The Ancient City of Qalhat was an important stop in the wider Indian Ocean trade network and the second city of the Kingdom of Hormuz.
Its archaeological remains include the Friday Mosque (Bibi Maryam), necropolises, residences and workshops.
Map of QalhatLoad map
Visit April 2018
Qalhat has been one of the surprises of 2018’s WHC session. It got inscribed, after a proposal to overturn the Referral advice by ICOMOS. I was in Oman last April and of course I was aware of the upcoming nomination. At the time though I decided to give it just a quick look, mostly because of the experiences at the site a week or two before by Martina & Ivan. They were not allowed to enter and the archaeological site seemed closed.
After staying overnight in the not too exciting city of Sur, I left my hotel at 7.30 the next morning. I had a hike on my agenda and needed to start before the heat got too bad. But unfortunately at 7 o'clock it felt already like being in a hot air oven. My planned hike was at Wadi al-Shab, about 25 kilometers north of Sur.
On the way there you will also pass the ruins of the ancient city of Qalhat. There is a small parking space at the highway (on the direction towards Muscat from Sur) that is a good vantage point to take pictures and have a good look at its setting. The only major thing that still survives from this trading town is the Bibi Maryam mausoleum. It is easy to spot from the highway, as well as a total overview of the smallish archaeological area that is near the coast.
Qalhat is linked to the history of the Kingdom of Hormuz, a rather unknown city-state that might have been the Dubai of its era. It controlled the Strait of Hormuz from the 10th-17th century. They developed Qalhat on the opposing Omani coast as a secondary city to control both sides of the entrance to the Persian Gulf. It was mostly destroyed by an earthquake in the late 15th century and further destroyed by ransacking Portuguese in 1507.
Qalhat at the time was known to the international community as Calha. It appears under that name in the historic atlas compiled and drawn by Abraham Ortelius from 1570. Calha was visited by both Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo on their respective travels, which attest to its prominent status in the 13th -14th centuries. Ibn Battuta noted that it had "fine bazaars and one of the most beautiful mosques." This seems to relate to a larger city than the space covered by the current archaeological site.
It’s easy to become cynical about a site of an obscure civilization and where apparently so little remains. A more up and close report of someone who managed to enter the site in 2011 shows that there is indeed more to it. He noticed a crypt, a cistern and smaller domed structures. He wonders about the Bibi Maryam mausoleum, whether it was a mausoleum indeed or the long lost Great Mosque (according to a comment to his post, the Mosque has been found closer to the coastline).
I hope the Omani authorities will further excavate the site and provide it with on site information panels or a small visitor center. From what I understood from the acceptance speech of the Omani delegate at the 2018 WHC session, it will eventually reopen to the public.
I visited this WHS in December 2020. Shortly after entering Oman on what was supposed to be a free SHORT stay visa and receiving the green light to roam freely without the need of quarantine, I drove from Muscat towards the direction of Sur to secure my first WHS tick.
I chose to start off with Qalhat knowing that it would probably be the least interesting to see, especially because it was still closed. That said, knowing that I was probably one of the very first tourists to enter Oman after it closed down for tourism and most probably the only one interested in visiting Qalhat very early in the morning, I set out to try my luck with Zoe's option #3 (the concrete steps are visible in Els' second photo). Not only was I lucky that the security guard was still having coffee unaware that I was exploring the farthest area away from the Bibi Maryam mausoleum (practically the only guarded area) but as Martina wrote, he usually expects people to approach from the uphill road from modern Qalhat.
Moreover, once I went down the steps and headed right towards the coast I saw several rubble walls and foundations (some of which are made out of coral!). Even though there aren't any information boards yet (judging from the metal poles already standing there, these will be installed soon together with a visitor centre/facility), I could easily find my way around the remains of the ancient city which are quite similar to the residential area of the Khor Rori/Sumhuram Archaeological Site closest the the sea. No wonder that Marco Polo had praised Qalhat as having fine bazaars and one of the most beautiful mosques!
Obviously, 500-700 years of wind and sea erosion, monsoons and floodings, together with earthquake activity along what is known as the Qalhat fault, have all taken their toll on the ancient city of Qalhat. Still, the fact that ornate old tiles, tombs with arabic calligraphy, and artefacts from as far as Persia and China were found here (and much more is still being excavated) go to show how important Qalhat once was as an important stop in the wider Indian Ocean trade network and as Oman's first capital.
All of a sudden a huge shepherdless herd of hundreds of goats invaded the area I was quietly exploring and headed towards the direction of the mausoleum, closer to the highway. Tempted by the photo opportunity I followed the herd while observing an ancient cistern, more tombs, the remains of minor buildings and last but not least the almost domeless mausoleum of Bibi Maryam (one of its walls facing modern Qalhat is currently covered with scaffolding, even though the restoration works seem to have been finished quite a long time ago, and towards the end of my visit I noticed that the security guard parks his vehicle there in the shade while guarding the hill, which is probably why throughout my visit I was out of his sight!). I also managed to see the remains of the once ornate interior of the mausoleum up close and noticed the dark steps which lead to the tomb below.
Even though I was thrilled to have been able to explore this ancient city by myself and from up close, I don't think that enough tangible heritage is left (at least till now) to justify its place on the WH list. Even though Qalhat is one of the important heritage sites in Arab States, in Oman itself archaeological sites such as those of Ubar, Sumhuram and Al Baleed were rightly grouped up as one WHS even though some of them could have easily been inscribed on their own, and in other Arab States as well in Central Asia there are quite a few other heritage sites which seem to be as important as Qalhat so I felt that overall it lacked the OUV I could clearly see in other WHS in the country and in the region.
PS: When I was walking back to the water runoff, beneath the highway parking area, the security guard must have spotted me as he drove towards me to inform me that the site was closed. Seeing that I was heading towards the direction of Sur away from the mausoleum, he didn't ask any further questions and seemed eager to hurry back to the mausoleum. Instead of being angry, he looked quite astonished that there was a (crazy!) tourist, on foot under the scorching sun and with no water so far from Sur - little did he know that my car was parked a few metres above, literally just a few steps away! There are brown signs on both sides of the highway now showing that Qalhat is a UNESCO WHS and what seems like a concrete slab close to the mausoleum waiting for a UNESCO WHS plaque to be placed once the site reopens. Apart from Wadi Shab, the nearby Bimmah Sinkhole in the Hawiyat Najm Park (free entrance) is a worthwhile stopover, especially towards noon.
Qalhat looks like a joke nomination but apparently there is more than the lone building at the side of the highway. Unfortunately I can't report better news than the other visitors and my visit was in Dec 2018; you can “get” to the site in three ways:
• Snap a picture from the highway coming from the East. There seems to be a parking lot just for this purpose. If you have a good sense you can get a really close up view of the mosque standing there, or binoculars. Yes it is lame. Let's try number 2.
• Drive into Qalhat new town by following the misleading brown signs to the archeological site. Well, actually the signs stop after the highway turn-off but follow the road along the coast/beach and do not turn right into the town instead continuing onwards to the river where the road bends right and you can see the raised area beyond the river. Soon there is a gravel road turning left. No sign to indicate the archeological site is that way but soon a “CLOSED” sign greets you on the other side. For a brief moment you may think if you should drive up anyway but let me tell you there is a gate at the top and you will need to reserve downhill a gravel road. I didn't see any guards but this is probably out of the question. Still though, you could walk up the hill and see what's going on, just be warned that you may want to say you can't read English signs or something ;)
• #3. Remember the parking lot? There is a water runoff below it. Why should you care? There are steps going down past it all the way to the bottom and from there it's a 5-10min walk to the building. Roam free! Did I do that? I've done some naughty stuff to access sites (WHS and other) but I didn't want to get caught in Oman doing anything to offend them. Just saying this is an option. There is no sign to say it is off-limit from here so you can always play dumb.
So unfortunately this is one of those sites that are left closed for tourists and it looks like it will be like that for a long time. The mosque doesn't look special from the distance so it will have to be a low score until I one day see more of it and update the review. Wish I could review it better now, there are even pictures on Google map that show someone nearby either officially or naughty like I suggested. I am thinking that a guided visit would be something they could arrange from Muscat.
Qalhat is a former port town founded somwhere before 1500 BC, destroyed 3000 years later. Once a prosperous centre now lies buried in the sands of time, quite literally, as the only structure that remains visible is the Bibi Maryam mausoleum. It's accessible via a dirt road off the Qalhat town that can be reached when you pass the canal and bridges. Unfortunately, as we arrived to the foot of the hill it stands on, we were barred from going further by three men guarding the site, who pointed us to the notice board saying it's being closed for re-development of the area. What kind I'm not sure as there was no work to be seen. So we opted for the second best thing, drove the motorway past Qalhat towards Sur and then made a turn back in the Muscat direction. There's a parking place on the highway with the viewpoint of the Mausoleum and we took a picture.
2018 Advisory Body overruled
ICOMOS advised Referral, amendment lead by Bahrain
2017 Incomplete - not examined
As 'Ancient City of Qalhat'
Revision of former TWHS The Ancient City of Galhat (1988)
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