port of Barus, located on the north west coast of the province of North Sumatra facing the wide Indian Ocean, was once the main exporter of the world’s camphor and camphorwood. So much so that even until today the word camphor in bahasa Indonesia is known as Kapur Barus, meaning the chalk from Barus.
Today, though Barus is a sleepy inter-island port serving traditional boats carrying goods and merchandise, plying the seas to Nias in the Indian Ocean, Aceh to its north and West Sumatra and Minangkabau to its south. Gone are its heydays when ships from India, Arabia, Persia and China used to sail in droves to anchor here in search of its precious high quality camphor and other spices that were so sought after all across India and the Middle East.
Since the early centuries AD to around the 17th. Century, Barus was renowned for its camphor and camphorwood, which, unfortunately today, has all but disappeared. Its name was mentioned in many languages from Greek, Armenian, Arabic, Indian, Tamil, Chinese, Malay to Javanese. After the Arabs came the Srilankans, Yemeni, and then the Spaniards, the British and the Dutch.
It is no wonder, therefore, that you will find Barus a cosmopolitan port, where the original Batak population live in harmony with later settlers from Java, Minangkabau, China, India and Arabia.
Natural camphor comes from the camphor tree (cinnamonum camphora), which by the 13th century was used across India and the entire Muslim world. In Arabia it was used to flavor tea, as a spice in main dishes to desserts. Camphor was also used as medicine against swelling and inflammation, it was and still is used in essential oils for aromatherapy. In India it is used for incense, culinary spice, medicine, and insect repellent.
Camphor is a whitish, translucent, crystaline dry extracted ooze from the camphor tree. Camphor is an evergreen tree that grows to 20m or 30 m tall. Its leaves are glossy and waxy, and have a distinct smell of camphor.
Ancient stories mentioned that between 627-643 AD, merchants from Middle Eastern countries were wont to sail to Barus .
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Barus was the first entry gate from where Islam was spread across the Indonesian islands.
Other historic writings mention that the Sailendra Dynasty of Thailand once conquered Barus. Marco Polo and the legendrary Muslim historian, Ibn Batutah, were known to have also set foot on Barus.
As evidence of that golden age are the many old Islamic graves, such as the Mahligai tomb, the ancient site of Tuanku Pinago and the tomb of Tuanku Kinali, which are just a few of silent witnesses from those heydays long gone by. There is also an ancient site on Karang Island by the Barus coast, but one must wade through mangrove forests to reach it.
Among all these, the most visited is the tomb of Papan Tenggi . Located some 153 meters above sea level, this is a beautiful tomb on a hill with panoramic backdrop on the Indian Ocean. The tomb here is special which has a length of 9 meters long with a tombstone of 1.5 meters high (ws).