Qalhat, an ancient city located in a northeastern region of the country of Oman, has an interesting history behind it. Located just north of Sur, the capital of the Ash Sharqiyah South Governorate, Qalhat is found on the Eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula. Its physical location made it a prime trading location during the Middle Ages (between the 11th and 15th centuries) due to its access to Arabia, India, East Africa, China, and Southwest Asia.
In recent years, many have questioned the reason for Qalhat’s significant downfall. Now abandoned, many of the remaining buildings have turned to rubble from centuries of weathering and erosion on their stone walls. Some buildings still remain, though significantly tattered, and they can be visited by tourists to the region interested in seeing such ancient remains. To understand why Qalhat fell to ruins, researchers turned to the evidence they had regarding Qalhat’s way of life when it was at its peak. What did a thriving Qalhat look like?
Overlooking the ruins of Qalhat. ( America / Adobe Stock)
A Day in the Life of a Qalhat Tradesman
Qalhat was so popular in the Middle Ages that it was seen by many as an essential stop in the Indian Ocean trade network, which was known for its valuable luxury goods. Wealthy leaders frequented these trade spots to find the best goods from all regions including silk, jewels, porcelain, ivory, incense, and spices. These trade spots were also heavily known for their religious discourse, as many missionaries from all religions came to these areas to convert the locals and debate with one another.
The remains found at modern-day Qalhat clearly illustrate its trade history. Of the buildings that still partially remain, architectural features include those of other regions and cultures, indicating that they were taught to local architects during trade. There was further evidence of trade in some ancient artifacts that were found, as analysis proved them to be from China and India. Other findings revealed trade involving home-grown produce, Arabian horses, foreign spices, and pearls.
Qalhat was especially populous since it was physically located in the middle of all of these regions trying to trade their best goods to one another. In particular, the spot was popular for African travellers, as it was one of the main trade spots to access Asian goods, which were perceived as much more valuable than the European goods at other locations. Most European goods such as pots, pans, and fur clothing were ultimately not needed in the sweltering climate of the Arabian Peninsula. Plus, most locals preferred ceramics, terra cotta, and porcelain for their crockery as they were seen as luxury goods.
Because of the significant amount of wealth in this trading region, locals always had to be on the lookout for trouble. Thieves of all sorts would frequently try to steal expensive goods to sell at a later date or at a different trade spot. In some areas of the Indian Ocean trade network, regions had even implemented a navy to protect important trade spots like Qalhat from pirates seeking to loot high-value cities. These navy systems were apparently quite effective, as there is no evidence so far revealing a successful Viking loot in Qalhat or its nearby cities until it was seized by Portugal in the 16 th century.
Qalhat was so popular in the Middle Ages that it was seen by many as an essential stop in the Indian Ocean trade network. ( Public domain )
Marco Polo at Qalhat
Qalhat received many famous visitors during its time of trade. In the 13th century, Marco Polo, a Venetian explorer, may have visited Qalhat. He describes the city (which he calls Calatu) in his memoir , The Travels of Marco Polo , which was written by Rustichello da Pisa. Rustichello wrote the book after being imprisoned with Marco Polo in Genoa, when Polo was captured by Genoans during their war with Venice. Mostly, he confirms that the city was known for trade and was a particularly important trade city at the time, though it is unclear whether he had visited the city himself or was simply sharing what others had told him.
Ibn Battuta, a famous Arab-Berber explorer from the 14th century, had once visited Qalhat as well. Known as “the Islamic Marco Polo,” he is recorded as the most-travelled explorer in pre-modern history, having explored over 73,000 miles including over 40 countries. He mentioned in his books that Qalhat had “fine bazaars and one of the most beautiful mosques.” He later specifies that one of the most beautiful buildings was a mausoleum built by Bibi Maryam in honor of her husband Baha al-Din Ayaz, who was one of the first kings of the Hormuz Empire. According to Battuta, Bibi Maryam became the ruler of Qalhat and Hormuz after her husband’s death, and she was later buried in the mausoleum.
Qalhat’s final known famous visitor was Zheng He, a famous Chinese mariner and explorer. Zheng He travelled far and wide across Southeast Asia, India, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf. He recorded his travels, during which he reports having visited Qalhat as well and possibly engaging in some trade in the city.
An Empire for the Ages
The trade city of Qalhat was also an important political factor during its time. Qalhat was known as the second city of the Kingdom of Ormus, which had been ruling since the 11 th century. The port city of Ormus has had several different nicknames over the years, but its most common is Hormuz. Because of Hormuz’s proximity to Qalhat, they often worked with one another in regards to regulating trade between the nearby regions. In the late 1200s, Hormuz was ruled by King Baha al-Din Ayaz and was relocated in 1301 to a nearby island due to Ilkhanid and Chaghataid competition in the original region.
The Hormuz Empire continued to grow in the following centuries. At its peak, it covered major areas across Arabia and Persia. The empire became known for its trade due to Qalhat’s popularity, and visitors would come from across countries and seas to see all of the rare goods that could be found at the trade port. Many refer to the region as an international emporium, and Europeans at the time saw it as a commercial hub that they simply could not thrive in.
Qalhat and its surrounding empire experienced several centuries of success in trade and rulers until the 16 th century. Because of its international success, the Portuguese Empire formed a plan to capture the Hormuz Empire and its cities for itself. In 1507, Afonso de Albuquerque, a Portuguese general, successfully captured Hormuz and surrounding cities including Qalhat. The region remained under Portuguese rule until 1622, when the Portuguese were exiled by the Persians.
Ruins of a Portuguese fort at Hormuz. ( gdefilip / Adobe Stock)
Cracks in the Foundation: Qalhat’s Downfall
By the time the Portuguese had captured Qalhat, it is said that the city was already in decline. Trade had begun to shift away from Qalhat and towards Muscat, another city in the Hormuz Empire that began to have a higher population than Qalhat. To this day, Muscat is known as the capital city of Oman and its most populated city.
Beyond population changes, it is suggested by geologists that part of the reason Qalhat could have eventually lost popularity as a trade city is because of its direct location on the Qalhat Fault. Because of this proximity, Qalhat may have experienced a significant number of earthquakes between the 11 th-15th centuries, which could have frightened away traders and tourists alike. These earthquakes would have not only been frightening, but would have also caused significant destruction to buildings and goods in the region, which would have needed significant repair over time. Changing locations was likely the easiest and cheapest solution to this issue.
It is believed that a combination of damage from earthquakes, population changes, and the invasion of the Portuguese ultimately led to Qalhat’s downfall. Any recovery that Qalhat could have potentially made was eliminated when the Portuguese captured the region and put all their focus in the most highly populous area, which would have been Hormuz at that time. Had the Portuguese never invaded the region, it is impossible to know whether trade would have started back up in Qalhat. Because of its earthquake history, it appears it likely would have been abandoned eventually anyways.
A Portuguese fort seen from the Port of Muscat. ( Vermeulen-Perdaen / Adobe Stock)
Deserted but Still (Somewhat) Standing
With the invasion of Portugal, Qalhat became fully abandoned. In the last several centuries, Qalhat as sat as it was in the 15 th century, with no care being provided to upkeep its buildings or walls. Currently, the only main building that remains is the mausoleum of Bibi Maryam, which though still standing, is missing its dome. As time as passed, the rest of the buildings have turned to rubble by erosion and weathering, and mudslides caused by more recent earthquakes have destroyed the port area itself.
Though almost none of the ancient city of Qalhat remains, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) listed Qalhat as a “tentative” candidate for protection in 1988 based on its cultural heritage. In 2018, Qalhat was officially named as a World Heritage site, which is described as an area with legal protection provided by UNESCO. Under this World Heritage protection, Qalhat is listed as a protected region on which construction or other destruction is not permitted. Nearby infrastructure developments have to ensure that no damage or major impact will befall on the protected city. Being chosen as a World Heritage site is also known to improve the surrounding community of these sites, as it tends to increase tourism and therefore improve the region’s economy.
Ruins of the 13th century tomb of Bibi Maryam at Qalhat. ( Kylie / Adobe Stock)
Tourists that visit Qalhat can see its still-standing stone walls from the edge of a nearby highway that was built before the 2018 World Heritage listing. This label as a World Heritage site will leave the city further untouchable, as any renovations or improvements to the still-standing remains will render it inauthentic and potentially destroy its cultural architecture. It is stated by UNESCO that any conservation intervention will be minimal to reduce the chances of ruining this authenticity. As time passes, it is likely that the Bibi Maryam mausoleum and the remaining walls will eventually crumble due to weathering as well as potential future destruction by the Qalhat Fault.
In the meantime, the fact that any of the buildings still remain after over nearly 1000 years is a testament to the architectural skills of the ancient inhabitants and tradesmen of Qalhat. While the site is currently closed for plans to preserve the city with increased tourism, visitors can still see it from afar if they are interested in setting eyes on it. If you ever find yourself in Oman, be sure to stop by this historic city and imagine the wealthy, thriving empire that once was.
Top image: Ancient City of Qalhat in Oman Source: derusu / Adobe Stock
By Lex Leigh
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