April 2003

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Oman, Archeology, Ruins, Arabian Sea

The ruins of Qalhat, 25 km north-west of Sur, are situated on a prominent terrace high above the present day village. The site is still imposing, enclosed within clearly recognisable defensive walls.

The ruins of Qualhat

Stone plaque at the site

Qalhat was for many centuries one of the most important ports on the Arabian Gulf,  gateway to the Indian Ocean. It featured in the stories of Pliny the Elder, Marco Polo, Ibn Battu’ta and Alfonso d’Alboquerque. The many fine pieces of broken pottery and glass littered all over the ruins suggest that it was once a thriving port town. In its high days in the 14th and 15th centuries it was the most important port associated with the city state of Hormuz, situated on a small island near the mouth of the Arab Gulf. Between 1300 and 1507 Hormuz controlled many of the towns lying on the Arabian coast.

The city is situated in a favorable position with respect to dominating currents and winds allowing relative easy maritime connections within the region.

Ibn Battu'ta,  in 1330 AD  gave the following description of the city: 

" The city of Qalhat is on the coast. It has good markets, and one of the most beautiful mosques in the world. The walls of the mosque are covered with blue ceramic tiles. It stands on a hill beside the harbour. This mosque was built by an important woman named Bibi Maryam. The people here are merchants , and they bring many goods from India. When a ship arrives the people are very happy ".

Marco Pole wrote in the 13th Century:

" Calatu is a great city, within a gulf that bears the name of Calatu. It is a noble city, and lies 600 miles from Dhufar towards the northwest, upon the seashore. The people are Saracens and are subject to Hormos. And whenever the King og Hormos is at war with some prince more potent than himself, he betakes himself to this city of Calatu, because it is very strong, both from its positions and from its fortifications. They grow no corn there, but get it from abroad, for every merchant vessel that comes brings some. The haven is very large and good, and is frequented by numerous ships with goods from India, and from this city the spices and other merchandise are distributed among the cities and towns of the interior. They export also many good Arab horses to India. For as I have told you before the number of horses exported from this and other cities to India is something astonishing"

(taken fromPhilp Ward's Travels in Oman)

At the end of the fourteenth century Qalhat was struck by a heavy earthquake that destroyed many of the city's buildings and falaj systems. In 1507, the Portuguese arrived in Oman and ransacked Quriyat and Muscat and in the following year they destroyed Qalhat, killing many of the local population and burning all the ships and buildings there.

Costa (2003) quotes from the biographic account of the Portuguese commander, Alfonso de Albuquerque; the "Commentaries do Grande Alfonso de Albuquerque", written by his son Braz about the Portuguese sacking and systematic destruction of the town, including its legendary Mosque:

" which the Moors much took to heart, for it was a very large building with seven naves, all lined with tiles and containing much porcelain set in the walls. At the entrance the building had a deeper nave with archers overlooking the sea, and also the nave was lined with glazed tiles. Doors and ceiling of the mosque were all made of carved timber..... They did not stop to put fire to the building until it was completely burnt down...."

It is clear that the Portuguese are responsible for the almost total destruction of the city, including its mosque. The only remaining buildings are a tomb (mausoleum) and water cistern.

Today it is difficult to picture the great city , all the houses have gone and the harbor is filled with sand and stones. Successive earthquakes have uplifted this part of the coastline as indicated by terraces. The large pre-14th century earthquake partly destroyed the old harbor. The khawr (the Arabic word for creek) below the city has once been a coastal inlet porbably providing a protected harbor site, reaching up to the northern side of the wadi.  The only partly intact building you can see now is a small tomb, believed to be built by Bibi Maryam. This tomb should not be identified with the destroyed magnificent mosque, which also was built by the same Bibi Maryam. The vault below is covered with a layer of resin from many burnt candles offered by worshippers. Devotees apparently still have come to the tomb to seek help from Bibi Maryam long after the destruction of the city. Visitors in the beginning of the 20th century reported remnants of glazed tiles, but none of these have remained to date.

Bibi Maryam was the wife of Bahauddin Ayaz, prince of Hormuz, son of the founder of the Hormuz empire. Bahauddin Ayaz retired to Qualhat, where his family originated, and died there around 712 AH, 1312 AD and was buried in a splendid mausoleum built by Bibi Maryam. According to Ibn Battuta she also built the mosque " a splendid building overlooking sea and harbour". The most likely position of this mosque must have been close to the mausoleum where a large rectangular enclosure can be recognised in the rubble (Costa, 2003). Bibi Maryam must have been a pious lady of high standing and reputation which was even respected by the Portuguese. Her spirit has clearly survived in the ruins of her city.  

The tomb built by Bibi Maryam

Inside the tomb

The remains of a large arched cellar nearby the tomb was probably a large water cistern.

Underwater archaeology by an Australian team found 25 stone anchors, rectangular and ring-shaped, near Qalhat harbour. The lithic finds comprised Indo-Arabian stone anchors and anchor fragments, ringstones, three-hole Mediterranean or Red Sea stone anchors, a single-hole stone anchor and what is thought to be a Greek anchor of a previously unknown type, dating from the 6th-4th centuries BCE. These artefacts constitute the largest underwater collection of Indo-Arabian stone anchors known anywhere in the world.

No excavation has been done at Qalhat. Who knows what is hiding below the rubble........


Costa, P.M., 2003, The Great Mosque of Qalhat, The Journal of Oman Studies, Volume 12, pp 55-70

Vaulted water cistern opposite the tomb

Areal photograph of Qalhat, tomb with enclosure at top centre, close to city walls, the silted-up Khawr (inlet) top right.

Simplified map of Qalhat, modified after Costa (2003)

To see Google map with a lot of details please click here

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@ J. Schreurs April 2003, updated December 2003