MURWAB AND THE GOLDEN AGE
An Early Qatar City
In the far north of Qatar lie the lonely ruins of the early Islamic city of Murwab.
Remote from any road, they are surrounded by rolling gravel plains, covered, when there is good rainfall, with a silvery-green blanket of waving grasses which spring up almost overnight. Butterflies and small birds dart above the lush vegetation, and colonies of spiny-tailed agama lizards enjoy the warm sunshine and feed on the abundant plants. Sky larks sing overhead, and ever- watchful pallid harriers circle high in the sky.
In former years the area was famous for its excellent grazing, and the Al Na'im people used to congregate in their tents in the winter and spring months with their flocks of sheep, goats and camels. But today only a few camels are to be seen, wandering here and there over the wide landscape.
The settlement of Murwab is the earliest of any size in Qatar, dating back to the 8th century AD. Among buildings excavated to date are two mosques, the oldest found on the peninsula, and two small forts, one of them built on top of an even earlier structure that had been destroyed by fire.
The forts are similar in design to Ummayid and Abbasid forts already known in Iran, Syria and Iraq, and the slightly later fort has been partially restored by the former Department of Museums and Antiquities. They were constructed of limestone blocks with a tower on each corner, a narrow entrance gate and a deep well inside the courtyard.
French archaeologist Dr Alexandrine Guerin from the University of Lyons in France began work at Murwab in 2007, having completed a survey the previous year. She and her colleagues returned in 2009 for another season of excavation. They have uncovered three areas of small rectangular buildings, some with plaster floors. The buildings lie along a 'street' running east-west. The houses along this street form three circular groupings, some of which were excavated by earlier archaeological teams, and there is also a cemetery.
"In one of the buildings we found a lot of pearl oyster shells and fishing and diving weights," commented Dr Guerin. "As well as being farmers, these people were also fishermen and pearl divers, and we hope to find more evidence of their activities." Small finds this year included sherds of glazed pottery and some beads.
Alexandrine Guerin is no stranger to Qatar, having spent three seasons, from 2003 -2005, excavating the small early 19th century fort near Bir Zekrit on the west coast peninsula of Ras Abrouq. She has a special link to Murwab, as she first worked there as a volunteer in the early 1980s and later wrote her MA thesis on the settlement.
The History of Murwab
Murwab dates to the Abbasid period of the 8th to 9th centuries, named after the caliphate of Baghdad, the second of the two great Sunni dynasties of the Arab Empire which overthrew the Ummayid caliphs, centred in Damascus, in 750 AD.
Baghdad became the new capital of the Arab Empire, and the centre of a world of unprecedented scientific and intellectual achievement. Astronomers, poets, philosophers, medical scientists and engineers all made Baghdad their home.
From its very beginnings the basis of Islamic civilisation was urban and business orientated, and the Abbasid period was its 'Golden Age' of expansion and trade. The port of Basra was constructed to handle the vast range of goods pouring into the region and being exported.
The Tales of the Arabian Nights [Alf Layla wa Layla in Arabic, literally '1,000 Nights and One Night'] were compiled during this period, including the stories of the merchant-adventurer, Sindbad the Sailor, whose boast was that he could turn a cargo worth 3,000 silver coins into one worth 10,000 golden coins. There is ample evidence that the inhabitants of Murwab shared in the affluent lifestyle resulting from such trade, in the form of the quantities of fine-quality pottery and glassware which litter the site.
Archaeologists began to work in Qatar around half a century ago, when the Danish Expedition arrived here, and one of the first sites they examined was Murwab. They excavated 12 buildings in 1958-9 including one of the two mosques found so far. They also excavated the two forts. A coin found deliberately hidden in one of the houses dated the site to the Abbasid period.
After them came a British expedition in 1972, led by the legendary archaeologist Beatrice de Cardi, now well into her nineties and still actively involved in discovering the past. Her team made a collection of pottery on the site and published it.
The French Archaeological Mission arrived in the 1970s and began work at Murwab in the 1980s, directed by Claire Hardy-Gilbert. Their survey revealed that there were at least 250 buildings on the site of Murwab, and a second mosque was excavated.
Dr Guerin pointed out that the presence of about 250 houses does not necessarily reflect the actual size of the population of Murwab.
"Many families would have occupied tents which would have been set up among the buildings," she explained. "Some were semi-nomadic, others would have stayed at Murwab all year. The tiny mosques are no indication of the number of people who worshipped there - people prayed on the open ground outside the mosques."
Today, all that is left of lonely Murwab are piles of weed-covered stones under a wide blue sky. But it is important, said Dr Guerin, to try to visualise it as it once was. "This place was full of people living their busy lives, children running and playing, sheep, goats and chickens wandering around, men and women laughing and talking."
Murwab poses many questions. One of them is why such an important centre, which may well have exercised control over inland trading routes, is not mentioned in any contemporary literature.
J G Lorimer, in his meticulously thorough Gazeteer of the Persian Gulf, published in 1908, makes no mention of Murwab, though he does mention the village of Al Numan which is not far away.
This suggests that Murwab had long been abandoned, even then, and that 19th century ceramics found on the site were left by bedouin camping among the homes of their ancestors.
Read more Articles about Qatar's History and Archeology
Frances Gillespie has contributed to several publications related to Qatar, is the author of Discovering Qatar and also writes regular feature articles for a national newspaper on the cultural heritage and natural history of the country. She is a former chairperson of the Qatar Natural History Group, and is still active on the committee.