The famous Zubarah Fort found in Zubarah.
Geographical location of Zubarah.
Madinat ash Shamal in Qatar.
|Municipality||Madinat ash Shamal|
|• Total||4.6 km2 (1.8 sq mi)|
|• Land||4 km2 (2 sq mi)|
Zubarah (Arabic: الزبارة), also called Al Zubarah or Az Zubarah, is a deserted town located on the north western coast of the Qatar peninsula in the Madinat ash Shamal municipality, about 105 km from the Qatari capital of Doha. The town was founded by merchants from Kuwait in the mid 18th century.
Zubarah was once a successful center of global trade and pearl fishing positioned midway between the Strait of Hormuz and the west arm of the Persian Gulf. It is one of the largest and best preserved examples of an 18th-19th century merchant town in the Gulf. The entire layout and urban fabric of a settlement dating to this formative period in the region has been preserved as no other similar place in the Persian Gulf. Zubarah provides an important insight into urban life, spatial organization, and the social and economic history of the Gulf before the discovery of oil and gas in the 20th century.
Covering an area of circa 400 hectares (60 hectares inside the outer town wall), Zubarah is Qatar’s most substantial archaeological site. The site comprises the fortified town with a later inner and an earlier outer wall, a harbour, a sea canal, two screening walls, the fort of Murair, and the more recent Zubarah Fort.
- 1 History
- 2 Attractions
- 3 Tourism
- 4 Archaeology and conservation
- 5 Disputes over sovereignty
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 Further reading
- 9 External links
On June 22, 2013, UNESCO added the site to its World Heritage List. Sheikh Hassan Al-Thani, involved in major project on modernity in Qatar, such as Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art's collection, plays a key role in the conservation of Al Zubarah.
There remains some uncertainty over the earliest mention of Zubarah in written documents. Sources assert that people of the Utub tribe from Kuwait settled at Zubarah in the second half of the eighteenth century, possibly in 1776, building a large town characterized by a safe harbour, thereby creating one of the principal emporiums and pearl trading centres of the Persian Gulf in the later 18th Century.
The Early town - Late 18th century
The main phase of occupation at Zubarah spanned from c. 1760 to 1811 CE. This phase came to an end when forces loyal to the Sultan of Muscat capitalized on the opportunity to attack the Wahhabi garrisons in Bahrain and Zubarah and set Zubarah ablaze.
A large wall was then built in the late-18th-century town of Zubarah and its bay in a 2.5 km arc from shore to shore. The wall was defended by 22 semi-circular towers placed at regular intervals. Access to the town was limited to a few defended gateways from the landside, or via its harbour. There was no sea wall, but a stout fort defended the main landing area on the sandy beach.
Zubarah was at that time a well-organised town, with many of the streets running at right angles to one another and some neighbourhoods built according to a strict grid pattern. This layout suggests that the town was laid out and built as part of a major event, although seemingly constructed in closely dated stages.
An estimate of the population at the height of the town has been calculated to a maximum number of between 6000 and 9000 people.
Domestic architecture at Zubarah consisted mainly of courtyard houses, a traditional form of Arabic architecture which can be found throughout the Middle East. A series of small rooms were organized around a large central courtyard, where the majority of daily activity took place. Usually a portico opened out onto the courtyard on the south side, which offered shelter from the fierce summer sun. The houses of Zubarah were constructed from soft local stone, protected by a thick gypsum plaster coating. Features such as doorways and niches were decorated with geometric stucco designs. Access to the house units from the street was by a doorway and a bent corridor, which avoided unauthorized viewing into the living area of the household and sand blowing into the house.
A large number of date-presses (madbassat) are found in houses throughout the town. They are small rooms with ridged plastered floors sloping to one corner where a jar would have been placed. Dates were packed in sacks and placed on the floor with weights on top to squeeze out the date juice - a sweet sticky syrup (dibs). The jar would collect the syrup. And the syrup could now be eaten on its own or used in cooking.
The most impressive and most colossal of the building complexes measures 110 m x 100 m in size. This structure follows the same form as the domestic architecture seen elsewhere in Zubarah, but on a much grander scale. Nine interconnected compounds, each comprising a courtyard surrounded by a range of rooms, made up the interior of this structure. Plaster stucco decoration was used to embellish internal entrances and rooms. The discovery of internal staircases indicates that the compounds were multi-storeyed. The nine compounds of the complex were enclosed by a high circuit wall with circular towers at the four corners, each of which were capable of supporting a small cannon.
The size and visual dominance of the palatial compound suggests that it was occupied by a family of wealthy and powerful sheikhs who were community leaders in the social and economic life of the town.
Traces of what seems to be tent placements and/or palm-leaf and palm-matt huts found near the beach may be associated with transient members of the Zubaran society. It is likely that these interim dwellings housed the people who were the primary producers of Zubarah’s wealth: the pearl fishers and mariners who harvested the pearl banks each season.
A complex array of small storage rooms have been identified as part of the souq (market) of Zubarah. Additionally, the wide variety of trade objects that have been found in the rooms also points towards this interpretation of the area. The souq would have been the centre of the town and of its economy.
A brief instance after the foundation of Zubarah, two screening walls were constructed from the outer town wall toward Qal`at Murair. These two walls, oriented east-west, include round towers placed at regular intervals, which strengthened their defensive capabilities.
The screening walls likely served to secure the transportation of water from the wells inside Qal`at Murair to Zubarah. In the harsh, hot summers of the Persian Gulf, water was a most valuable and beneficial commodity. The walls also channeled general traffic to and fro the town over open salt flats.
Zubarah was primarily an emporium and pearling settlement that took advantage of its location near pearl beds, having a hefty natural and innate harbour and a central position on the Gulf routes. Its economy depended on the pearl diving season, which took place during the long summer months. Pearling would draw Bedouin from the interior of Qatar as well as the people from all over the Persian Gulf to dive, trade and safeguard the town from attack while the town’s men were at sea.
Boats from Zubarah would sail out to the pearl beds found all along the southern shore of the Persian Gulf, from Bahrain to the United Arab Emirates. The trips lasted several weeks at a time. Men would work in pairs to harvest mollusks potentially hiding pearls inside them. A man would dive for about a minute and the other remained on the ship to pull the diver back to safety with his harvest.
The archaeological evidence for pearling on site comes primarily from the tools used by the divers such as pearl boxes, the diving weights, and small measuring weights used during trading.
Until the introduction of the cultured pearl, and before the exploitation of oil and gas, the trade in pearls constituted the Persian Gulf’s most important industry, employing up to a third of the male population in the region. Zubarah, being one of the focal pearling and trading towns, has contributed to the geopolitical, social, and cultural trajectories of recent Gulf history, which shape the region today.
Ceramics, coins, and the remains of foodstuffs from the excavations attest to Zubarah’s far reaching trade and economic links in the late 18th century, with material deriving from eastern Asia, Iran, Turkey, Africa, Europe, and the Persian Gulf. Diving weights and other material culture show how closely the connection between the daily life in the town and the pearl fishing and trading were. The discovery of coffee cups and tobacco pipes in the excavations reveal the growing importance of these commodities all over the Persian Gulf during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The etching of a merchant’s dhow, the traditional wooden boat of Arabia, found incised into the plaster in a room of a courtyard building, shows how close people associated their daily life with long-distance maritime trade and commerce.
The Late town – 19th century
The attack on Zubarah in 1811 was followed by a short period of abandonment. Eventually, the town was resettled again in the late 1820s. Zubarah was still a pearl fishing community but on a lot smaller scale than previously.
This reconstructed town barely covered 20% of its predecessor. A new town wall was constructed much closer to the shore than the earlier town wall. It seems that this phase of Zubarah was not as organized in the layout of the streets and its buildings. Houses were still built in the traditional courtyard form, but in a smaller scale and more irregular in their shape. In addition, evidences of decorated plaster known from earlier buildings were not found.
From c. 1810 onwards, the British Empire became more influential in the Persian Gulf area, stationing political agents in various ports and cities to protect their trading routes. The British were ready to use their military force in this agenda, revealing that this was the case in the late 19th century when the British Royal Navy attacked Zubarah’s fleet of dhows, which contributed to Zubarah’s final decline.
20th and 21st century
In the mid 20th century, the Political Advisor in Bahrain, Charles Dalrymple Belgrave, reported that just a few Bedouin of the Nua‘imi tribe lived, on and off, in the ruined town, the ownership of which was disputed between the sheikhs of Bahrain and Qatar. The town was gradually abandoned. Qal’at Murair remained occupied until the construction of the Zubarah Fort was commenced and finished in 1938 by the 5th ruling emir of Qatar, Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani.
The planned Qatar–Bahrain Friendship Bridge, slated to be the longest fixed link in the world, will connect the northwest coast of Qatar near Zubarah with Bahrain, specifically, south of Manama. Its location several kilometres south of Zubarah is planned so as to have negligible impact on the heritage site. It is expected to be constructed by 2022.
Zubarah is well known for the fortress of 1938, which was officially named after the town. The Zubarah Fort follows a traditional concept with a square ground plan with sloping walls and corner towers. Three of the towers are round while the fourth, the south east tower, is rectangular; each is topped with curved-pointed crenellations, with the fourth as the most machicolated tower. The fort’s design recalls earlier features common in Arab and Gulf fortification architecture, but varies by being constructed on concrete foundations. It marks the transition from solely stone-built structures to cement-based one, albeit in a traditional design.
Originally, the fort was built as a base for the Qatari military and police to protect Qatar’s north-west coast as part of a series of forts along Qatar’s coastline. It was restored in 1987 with the removal of a number of much later auxiliary buildings erected to house the Qatari forces. After opening, the fort quickly became a major heritage attraction and, for a while, a local museum. Due to the unsuitable conditions in the fort for displaying and storing finds, the objects were relocated to Doha in 2010. As of 2011, The Qatar Museum Authority is conducting an on-going project of monitoring and restoration to ensure the upkeep of the fort. Work is expected to continue into 2013. During this time, parts of the fort may be closed to visitor access.
The Murair Fort, Qal`at Murair for short, 1.65 km east of the town of Zubarah, was built shortly after the town's settlement. The fort served to espouse Zubarah and especially entrenched the town’s primary fresh water source: groundwater reached by shallow wells. Within the fortification walls were a mosque, domestic buildings and at least one large well. Around the fort, several enclosures attest to the presence of fields, plantations or holding pens for animals, suggesting that this was also an agricultural settlement.
Zubarah was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage tentative list in 2008. Since 2009, the site has been the subject of research and development as a protected heritage site. This calls for visitors to show consideration for the on-going work. For protection most of the site is situated inside a fenced area and visitors have to pass a guard to enter the heritage town of Zubarah.
There are plans to construct a visitor’s centre near the fort. Until then, visitor facilities are sparse. At the parking lot next to the Zubarah fort an information stand provides an overview and introduction to the site, fort and town. New rest rooms are located nearby. Currently there are no refreshments available in the vicinity.
Archaeology and conservation
In March 1956 the site of Zubarah (Site no. A151) was included in the Danish Gulf Expeditions 1st Qatar preliminary reconnaissance lead by a team of archaeologists from Aarhus University and Moesgaard Museum. In 1962 Moesgaard Museum archaeologist Hans Jørgen Madsen returned to ruins of Zubarah and conducted further survey (Kapel 1967: 12 and map in Arabic text page 5).
The Qatar Museums Authority (QMA) and its predecessor carried out two excavation projects in Zubarah, with the first during the early 1980s, and the latter in 2002-2003. The excavations in the 1980s were the more comprehensive of the two.
In 2009, the QMA, jointly with the University of Copenhagen, launched the Qatar Islamic Archaeology and Heritage Project (QIAH), a ten-year research, conservation and heritage initiative, to investigate the archaeological site, preserve its fragile remains and work toward the presentation of the site to the public. The project is an initiative by the Qatar Museums Authority’s Chairperson H.E. Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa AlThani and Vice-Chairperson H.E. Sheikh Hassan bin Mohammad Al Thani.
The QIAH project has carried out a complete topographic survey of the site of Zubarah, adjacent Murair, and the Zubarah Fort. Archaeological excavations have been undertaken at Zubarah and Qal`at Murair, supported by landscape studies in the hinterland. Numerous sites belonging to different chronological periods have been identified and recorded, and exploratory excavations have been conducted at a number of important localities, especially Freiha and Fuwairit.
At Zubarah, a team from the University of Hamburg has recorded the architectural remains in great detail with a 3D scanner. To preserve the architectural remains, a restoration program has been launched using special, saline resistant mortar and plasters to maximise the visitor experience, while abiding by UNESCO heritage guidelines. The aim of the conservation work is to preserve the authenticity of the site, as well as to preserve areas that can be enjoyed by visitors to the site through, among other means, interactive displays on mobile devices.
Disputes over sovereignty
There have been historical claims made by both Bahrain and Qatar over Zubarah. The dispute reached a settlement in 1944 in a meeting mediated by the Saudis, in which Qatar recognized Bahrain's customary rights, such as grazing and visiting with no formalities necessary. However, Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani renewed tensions over sovereignty after the construction of a fort at Zubarah. These tensions were resolved in 1950 after Sheikh Ali Al Thani ascended to the throne.
In 1953, Bahrain again rescinded its claim over Zubarah. It sent a party of students and teachers to Zubarah who proceeded to write 'Bahrain' on the walls of Zubarah Fort. Furthermore, the Bahrain Education Department published maps which alleged its sovereignty over the entire northwest coast of Qatar. Sheikh Ali responded by occupying the fort in 1954 and added police in 1956.
Following the independence of Qatar in 1971 from the British Empire, Bahrain continued to dispute Qatari sovereignty over Zubarah until the case was settled in Qatar's favour with a ruling by the International Court of Justice in 2001.
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|Wikivoyage has a travel guide for Zubarah.|
Zubarah travel guide from Wikivoyage
- Photos of Zubarah Fort
- Excavations at Zubara
- University of Copenhagen, Qatar Islamic Archaeology and Heritage Project
- UNESCO's tentative list
- Al-Zubarah Pearl of the Past. A documentary from 2011
- 360 degrees panoramic virtual tour of the Al Zubarah fort
- Culture and Heritage under Qatar Museums Authority: Al Zubarah fort
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