Settlements That Time Forgot: Qatar’s Al Zubarah Fort and Settlements

ImageAl Zubarah Fort is a testament to Qatar’s modest past. Reconnecting with simplicity, the small stone fort with its simple lines and four symmetric corner turrets, the once fortified structure tucked away in northwestern Qatar’s desert and coast overlooks a desolate, windswept landscape. Sprinkled nearby are abandoned villages cordoned off for future archaeological exploration.

Situated 105 km (65 miles) from Doha, Qatar’s capital city, and as part of a sun-scorched landscape, the fort is located within the boundaries of the ancient, deserted town of Zubarah. The original structure was constructed in this area due to Zubarah’s importance as a thriving pearl fishing and trading port positioned midway between the Strait of Hormuz and the west arm of the Persian Gulf.

Built upon the ancient ruins of another site, Zubarah Fort was commissioned by Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani in 1938 as a Coast Guard station and to guard against sea intruders. Transformed into a museum in the 1990s, it is currently undergoing a major renovation. A hallmark of the fort is the old cannon located outside the front gate.

Research indicates that the fort walls were constructed by blending overlapping chunks of limestone with a mortar and pestle mixture specifically designed for grinding mud. The protective compressed mud roof provided shade and coolness for its military occupants.

The fort has three corners each with massive circular towers used for defense, while the fourth rectangular tower was more for aesthetics. The original eight ground floor rooms accommodated the solders with a connecting external wood staircase to reach the upper floors and roof. It is typical of early Gulf fortifications.

As a project of the Qatar Islamic Archaeology and Heritage Project, current renovations are using traditional construction techniques and materials wherever possible to repair the cracked walls, replace rotted timbers, repair and strengthen the walkways, and install a new stairway in one of the corner towers. Project completion is sometime in 2013.

Zubarah Town History
Between 1775 and 1780, Persians were attacking Basra, Iraq forcing merchant families to flee the southern Iraqi city. Many of these families fled to Al Zubarah. The town grew and thrived until Omani forces attacked and burned it in 1811. After a period of abandonment, the town was rebuilt and resettled in the late 1820s. It was again destroyed in a siege in September 1878.

A large wall was built along the shoreline and defended by 22 semi-circular towers placed at regular intervals. Town access was limited to a few defended gateways from the landside or its harbor. There was no sea wall, just the stout fort that defended the main landing area on the beach. At its height, the town’s population was between 6,000 and 9,000 people.

Zubarah was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage “tentative list” in 2008, and since 2009, the site has been the subject of research and development as a protected heritage site. Archaeological excavations have uncovered the foundations of the city walls, revealing the bases of numerous watchtowers, residential dwellings, artifacts and evidence of some limited cottage industries.

Although the Zubarah town site is closed to the public while archaeological digs are ongoing, another abandoned town site – Ean Mohamed – was accessible.

ImageEan Mohamed
Abandoned villages along the coastline feature simple, one-room structures of mud brick or coral rock, roofed with mangrove poles once covered with a layer of palm-leaf matting and coated with mud, formerly the homes of fishermen and pearlers.

Officially known as Site No. 780402, no access or exploration was permitted, according to the large erected sign.  But with no one around in this part of the Qatar desert, Ean Mohamed begged to be “explored”, so I wandered around and through the abandoned site like a young child on a scavenger hunt.

There were no huge surprises; the palm frond roofs had long ago rotted away and the stone foundations were crumbling while those with cement foundations stood structurally sound. Most everything inside had either dirt floors or cracked cement floors and rocks. It didn’t appear as though any excavation had begun, which made for fun “exploration” of the desolate ghost town.

Wooden doors and woven roofs were long gone and debris strewn about the desert floor with indications of late night bonfires. I almost expected to discover evidence of squatters, but I did not.

The town site was surprisingly large with many structures still standing; not in crumbling stages, indicating that this abandoned town probably dates to the 20th century. The stone foundation structures bore a much earlier lineage.

The daylong excursion to Qatar’s northwestern portion of the country was interesting and time well spent. Although self-guided, it was fun to explore and imagine what life was like for these villagers prior to the discovery of oil and gas.

 

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