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by Frances Gillespie


Seminar for Arabic Studies | Fort and Date Press at Ruwayqa | Zubara | Qatar National Historic Environment Record

Excavations at Zubara
A doorway in the recent excavations.

A programme of excavations at Zubara is ongoing, followed by a proposal to seek nomination as a World Heritage Site. 'This is an opportunity for urban archaeology to make a significant contribution to Qatar's history,' said Dr Tobias Richter, Deputy Director of the Qatar Islamic Archaeology and Heritage Project, a joint project between QMA and the University of Copenhagen, which has just completed two seasons of work on this huge site.

Exacavations by the Department of Antiquities in Qatar were conducted in the 1980s and 2002-2004, uncovering two housing complexes, a section of the perimeter fortifications, a souq area and an industrial complex beside the shore. The new excavations have revealed clear evidence of town planning, and three large courtyard houses with walls that screened the inner courtyard from the gaze of visitors, decorative architectural details, and several bathrooms. The overall impression is of a high standard of living enjoyed by the inhabitants.

A large construction is dubbed 'the palace compound' by the archaeologists. This fortified compound probably housed the ruling elite, and features decorated gypsum panels and date presses. Examination of the contents of a midden beside the 'palace' revealed that the inhabitants included a large proportion of meat in their diet.

A hearth excavated in the industrial areas.
Hearths in the industrial area.

'The settlement at Zubara did not consist only of permanent structures,' said Dr Richter, 'as there is evidence from the number of post holes that some of the people lived in traditional huts of woven palm leaves, and probably tents as well.' These may have been occupied by the families of the seasonal labourers who served as crew on the pearling dhows.

From the mid-18th to the early 20th century pearl fishing and the pearl trade was the single most important economic activity in the Arabian Gulf. Dr Richter observed, 'Zubara preserves what is perhaps the single most important town plan of a pearling settlement from this period, and provides a snapshot image of how the social and economic relations between different members of the community became physical realities.'

Pearling in Zubara

Pearl shells at Zubara
Pearl oyster and mother-of-pearl shells.

Pearling began in the Gulf around 7000 years ago but the period of greatest activity was the 18th to the 20th centuries. The imposition of a maritime truce by the British in 1820 largely put an end to the feuding between pearlers from different tribes and enabled them to concentrate on their work without fear of attack, and the decline of Safavid power ended taxation. This resulted in Arab regions being able to invest in more pearling ships, and the industry flourished as never before.

In the early years of the 20th century it was estimated that 74,000 men were directly engaged in pearling. With the exception of Manama all the main Gulf settlements – Zubara, Doha, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Julfar and others – came into existence directly through this expansion of the pearling trade, and in the mid 18th century Zubara was the largest pearling town in the entire Gulf region.

Related: Zubara Fort
Murwab and the Golden Age

Books on Qatar

Read a review or buy a copy of Discovering Qatar, by Frances Gillespie, Gulf Times journalist and former chair person of QNHG.