Al Zubarah Archaeological Site is a partly excavated fortified town that flourished due to pearling and trade.
The town on the coast of the Persian Gulf was newly built by Kuwaiti merchants and developed as a small independent state that flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was mostly destroyed after an attack by the Sultan of Oman in 1811 and subsequently were covered by desert sands. The area contains remains of the town walls, port, cemeteries, courtyard houses and fort.
Community Perspective: the fort is tiny and the excavations at the archeological site are mostly covered up again, but Els reported in Nov 2023 that it is worth taking the free guided tour along the site via the recently constructed boardwalk.
Map of Al ZubarahLoad map
I almost missed out on this one. I had pre-booked a visit for 10 a.m. and drove there easily in an hour from Doha through the barren lands of Qatar. But when I arrived I encountered a disconcerting scene, which reminded me of what I had a week before at the Turaif District in Saudi Arabia. VIPs were getting out of their limousines, as well as some army people with impressive uniforms. The security guard came up to me and said “Closed”. “But I have booked a ticket for today”, I replied (which is free and not really necessary so it seems, and now it became clear that – like at Turaif – it surely did not guarantee a visit). Another guy came up and said, “Come back in 2 hours”. So holding onto that glimmer of hope I did a detour to the town of Al Ruwais for some drinks and snacks, and to the rock art of Al Jassasiya.
During this drive, I received an e-mail from the ‘Qatar Museum Customer Services Center’ saying that “Al Zubarah Archaeological Site will be closed today”. The e-mail was sent at 10.42 while my booking was for 10.00, so that was not very helpful. Would the site indeed be closed off all day and had the guards been wrong? Two hours later I approached the gate again, and the scene had totally changed. The guards were joking around, the extra cushions and tables used for the private military function were being loaded into trucks. “Open!”.
The parking and visitor center is at the Zubarah Fort, but although it lies in the core zone it has nothing to do with the OUV of this site and only visiting this would hardly be countable. Another misunderstanding about the site is that is ancient. But it just looks that way because it is in total ruins. The city flourished due to the pearl trade between 1760 and 1811 and is therefore about a century older than Bahrain’s Muharraq.
After having a quick look at the fort I wandered off into the great field that lies next to it, that’s where the archaeological site is. The guard called me back and said that I was not allowed in on my own. I had to join a guide on a bus. Fortunately, they seem to go whenever there is interest and I was joined by an Indian family (the guide was Indian also, you’d be hard-pressed to meet a Qatari citizen). The bus had to drive to the far end of the field, close to the sea, where a boardwalk trail recently was added.
With a total length of 3.5km, it encaptures the most visible aspects of this site which has been only excavated for a small part. The town is fully encircled by a wall and some watch towers remain. We saw a large residential compound, where a family lived and which had its own walls and watch towers. Near the sea lies the former harbour (nothing left) and the Souq, where they found large numbers of date oil presses. There are more residential areas further along the trail, with some having decorative motifs in their plaster.
So, overall I think the boardwalk has improved the visitor experience significantly. I’d also like to thank the two guards who encouraged me to come back at a later time of the day so I did not miss out. The ‘Qatar Museum Customer Services Center’ needs to do something about its PR and also update the Zubarah website, where no mention is made of the possibility of doing a guided tour of the archaeological site.
Read more from Els Slots here.
I've visited Al Zubarah twice. The first time was around 2009/2010 when I was living in Qatar for roughly a year. At that time it was not yet a WHS. Substantial parts of that town were uncovered then and it was really fascinating to see the layout and the different houses. When I returned to Qatar in around 2013/2014 I visited again and found that most of the town was covered up again and there were just a few buildings visible, plus a reconstruction. I can imagine that people are disappointed about this as there really is not a lot to see. On the other hand I can understand why this was done: the town is built from beach rock, just right there from the water edge: tower shells and sand grains cemented together by the high calcium content sea water. Just the few rain showers per year would be enough to dissolve the calcite cement and make the town crumble. My high rating is both based on how I experienced this site the first time, and based on the effort taken on preserving this site.
Having explored the desert of Qatar extensively I have to say that there are many archaeological sites, including prehistoric rock carvings (they were fenced off in 2013), potentially pre-islamic and pre-Christian graves all across the desert, burial mounts that looks similar to the Dilmun mounts in Bahrain (though in a very poor state), and lots of other things.
On my most recent trip in June 2018, I rented a car and drove to Al Zubarah in northwestern Qatar to visit its fort and archaeological zone, the Persian Gulf nation’s only inscription on the list of World Heritage Sites. Most of the site, which flourished as a pearling center in the 18th and 19th centuries, is buried under hundreds of years of desert sand, so I didn’t spend too much time in the torrid afternoon exploring the little that has been excavated, instead spending most of my visit inside the fort, which offered a shaded respite.
Visited June 2017.
To get to Al Zubarah Fort and the visitors center you can take bus 100 from Doha Al Ghanim bus station; the first one leaves at 9:30 am and it takes 2 hours to get there. There’s not any admission fee and all you can see is the fort itself, the small but informative exposition and the adjacent Qal’at Murair Archaeological site. One hour is enough to see all that and catch a return bus at 12:30.
If you want to see the remains of al Zubarah city at the seashore, you have to prearrange the visit for the next day at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha or at Tourist Information at the airport.
Do not expect anything spectacular!
Qatar is not one of these countries that are full of highlights and in other countries Al Zubarah certainly would not count as a highlight. But in Qatar it’s the only WHS and I found the first sign on the highway 75! km from the site. It’s about an hour driving from Doha. The fort is tiny. I rather qualifies as a bigger house. It’s currently being renovated, but work is almost finished. The interior serves as visitor center with information regarding the site.
They also constructed a temporary exhibition close to the fort. I guess the plan to build a small museum there. The archeological site was closed for no reason. The only way to access it would be by car, as the territory is really big. But the pictures of the site showed me that I did not miss out on much. Despite the fort all was destroyed to the ground by the Sultan of Oman. Entrance is free.
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