The History of Trade in Qatar

Gems from the collection of the National Museum of Qatar

Map of the Gulf (1709) by John FriendNational Museum of Qatar

Throughout history, Qatar has participated in the trade and commerce of this Gulf region. Before the discovery of oil and then gas, Qatar was strongly linked to the sea by its geographical shape, a peninsula that juts out into the waters of the Gulf gives more than 350 km of direct access to multiple production areas: fish and pearl oyster beds.

Seasonal coastal installations have been documented since Antiquity.

Over the centuries, the Qatari peninsula has been influenced by a multitude of different powers, such as the culture of Ubaid (5th millennium), the ancient periods of the Seleucid to Sasanian Empires (3rd century B.C.E. to 7th century C.E. at the time of the advent of Islam) and the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258 C.E.). During all these periods the Gulf was a vital commercial link between East and West. Overland trade routes passed through the western coast of the Arabian Peninsula and provided access to Qatari villages and towns, including Murwab, Al-Huwailah, Al-Zubarah and Al-Bidda - the forerunner of Doha.

It is Qatar’s geographical location that placed the country at a crossroads of both maritime and overland trading routes. Merchants would often make several stops along the coast to exchange commodities such as sandalwood, copper, incense, clothing, spices, for pearls and horses.

Ointment Glass Jar / Unguentarium (1st century BCE to 3rd century CE) by UnkownNational Museum of Qatar

Trade during the Antiquity (300 B.C.E. – 651 C.E.)

The great Seleucid, Parthian and Sassanian empires exercised their influence without ever really controlling Qatar. These empires extended from Iran and Mesopotamia on the western shore of the Gulf, from Kuwait to Qatar, and then to Oman with the extension of the Sasanian Empire.The trade exchanges were indicative of the links between all these provinces. A large part of the material culture is represented by objects found in the graves, such as this small ointment glass jar as an offering, probably an unguentarium containing perfumed oil. This item probably comes from the provinces of the Seleucid Empire (Mesopotamia – Iran).

Silver Drachm (6th century) by UnkownNational Museum of Qatar

Trade continued intensively during the Sassanid period. In fact, this Empire extended its trading posts all along the western coast of the Gulf and thus established an important traffic based on cabotage in the Gulf. Qatar benefited from these exchanges as shown by this silver drachm dating from the reign of the Sassanid king, Khosrow 1st (531- 579 C.E.), wearing a crown with a triple crescent moon decoration on the observatory. The iconography on the reverse of the coin is a representation of the state religion of the Sassanid Empire: Zoroastrianism represented by the altar of fire.

This coin, along with three others, was found during an archaeological survey by the Department of Antiquities (Qatar Museum) south of Dukhan in 2002.

Abbasid Lion Figurine (9th century) by UnkownNational Museum of Qatar

Trade during the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1256 C.E.)

From the beginning of the Abbasid Caliphate, the Caliph Al-Mansur built ex-nihilo the round city of Baghdad in 762 (Madinat as-Salam). This new capital on the banks of the Tigris River became the centre of power, transferring trade and culture from Damascus, the former capital of the Umayyads, to more eastern territories.It is in Baghdad that the oldest House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma), was founded in 832 during the reign of Al-Ma’mun (813-833). It is a particularly active establishment, specializing in the translation of works into Greek, Pehlevi and Syriac. Scientists, astronomers, mathematicians, thinkers and scholars came here from all over the Abbasid Empire, facilitating a constant interchange of ideas and goods into the Arab-Muslim world of that period. 

Abbasid Bowl (9th Century) by UnkownNational Museum of Qatar

The whole region benefited from this influence due to the new trade routes fed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that flowed into the Gulf.

Evidence of Abbassid settlement and trade has been found in the northwestern village of Murwab.

This village, between the desert and the sea, was historically occupied during 9th century, and benefited from a maritime and road trade. This is evident through the various fragments, pottery, and settlements that were discovered during several archaeological missions such as the Danish expedition of 1959 led by Eighil Knuth, the French archaeological Mission of 1979-1982 led by Dr Claire Hardy-Guilbert, the 1984 Mission of the Department of Tourism and Antiquities of Doha led by Mohammed Jassem Al-Khulaifi for the restoration of the fort, and finally the Qatari-French Archaeological Mission of 2005-2009 led by Faysal Al-Na'imi and Dr Alexandrine Guerin.

Abbasid Jar (9th Century) by UnkownNational Museum of Qatar

This move aided in legitimising the Abbasids as a governing body, and the growth of Baghdad to become a multicultural melting pot. Creating a new city, the Abbasids sought innovative methods to generate revenue. This included developing new trade routes and capitalizing on existing ones such as the Silk Road, by building a network of caravanserais which allowed taxes to be collected from merchants and travellers.

Five Bowls and Dishes Series (10th century) by UnkownNational Museum of Qatar

Trade during the Abbasid Caliphate: The Cirebon Wreck (970 C.E.)

Maritime archaeology can sound like a treasure hunt. It makes people wonder how many treasures rest at the bottom of the oceans. The Cirebon trove is no exception. 

Ninety nautical miles off the coast (160 km) of the port city of Cirebon in Indonesia, there lay a trove filled with treasures deep in the Java Sea. The shipwreck was named after the place of discovery.

Lost for over 1000 years, the Cirebon wreck was discovered in 2003 by local fishermen whose nets caught Chinese ceramics. Subsequently, the wreck was excavated by archaeologists in 2004-2005, yielding thousands of pieces of glassware, jewelry, ceramics, and various trinkets.

Half of these findings have been acquired by Qatar Museums and will feed into ongoing research into trade routes between the Middle East and Southeast Asia in the 10th century C.E.

The last voyage that the ship embarked on before meeting its unfortunate fate can be traced back to 970 C.E. based on copper coins from the Chinese kingdom of Nan Han (917-971) that were onboard.

It is believed that the ship was engaged in long coastal voyages from China to the Middle East through Southeast Asia and India.

The items retrieved from the wreck include a number of goods from Damascus, Persia, and the Gulf, including Gulf pearls and Islamic glassware. When compared, the cargo greatly resembles artefacts found at Qatar’s archaeological sites like Murwab and its satellite sites at the same period, Early Abbasid, which serves as evidence of the country’s vast trade connections.

Jewellery Set (19th century) by UnkownNational Museum of Qatar

Trade in Qatar during the 18th and 19th century

It is between Katare and Julfar that the Arabs harvest the most oysters because the banks here are plentiful and produce pearls of intense beauty, sought after by the jewellers of Europe’s royal courts” Jogues de Martinville, 1740.

Brooch (18th century) by UnkownNational Museum of Qatar

The earliest document mentioning trade in Qatar was written during the 17th century by Father Anseline, a Portuguese merchant, during his visit to Al Zubarah to purchase “horses, dates, linens and above all pearls”.

Necklace (18th century) by UnkownNational Museum of Qatar

Located on the northwest coast of Qatar, Al Zubarah has long been recognized as a trading hub and a popular stop for Gulf and foreign merchants.

Jar Excavated in Al-Zubarah (18th century) by UnkownNational Museum of Qatar

The rise and prosperity of Al Zubarah, and other coastal villages around Qatar, occurred as a result of Portuguese presence in the Gulf, and their dominance over the Strait of Hormuz during the 16th century.

Perfume Bottle (Marash) (18th century) by UnkownNational Museum of Qatar

It was then, led by Captain D. Gonzalo da Silveira, that the Portuguese naval power invaded the Gulf region and torched a number of villages in Qatar.

Handle (19th century) by UnkownNational Museum of Qatar

Looking for new settlements that were within close proximity to the sea, the survivors relo-cated to Furaiha, Yusufiyah, Ruwaidah, and Al Zubarah. Following their settlement, the resi-dents contributed to the economic and social development of these towns. They established trade links with Calcutta, Muscat and Surat, and maintained strong commercial relations with the Katif port.

Bowl, Netherlands, 19th century (19th century) by UnkownNational Museum of Qatar

The concentration of trading activities in Qatari coastal towns during the 18th and 19th century was largely due to the abundance of quality pearls along the seashore. A combination of circumstances contributed to the widespread of pearls across the Arabian Gulf and Qatar including its unique ecosystem, shallow sand banks, naturally occurring coral reefs, and favorable temperature.

Jewellery Set (19th century) by UnkownNational Museum of Qatar

This provided the pearl beds (Hirat) with the ideal environment to emerge. Political and economic factors led to the increasing demand for pearls from foreign markets during this period.

The Mughals, Chinese, and Europeans, amongst many others, used it to adorn their jewelry, for gift giving, and for textile embroidery.

Tiara, China (19th century) by UnkownNational Museum of Qatar

As a result, the pressure of harvesting them grew, creating a sustainable economy based on the pearl trade.

Other exports from Qatar were horses, camels, and dried fish, while imports included food, utensils, timber, and luxury goods.

Gold Necklace (20th Century) by UnkownNational Museum of Qatar

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