Located right on the border between the provinces of West and Central Java on the northern coastal plains of Java, the town of Cirebon is as yet not on the tourist route, yet in its heydays it was a kingdom to be reckoned with.
Today, Cirebon returns to the tourist map together with the other once powerful kingdoms on Java’s north coast from Banten (once known as Bantam) and Cirebon in the west to Semarang, Demak, Kudus in Central Java and on to Tuban all the way in East Java. This swathe of coastline is known as Daerah Pesisir, the northern Java coast, where for centuries merchants from China, India, Arabia and from other islands in the Indonesian archipelago used to converge to trade in precious Chinese porcelains and silks, Indian textiles, and exotic ware from Arabia and Europe, in exchange for agricultural produce, pepper, cloves, fresh water and more.
Because of this cosmopolitan nature, Cirebon is most interesting to visit because of its fusion and peaceful multi-nations acculturation of Sundanese and Javanese cultures with Chinese, Indian, Arab and European influences, brought about by centuries of international maritime trade. The palace buildings and Islamic graves are decorated with old Ming porcelain plates, its Batik art has strong Chinese influences, and mosques have strong Arabian influences.
Nowadays, this long coast is known as Pantura, where the highway that was once built by Dutch Governor General Daendels stretches from west to east and has now become a main commercial arterial road still very much in use even until today. It takes some 5 hours by car to reach Cirebon from Jakarta, or you can now take the popular tourist train to visit Cirebon.
In the 14th century, Cirebon was an outpost and port of the Sunda Pajajaran kingdom centered in the southern mountains of West Java. But on 2 April 1482, Sunan Gunung Jati of Cirebon cut the city’s vassalship from the Sunda Pajajaran kingdom and created the new royal house of Cirebon. Cirebon then became an important kingdom spreading the teachings of Islam across Java and the Indonesian islands.
Its leader, Syarif Hidayatullah, or Sunan Gunung Jati, was also one of the loved 9 Islamic missionaries known as Wali Songo – the Nine Saints. Until today, he is still very much venerated and pilgrims visit his grave regularly.
The name Cirebon, is said to derive from the word “caruban”, meaning a hub or cross road. Another interpretation is that it originates from the Javanese word “carub” which means a mixture, or in Sunda language meaning “river”. In its development it became Cirebon, meaning the river full of shrimps.
Today, due to its location, the town of Cirebon has become the fourth largest city on Java’s north coast after Jakarta, Surabaya and Semarang. Its industry and trade is thriving. Here is also located the cigarette factory of British American Tobacco (BAT).
A visit to Cirebon will take you back to 16th century commercial life, with its palaces, batik shops, and mosques and crowded markets. Besides, Cirebon also attracts through its many culinary favorites.