Most residents of Qatar who have taken the easy one‑hour drive to Al Zubarah usually stop near the picturesque fort for a brief visit, have their pictures taken in front of the cannon at its gate and then move on.
Only a handful of visitors is aware that Al Zubarah has much more to offer and have heard about the site’s important history and the excavations that have taken place there over the last decades. And even less have ever had the chance to delve into history by visiting the extensive, 60‑hectare‑wide remains of the town that stretches along the beach below the plateau on which the well‑known fort is built.
What elevates Al Zubarah onto the level of World Heritage is what UNESCO defines as ‘outstanding universal value’. In the case of Al Zubarah, this distinction is created by the settlement’s character as the only remaining complete urban plan of an Arabian pearl-merchant town, that gives an exceptional testimony to the merchant and pearl trading tradition of the Arabian Gulf during the 18th and 19th centuries.
In addition, Al Zubarah, as a fortified town that was linked to settlements in its hinterland, exemplifies the string of urban foundations that actively rewrote the political and demographic map of the Gulf during the 18th and early 19th centuries through their strategic position in the region as a global trading hub. Al Zubarah can thus be seen as a prime example of the small independent states that were founded and flourished during this period and did so beyond the immediate control of the Ottoman, European, and Persian empires.
All of this happened at a time that is now seen as a significant moment in human history: that is when the Gulf States that exist today entered their early formative period. But even as an archaeological site alone, Al Zubarah bears a unique testimony to human interaction with both the sea and the harsh desert environment of the region: pearl divers’ weights, imported ceramics, depictions of dhows, fish traps, wells, and agricultural activity all show how the town’s development was driven by trade and commerce, and how closely the town’s inhabitants were connected with the sea and their desert hinterland. Remnants of fortifications and traces of sieges remind us at the same time that the city’s success and the wealth, accumulated by Al Zubarah’s merchants, always needed to be defended against competitors.
What it means for Qatar to own a World Heritage Site
Al Zubarah’s listing as a World Heritage Site is a major success for Qatar’s efforts to preserve and protect its cultural heritage. It signals international approval to the way Qatar Museums Authority, in collaboration with its European partners from Copenhagen University, has adopted and implemented standards and methodologies that will lead to a lasting and sustainable conservation of this site. Moreover, in an economic environment that is characterised by rapid urban and infrastructural development, the preservation of not only the site itself, but also the integrity and authenticity of the surrounding landscape will allow future generations to come to understand, to appreciate and to share an unaltered experience of Qatar’s most iconic historic site first hand by visiting it.
How to get there: Take the North Road to Al-Khor and make a U-turn at the Zubarah sign. Take the first secondary road on your right. Keep going straight until you see the fort on your right side. The road is fully paved all the way to the fort.
All photographs from the Qatar Museums website
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