Zubarah (Arabic: الزبارة), also referred to as Al Zubarah or Az Zubarah, is a ruined, ancient town located on the northwestern coast of the Qatar peninsula in the Al Shamal municipality, about 65 miles from the capital Doha. It was founded by Shaikh Muhammed bin Khalifa, the founder father of Al Khalifa royal family of Bahrain, the main and principal Utub tribe in the first half of the eighteenth century. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013.

It 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 most extensive and best preserved examples of an 18th–19th century settlement in the region. The layout and urban fabric of the settlement has been preserved in a manner unlike any other settlements in the Persian Gulf, providing insight into the urban life, spatial organization, and the social and econ...Read more

Zubarah (Arabic: الزبارة), also referred to as Al Zubarah or Az Zubarah, is a ruined, ancient town located on the northwestern coast of the Qatar peninsula in the Al Shamal municipality, about 65 miles from the capital Doha. It was founded by Shaikh Muhammed bin Khalifa, the founder father of Al Khalifa royal family of Bahrain, the main and principal Utub tribe in the first half of the eighteenth century. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013.

It 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 most extensive and best preserved examples of an 18th–19th century settlement in the region. The layout and urban fabric of the settlement has been preserved in a manner unlike any other settlements in the Persian Gulf, providing insight into the urban life, spatial organization, and the social and economic history of the Persian 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, Qal'at Murair (Murair fort), and the more recent Zubarah Fort.

Early history

Zubarah, derived from the Arabic word for 'sand mounds', was presumably given its name due its abundance of sand and stony hillocks.[1] During the early Islamic period, trade and commerce boomed in northern Qatar. Settlements began to appear on the coast, primarily between the towns of Zubarah and Umm Al Maa. A village dating back to the Islamic period was discovered near the town.[2]

Between September 1627 and April 1628, a Portuguese naval squadron led by D. Goncalo da Silveira set a number of neighboring coastal villages ablaze. Zubarah's settlement and growth during this period is attributed to the dislodging of people from these adjacent settlements.[3]

Arrival of Al Khalifa of Utub tribe

There remains some uncertainty over the earliest mention of Zubarah in written documents. Qatar's Memorial, a 1986 Arabic history book, alleges that a functional self-governing town existed before the arrival of the Utub.[4][5] It supported this claim by invoking two purported historical documents, but they were later discovered to be forgeries produced by Qatar in an attempt to gain leverage over Bahrain in their long-standing dispute over the sovereignty of the town.[4]

Zubarah was founded and ruled by the Al Khalifa branch of Utub tribe,[6][7][8][9][10] whom have migrated from Kuwait to Zubarah in 1732,[11] helping to build a large town characterized by a safe harbour. It soon emerged as one of the principal emporiums and pearl trading centres of the Persian Gulf.[12][13][14]

Al Khalifa rule of Zubarah  Ruins in Zubarah.

The Al Khalifa, migrated from Kuwait and settled at Zubarah in 1732,[11] founded and ruled the town of Zubarah,[6][7][8][9][10] and its port making it one of the most important port and pearl trading centers in the Persian Gulf in the 18th century. They also expanded their settlements, and constructed walls and a fort outside the town of Zubarah called Qal'at Murair (Murair Castle), the name is derived from a water spring in the Bani Sulaim area next to Madina Al Munawara in today's Saudi Arabia also known as Herat Bani Sulaim.

The Al Khalifa were the original dominant group controlling the town of Zubarah on the Qatar peninsula, they were a politically important group that moved backwards and forwards between Qatar and Bahrain,[15][16] originally the center of power of the Bani Utbah. The Al Bin Ali, another branch of Bani Utbah, were also known for their courage, persistence, and abundant wealth.[17]

Under their jurisdiction, the town developed trade links with India, Oman, Iraq and Kuwait. Many goods were transported through its ports, including dates, spices and metals.[18] The town soon became a favorite transit point for traders after the Utub abolished trade taxes. The town's prosperity further increased after the 1775–76 Persian occupation of Basra when merchants and other refugees fleeing from Basra settled in Zubarah.[19] Among these merchants was Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Husain ibn Rizq, who participated in the administration the town for a period. He had requested his personal biographer, Uthman ibn Sanad al-Basri, to come to the town with him in order to serve as the supreme judge. Al-Basri's biography, first published in 1813, provides the reader with much information pertaining to the development of the town under ibn Rizq's administration. He also makes note of several prominent scholars who migrated to the town, such as Abd al-Djalil al-Tabatabai.[20]

Inhabitants from nearby settlements, including wealthy merchants, migrated to Zubarah en masse during the 1770s due to the prevalence of attacks and the plague in the Persian Gulf region.[21] Ongoing wars between Bani Khalid and the Wahhabis was also a contributing factor that helped Al Zubara flourish into an important trade center.[22] This prominent position led to conflicts with adjacent port towns.[22]

1783 Al Khalifa expansion to Bahrain

A quarrel arose in 1782 between the inhabitants of Zubarah and Persian-ruled Bahrain. Zubarah natives traveled to Bahrain to buy some wood, but an altercation broke out and in the chaos an Utub sheikh's slave was killed. The Utub and other Arab tribes retaliated on 9 September by plundering and destroying Manama.[19] A battle was also fought on land between the Persians and the Arab tribes, in which both sides suffered casualties. The people of Zubarah returned to the mainland after three days with a seized Persian gallivat that had been used to collect annual treaty. On 1 October 1782, Ali Murad Khan ordered the sheikh of Bahrain to prepare a counter-attack against Zubarah and sent him reinforcements from the Persian mainland.[23]

About 2,000 Persian troops arrived in Bahrain by December 1782; they then attacked Zubarah on 17 May 1783. After suffering a defeat, the Persians retreated to their ships. An Utub naval fleet from Kuwait arrived in Bahrain the same day and set Manama ablaze. The Persian forces returned to the mainland to recruit troops for another attack, but their garrisons in Bahrain were ultimately overrun by the Utub.[23]

It is well known that the strategist of this battle was Shaikh Nasr Al-Madhkur, his sword fell into the hands of Salama Bin Saif Al Bin Ali after his army collapsed and his forces were defeated.[24]

The Alkhalifa conquered and expelled the Persians from Bahrain[25] after defeating them. After the invasion, the Al Khalifa migrated to Bahrain, with Zubarah remaining under their jurisdiction.[26] The Bani Utbah was already present at Bahrain at that time, settling there during summer season and purchasing date palm gardens.

 An old fort at Umm Al Maa, near Zubarah.

Despite the instability surrounding Zubarah after the siege of Zubarah and the conquest of Bahrain in 1783, it flourished as a trading centre and its port grew to be larger than that of Qatif's by 1790.[26] Al Zubarah developed into a center of Islamic education during this century.[27][28]

The town came under threat from 1780 onward due to the intermittent raids launched by the Wahhabi on the Bani Khalid strongholds in nearby al-Hasa.[29] The Wahhabi speculated that the population of Zubarah would conspire against the regime in Al-Hasa with the help of the Bani Khalid. They also believed that its residents practiced teachings contrary to the Wahhabi doctrine, and regarded the town as an important gateway to the Persian Gulf.[30] Saudi general Sulaiman ibn Ufaysan led a raid against the town in 1787. In 1792, a massive Wahhabi force conquered Al Hasa, forcing many refugees to flee to Zubarah.[29][31] Wahhabi forces besieged Zubarah and several neighboring settlements two years later to punish them for accommodating asylum seekers.[29] The local chieftains were allowed to continue carrying out administrative tasks but were required to pay a tax.[32]

Communal life

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.[33] An estimate of the population at the height of the town has been calculated to a maximum number of between 6,000 and 9,000 people.[34]

Most of the settler's dietary requirements were fulfilled from the consumption of livestock animals. Remnants of sheep, goat, birds, fish and gazelle were among the waste collected from the palatial compounds.[35] The wealthiest members of the community consumed mainly livestock, whereas the poorer residents relied on fish as their primary source of protein.[36] Social, economic and political activity was most likely centered in the souq.[35] The discovery of numerous ceramic tobacco pipe bowls indicate a reluctant acceptance and growing social addiction to smoking tobacco. Coffee pots, mainly of Chinese origin, were used by Zubarah's inhabitants to drink Arabic coffee.[35]

Later developments and decline (19th century)  Line drawing of a dhow. An 1824 map denoting "extensive ruins" in Zubarah.

The town was occupied by the Wahhabi in 1809.[1] After the Wahhabi amir was made aware of advancements by hostile Egyptian troops on the western frontier in 1811, he reduced his garrisons in Bahrain and Zubarah in order to re-position his troops. Said bin Sultan of Muscat capitalized on this opportunity and attacked the Wahhabi garrisons in the eastern peninsula. The Wahhabi fortification in Zubarah was set ablaze and the Al Khalifa were effectively returned to power.[37][38] Following the attack, the town was abandoned for a short period. However, later archaeological discoveries indicate that the town may have been partially abandoned shortly before the 1811 attack.[1]

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.[39] In one of the first descriptions of the salient towns in Qatar, Major Colebrook described Zubarah as such in 1820:[40]

"protected by a tower and occupied at present merely for the security of fishermen that frequent it. It has a Khor (creek) with three fathoms water which Buggalahs may enter."

Captain George Barnes Brucks also gave his own account of Zubarah just four years later. He stated:[41]

"(it was) a large town, now in ruins. It is situated in a bay, and has been, before it was destroyed, a place of considerable trade."

Zubarah was eventually resettled in the late 1820s. It remained a pearl fishing community, but on a significantly smaller scale than previously.[37] The reconstructed town barely covered 20% of its predecessor. A new town wall was constructed much closer to the shore than the earlier town wall. 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 on a smaller scale and more irregular in their shape. Additionally, evidence of decorated plaster known from earlier buildings were not found in the newly constructed buildings.[42]

In 1868, the Al Khalifa launched a major naval attack on the eastern portion of Qatar. In the aftermath of this attack, a sovereignty treaty was signed between the Al Thani and the British, uniting the entire Qatari Peninsula under the leadership of the Al Thani. Nearly all of the authority that the Al Khalifa held in Zubarah was diminished, with the exception of informal treaties they had signed with a few local tribes.[43]

Al Khalifa contention  A map produced in 1920 to illustrate the dispute over the sovereignty of Zubarah.

On 16 August 1873, assistant political resident Charles Grant falsely reported that the Ottomans had sent a contingent of 100 troops under the command of Hossein Effendi from Qatif to Zubarah. This report incensed the emir of Bahrain, as he had previously signed a treaty with the Naim tribe residing in Zubarah in which they agreed be his subjects, and the report implied that the Ottomans were encroaching on his territory. Upon being questioned by the emir, Grant referred him to political resident Edward Ross. Ross informed the sheikh that he believed he had no right to protect tribes residing in Qatar.[44] In September, the emir reiterated his sovereignty over the town and the Kubaisi and naim tribe. Grant replied by arguing that there was no special mention of the Kubaisi and naim or Zubarah in any British treaties signed with Bahrain. A government official agreed with his views and concurred "that it was desirable that the Chief of Bahrain should, as far as practicable abstain from interfering in complications on the mainland."[45]

The Al Khalifa witnessed another opportunity to renew their claim on the town in 1874 after a Bahraini opposition leader named Nasir bin Mubarak moved to Qatar. They believed that Mubarak, with the assistance of Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani, would attack the Kunaisi,s living in Zubarah as a prelude to an invasion of Bahrain. As a result, a body of Bahraini reinforcements were sent to Zubarah, much to the disapproval of the British who suggested that the emir was involving himself in complications. Edward Ross made it apparent that a government council decision advised the sheikh that he should not interfere in the affairs of Qatar.[46] However, the Al Khalifa remained in frequent contact with the Naim, drafting 100 members of the tribe in their army and offering them financial assistance.[47]

 Ruins in Zubarah on a cloudy day.

In September 1878, a number of Zubarans were involved in an act of piracy on a passing boat which resulted in the death of four people. Political resident Edward Ross demanded that the Ottoman authorities punish the townspeople for the crime, and extended an offer of British naval assistance. He held a meeting with wāli Abdullah Pasha in Basra to finalize the deal. Shortly after the British-Ottoman meeting, Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani and Nasir bin Mubarak attacked Zubarah with a force of 2,000 armed men. By 22 October, Jassim bin Mohammed's army, having sacked the town, now surrounded Murair Fort, which was fortified by 500 members of the Kubaisi tribe. The Kubaisi eventually surrendered to Jassim bin Mohammed's forces on unfavorable terms and most of the Zubarah's residents were relocated to Doha.[48][49] The incident aggravated the ruler of Bahrain due to his treaty with the Kubaisi tribe. There were reports in 1888 that Jassim intended to restore the city so that it could serve as a base for his son-in-law to attack Bahrain, but he renounced his plans after being warned by the British.[50]

Re-settlement of Al Bin Ali at Zubarah in 1895

At the request of Jassim bin Mohammed, several members of the Al Bin Ali, an Utub tribe, relocated from Bahrain to Zubarah in 1895 after renouncing their allegiance to the Bahraini sheikh. The Bahraini sheikh, fearful that Jassim bin Mohammed was preparing to launch an invasion, issued a warning to him and informed the political resident in Bahrain of the dispute. Upon being made aware of the proceedings, the British requested the Ottomans, who had been acting in concert with Jassim bin Mohammed, to abort the settlement. Much to the indignation of the Ottomans, the British sent a naval ship to Zubarah shortly after and seized seven of the Al Bin Ali's boats after the tribe's leader refused to comply with their directive. The Ottoman governor of Zubarah, under the belief that the British were infringing on Ottoman dominion, relayed the events to the Ottoman Porte who began assembling a large army near Qatif. Jassim bin Mohammed also congregated a large number of boats near the coast.[51] Subsequently, the governor of Zubarah declared Bahrain as Ottoman territory and threatened that the Porte would provide military support to Qatari tribes who were preparing to launch a naval invasion. This invoked a harsh reprisal from Britain, who, after issuing a written notice, opened fire on Zubarah's port, destroying 44 dhows. The incursion and subsequent Ottoman retreat prompted Jassim bin Mohammed and his army to surrender on unfavorable terms in which he was instructed to hoist the Trucial flag at Zubarah.[52] He was also ordered to pay 30,000 rupees.[53]

Abandonment (20th and 21st century)  Aerial photograph of Zubarah in 1937. A welcome sign in Zubarah.

With its population already depleted, much of the remaining population migrated to other regions in Qatar in the early 20th century due to the inadequate water supply in the town.[36]

J.G. Lorimer's Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf gives the following account of Zubarah in 1908:

"A ruined and deserted town on the west side of the Qatar Promontory, about 5 miles south of Khor Hassan. It stands at the foot of a deep bay of the same name, of which the western point is Ras 'Ashairiq and which contains a small island, also called Zubarah . The town was formerly the stronghold of the Al Khalifah ruling family of Bahrain : its site is still frequented by the Na'im of Bahrain and Qatar. The town was walled and some 10 or 12 forts stood within a radius of 7 miles round it, among them Faraihah, Halwan, Lisha, 'Ain Muhammad, Qal'at Murair, Rakaiyat, Umm-ash-Shuwail and Thaghab [...]. All of these are now ruinous and deserted, except Thaghab, which the people of Khor Hassan visit to draw water. Murair is said to have been connected with the sea by a creek which enabled sailing boats to discharge their cargoes at its gate, but the inlet is now silted up with sand."[54]

In 1937, a conflict broke out between Qatari loyalists and the Naim tribe who had defected to Bahrain, precipitating Bahrain's subsequent territorial claims to Zubarah. A recent proposal that Zubarah become an oil terminal was a contributing factor in the conflict.[55] Qatar's emir, Abdullah bin Jassim, referred to the Bahraini claim on Zubarah as "imaginary" and "not based on logic".[56] He also alleged that Bahrain provided assistance to the Naim in the form of arms and finances.[57] That year, in the aftermath of the conflict and subsequent out-migration, Abdullah bin Jassim commenced the construction of Zubarah Fort to compensate for the reduced garrison. It was completed in 1938.[58] Qal'at Murair, the hitherto principal fort of the town, was abandoned soon after Zubarah Fort was erected.[59]

In the mid 20th century, the political adviser in Bahrain, Charles Belgrave, reported that just a few Bedouin of the Nua‘imi (Naim) tribe lived, albeit nomadically, in the ruined town.[59] The area was gradually abandoned towards the end of the 20th century and was used primarily for beach camps.[60] The fort also housed a coast guard station until the 1980s.[61]

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