Qatar - Al Zubara

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In his book Looking for Dilmun Geoffrey Bibby, among the first archaeologists to visit Qatar in the 1950s, wrote of Al Zubara, “It was eerie to walk between the crumbled walls... Feet sank in the sand that choked rooms and streets.”


By the time I arrived in Qatar some 30 years later, the sand had completed what it began. Little trace of this once-populous town remained except lines of rubble indicating the walls of alleyways, and mounds littered with fragments of blue-and-white Chinese pottery and oyster shells.

The shells gave a clue as to why the settlement was there at all. Walking over the ruins of the ghost town, the silence broken only by the haunting cries of seabirds, it took an effort to imagine that a thriving community had occupied this barren and waterless corner of the peninsula. But Al Zubara lies on an embracing, sheltered bay, a haven for ships.

Archaeologists had begun work here and there on the 100-hectare site, uncovering groups of courtyard dwellings known as the North and South Houses, and later a row of small shops and industrial workshops beside the shore. But amid the acres of sandy rubble beside the sparkling blue waters of the bay, it was difficult to believe the streets had once been thronged with busy folk, or in the darker side of Al Zubara’s history – the savage attacks that left the town ablaze, and women and children screaming as the raiders yelled and the thatched roofs burned, the mud walls blackening and crumbling in the heat. Yet the dark, ashy layers in the archaeologists’ trenches bore mute testimony to these violent events.

Al Zubara was one of a number of new settlements that sprang up in the 18th century to feed an insatiable international appetite for pearls. Pearl fishing had begun in the Arabian Gulf at least 7,000 years ago. In the medieval period kings, queens, and the nobility in Europe, Persia, and India prized ‘Orient pearls’ as they were known in Europe, thickly sewn onto rich velvet garments, festooned in hair and around turbans, or worn on great ropes around the neck. But in the 18th century the demand from Europe, Asia, and later the United States for pearls reached such a peak that by the beginning of the 20th century around 4,000 boats were working the pearl banks up and down the Gulf, carrying some 74,000 men. In Qatar, records show that almost every able-bodied man was involved in pearl fishing.

Along with the money that pearls brought came trade. Ships brought luxury goods to Al Zubara. Archaeologists have found gold jewellery, fragments of fine Oriental porcelain, heavy silver coins from Iran and India, and trading tokens, commonly used in place of coinage for international trade, from places as far away as East Africa.

In the early decades of the 20th century everything ended. A combination of world market forces and the development of the cultured pearl spelt doom for the pearl fishers. The pearling and trading settlements in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates stagnated and emptied as people sought a living elsewhere. When oil was discovered these became the new capitals, springing to life again with the rush of a sudden golden bonanza, leaving little thought for the past.

But not Al Zubara. One of the brightest and busiest pearling and trading ports in its day, Al Zubara remained frozen in time, abandoned by the beginning of the 20th century to decay and to be buried by the sand borne on the ocean winds. This was not only because of the devastating attack in 1811, by forces from Muscat, that reduced it to a third of its original size. The town had been built on barren sabkha – salty sand – with no nearby water source, and the townsfolk had always had to fetch water from wells at Murair, some distance inland, where the precious supply was guarded by a fort built in 1768. But gradually this water became too saline to use, and eventually the people simply packed up and left.

Now, once again, Al Zubara is a hive of activity, as scores of archaeologists from the Qatar Islamic Archaeology and Heritage (QIAH) Project, run by the University of Copenhagen under the auspices of the Qatar Museums Authority, gradually uncover the walls, workshops, homes, and palaces of the old town. I toured the excavations with director Dr Alan Walmsley, a Kiwi who has worked on projects in the Middle East for more than 30 years.

He explained that the 18th-century town had a planned layout, with narrow lanes running down to the sea. Houses were built of a shelly stone known as beach rock, or of locally sourced limestone. A strong wall surrounded it, with a ledge on the inside on which defenders stood to fire at invaders from the land.

“One of the most remarkable sites is that of the fortified complex we call the ‘palace’,” says Alan. “It’s a complex conglomeration of structures surrounding nine interlinked courtyards, with large square buildings and towers of plastered limestone. Some were living quarters and had floors covered with gypsum plaster or small shells. Others were used for storage, and there is evidence of manufacturing areas.

“We’ve examined the contents of a nearby mound containing domestic waste,” he continues, “and it shows that the ‘palace’ inhabitants enjoyed a high-protein diet. They ate meat more frequently than other citizens, who relied on fish as their main source of protein.”

Al Zubara has been designated a World Heritage Site because it is the only remaining example of an Arabian pearl-merchant town, and is an exceptional testimony to the pearling and trading tradition that sustained the region for many centuries.


My Al Zubara

Robert Carter

British archaeologist Dr Robert Carter teaches at the Qatar branch of UCL and knows more than anyone about how, for the last three centuries, pearl fishing was the number one economic activity in the Arabian Gulf. Author of a large, magnificently illustrated book on the subject, he says, “The discovery of a single pierced specimen on an early Neolithic site in Kuwait started me on my research.”

Sea of Pearls: Seven Thousand Years of the Industry that Shaped the Gulf, published by Arabian Publishing Ltd 2012


Hussain Alfardan

Nicknamed the ‘Pearl King’, prominent Qatari businessman Hussain Alfardan is world-renowned for his expert knowledge of pearls. Coming from a family of pearl merchants, his fabulous collection of natural Gulf pearls, which he sometimes lends to exhibitions, is widely famed. He says, “Pearls are as inseparable from my background as salt is from the sea.” Gulf pearls are no longer fished, but Alfardan buys necklaces of natural pearls, restrings them, and sells them again.
Alfardan Jewellery


Al Zubara Tours

The site is still under excavation and is not open to the public except by special arrangement with the museum authorities, but take a virtual tour of Al Zubara by visiting the website There’s information about the Qatar Islamic Archaeology and Heritage Project; virtual tours of the main excavated areas including the palace, fort and souq; interactive maps; news of the latest discoveries; and even a children’s corner where the kids can try their hand at reconstructing a pot from scattered pieces or challenge their friends to a traditional game of mancala.


Zubara Fort

Over the next three years, with sponsorship from Maersk Oil Qatar, Zubara Fort, built in 1938, will be developed into a visitor centre, with presentations on the fort’s history, the excavations, and the protection of the area’s fragile natural environment. It will contain exhibition spaces, a bookshop, and a projection room, and nearby will be an information pavilion for school visits. The QIAH team will be helping train teachers to enable them to create educational programmes featuring the history of Al Zubara.



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Cultured pearl and diamond earrings from the Tribal Deco collection.


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M/G Tasaki large necklace with 11–12mm white freshwater pearls and black rhodium-plated silver chains.


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