Driving north on Al Shamal Road on a typical weekend, the traffic peters out soon after passing Al Khor. Those who venture further head either to Ras Laffan for work, or, in the cooler season, to take a dip in the waters of the popular beaches at Fuwairit and Al Ghariya on the east coast. The rest, perhaps guided by more cultural ambitions, likely turn left to pay a visit to the fort and ruins of the World Heritage Site of Al Zubara in the northwest. 

Starting this winter, the area of Ruwais, the coastal town on the very end of Al Shamal Road, will become a new and attractive location for those who want to learn more about Qatar’s past, see some important historical buildings and sites, and finally relax from the visit over some refreshments, overlooking the picturesque harbour of old Ruwais. 

Al Ruwais Police Station

The old police station at the village of Al Ruwais can serve as both starting and end point for a closer exploration of the area.

It was built in 1955 and until well into the 1970s stood isolated a few hundred metres to the east of the village. Historically, police stations were often constructed close to harbour locations to provide security, but they also doubled as customs posts and monitored the boat traffic entering or leaving town. The police station in Al Ruwais, restored some five years ago by Qatar Museums, shares a common design with similar structures built during this period all along the coast of Qatar: it consists of a square guard room with an attached observation tower and a staircase that leads to an observation platform. Next to the guardroom you can still see a holding cell for arrested perpetrators.

There is no doubt that the police station was built to be defended, if the little fortress were to be attacked: its walls are solid and thick, and instead of windows, the building has several narrow, vertical embrasures that allowed those within to observe the outside and, if necessary, to shoot at attackers.

Nowadays, of course, it serves quite a different purpose: visitors will find inside the guardroom an exhibition with objects excavated at the nearby 16th and 17th century CE site of Al Ruwayda (see below). Chinese porcelain, agate and carnelian beads brought in from Afghanistan, divers weights, cooking pots and bones tell the story of trade and pearling and reflect the simple and hard, daily life of the people in Al Ruwais area hundreds of years ago.

In addition, one of the police station’s annex buildings has now been converted into a café that serves refreshments and local delicacies in the shade of the trees and on a lawn that overlooks the bay. The entrepreneur, a lady from Al Ruwais, specialises in desserts and invites visitors to explore the local cuisine in this new location. Ample parking is available on-site.

The Fish Traps of Qatar

Sitting comfortably with a tea or coffee in hand in front of the police station and looking out on the shallow, turquoise water of the Gulf allows visitors to discover another striking but often overlooked feature of Qatar’s history without moving a limb: the long, curved, half-submerged walls of the maskar or fish traps, a splendid example of how the people here adapted to the marine environment. 

These fish traps worked because Qatar’s coasts, particularly in the north, are very shallow and daily tides are very extensive. Within a couple of hours, large tidal areas can be either entirely dry or completely flooded. Curvilinear dry stone walls were built as barriers to trap fish using the rise and fall of the tides. Fish would swim towards the shore during the high tide and would be trapped behind these barriers while the tide ebbed. At low tide, the fish just needed to be collected.

These intertidal fish-traps can be found in dense clusters all around Qatar’s coasts reaching from Al Wakra to Zekreet. They can be V-shaped, semi-circular, rectangular or just form a wall blocking a narrow strait. The well-preserved examples in front of the Ruwais Police Station are V-shaped and semi-circular. 

While the maskar-type fish-trap has always been a very common element of fishery in Qatar, it is barely known in other Gulf countries. Only a few examples can be found on some of the western islands of the UAE which underlines the fact that this type of fish-trap is a truly Qatari tradition. 

Al Ruwais Mosque

In walking distance, only a few hundred metres to the west and also right on the water’s edge stands the old main mosque of Al Ruwais. It was founded probably at the end of the 17th century CE and holds a prominent position in the country’s history as the oldest standing mosque in the State of Qatar. 

Naturally, due to its long history, the mosque underwent several phases of construction, destruction, rebuilding and alterations, and the current mosque was built only in the 1940s by Ezzedine bin Ahmed bin Kaseb Al Rifai Al Sada on the ruins of an older one. Nevertheless, after the 1970s, this mosque was abandoned in favour of new and modern mosques equipped with air-conditioning and other facilities. 

The building was neglected for more than two decades and suffered from harsh environmental conditions, which resulted in dangerous cracks along the walls, the collapse of portions of the roof due to humidity and the infiltration of seawater into the mosque’s foundations. In spite of all this damage, the mosque had preserved its old character and authenticity, in particular an unusually deep prayer niche, almost in the form of an alcove. Qatar Museums launched a project to rescue this important monument in 2013, finishing it two years ago.  

Prior to its conservation, Qatar Museums’ Department of Archaeology carried out excavations in order to retrieve information about the conditions of the mosque’s foundations, as well as to shed light on earlier phases of the building and the site in general. The team excavated in several spots both outside the mosque and inside the building, and found evidence for the occupation of this spot that went back even before the 17th century CE.

Originally, the mosque was planned to become a cultural centre, but the local population in this neighbourhood embraced the newly restored building and is using it now as its regular prayer space. However, the imam also welcomes non-Muslim visitors and allows them to visit this venerable building outside of regular prayer times, as long as they observe the appropriate dress code and behaviour in such a place. 

Ras bu Omran

If one passes the modern harbour of Al Ruwais and follows the coastline heading west for about 1 km, one arrives at the beginning of a new walking path that traces the Ras bu Omran, a peninsula which shields Al Ruwais harbour from easterly winds. 

This corniche was built by the Public Works Authority (Ashghal) over the course of 2018 and is just now beginning to attract the first promenaders who can enjoy unencumbered views of the sea and sit under the many shaded areas. 

As it happens so often during construction in Qatar in seemingly completely empty tracts, traces of long-forgotten inhabitants were unearthed here as well. Archaeologists of Qatar Museums’ Division of Cultural Heritage found here large amounts of pre-modern objects such as pottery and porcelain shards, bones, shells and glass bangle fragments that were spread across an area of 2.6 hectares. 

An emergency excavation brought to light some large buildings, one of which functioned, to judge from its three big clay ovens, with certainty as a kitchen that presumably fed the hungry inhabitants of Ras bu Omran some 250 years ago. These excavations confirmed the great archaeological potential of Ras bu Omran and will be continued in the near future, hopefully adding to the location’s attractiveness.

The Ruins of Al Ruwayda

Following the coastal road to Al Zubara, only 5 km to the west of Al Ruwais (and its modern extension Al Shamal) lies the last destination of this excursion: the ruin of Al Ruwayda (follow sign to the right), one of the numerous historic settlements which line the coast from Al Ruwais to Al Zubara and beyond. 

Al Ruwayda stands out from the other settlements that were all connected to the pearl fishing industry during the late 1700s and the 1800s, because its origins can be traced to the 1600’s and possibly even much further to the early medieval period. 

The significance of the site was recognised already during the first comprehensive archaeological study of Qatar carried out by French archaeologists in the early 1970s. Back then, scholars noted the presence of colourfully glazed ceramics that could clearly be dated to the 10th century CE. 

The site is certainly earlier than the majority of all the other settlements in the area and is also unusual for its enormous size covering 90 hectares and stretching for more than 2 km along the beach. The remains at the site comprise a series of low undulating mounds with a large fortress at the centre. 

Excavation and analysis of the fort indicate that it was built in three phases. The first comprised a small square fort with a large round tower at the northwest corner overlooking the sea and probably dating from the 1600s or earlier. Most interestingly, this period coincides exactly with the expansion of the Portuguese empire which has left a score of forts and fortresses in Oman, the UAE and Iran. 

During the second phase the small fort was incorporated into a large (150 x 130 m) rectangular enclosure strengthened by rectangular towers. A large sunken area at the centre of the enclosure probably functioned as a garden which was supplied with fresh water by a large well. At some point during the late 1700s the large enclosure was dismantled and the stones used to make a smaller enclosure with much thicker walls. The reasons for this reduction in size are unknown but the fact that the walls were doubled in thickness suggests fear of an attack.

In addition to the fortress the remains of a mosque and a warehouse have been discovered and can be easily spotted if one walks from the fort towards the beach. The building closest to the sea is a small mosque complete with a courtyard, prayer hall and the base of a minaret. In the west wall of the prayer hall is a deep concave niche or mihrab indicating the direction of Mecca for the Muslim prayer. 

There is also a large rectangular block next to the mihrab and must have served as the minbar or pulpit for the prayer leader. One of the most interesting finds of the excavation was the discovery of an earlier mosque with a different orientation beneath the courtyard and the prayer hall of the later mosque. Changes in the orientation of mosques over time are common and reflect changing perceptions and in some cases increased accuracy in the methods for determining the qibla (direction towards Mecca).  

For more information about these and other settlement sites in Qatar under the Cultural Heritage programme, visit qm.org.qa.

Author: Sarah Palmer

This feature has been written with the assistance of Dr Thomas Leisten, Chief Cultural Heritage Officer, Division of Cultural Heritage at Qatar Museums.

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