Al Zubarah Archaeological Site, Qatar

An outstanding testimony to the merchant and pearl trading tradition of the Persian Gulf during the 18th and 19th centuries

Aerial view of the town of Al Zubarah from the south (2013) by Al Zubarah Archaeological SiteUNESCO World Heritage

Al Zubarah Archaeological Site is the best-preserved example of an 18th- and 19th-century trading and pearl-fishing town in the Gulf region. The site is located around 100 km north-west of Doha and stretches 1.5 km along the coast.

Aerial view of Al Zubarah, Zubarah Fort and Murair Fort (2013) by Al Zubarah Archaeological SiteUNESCO World Heritage

The site dates back over 250 years and covers an area of 60 hectares, which includes remains of houses, mosques, palaces, cemeteries, large fortified buildings and a market. It was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2013.

Aerial view showing the ruins of the town of Al Zubarah from the south-west (2013) by Al Zubarah Archaeological SiteUNESCO World Heritage

During the second half of the 18th century, members of the Utub tribe left Kuwait and sailed to the shores of Qatar in search of rich pearl beds, which they found just off the coast. They settled at Al Zubarah which soon became one of the region’s six main trading ports. 

Detail of one of the excavations showing a compound, rooms and courtyards (2013) by Al Zubarah Archaeological SiteUNESCO World Heritage

The trade and pearling industry supported a relatively large population. In fact, the number of inhabitants in the town reached around 6,000. It was made up of a mixture of local tribes and immigrants from all over the Gulf, including many upper-class merchants and scholars. 

Pearl oyster shell with attached pearl, discovered during archaeological excavations (2013) by Al Zubarah Archaeological SiteUNESCO World Heritage

At the height of the trade in the 1800s, pearls from the Arabian Gulf region were regarded as the best and the most highly prized pearls in the world. Until the development of the cultured pearl in the early 1900s, pearling was the backbone of the economy of Qatar.

View of the town wall, the southern palatial compound and details of urban organisation (2013) by Al Zubarah Archaeological SiteUNESCO World Heritage

Amongst Al Zubarah’s earliest constructions was the defensive wall of the town. The 2.5 km-long wall with towers dates back to the beginning of the main phase of occupation in around 1760 and suggests a considerable degree of planning. 

Southern palatial compound close to the edge of the town wall (2013) by Al Zubarah Archaeological SiteUNESCO World Heritage

Another feature of the town, palatial compounds are a reflection of the social organization that shaped the town’s urban planning. Located in the town’s residential area, they were set behind defensive perimeter walls and strengthened with round or rectangular corner towers.

Aerial view of two date presses being excavated, town of Al Zubarah (2013) by Al Zubarah Archaeological SiteUNESCO World Heritage

Running through the heart of the town was a street which was lined with deeply-set rooms that were equipped with madabis (date presses). These architectural structures were used to extract the juice from stacks of dates. The juice was then turned into dibs (syrup).

Details of the excavation at Al Zubarah, showing the remains of a burnt palm roof (2013) by Al Zubarah Archaeological SiteUNESCO World Heritage

The souq (market), where people earned a living selling spices, incense and fine cloth, was also a hub for social interaction. Environmental archaeology and historical documents add colour, smell and taste to our picture of the past and make the busy scenes here easy to imagine.

Detail of one of the walls of the well at Murair Fort located to the east of the town of Al Zubarah (2013) by Al Zubarah Archaeological SiteUNESCO World Heritage

Murair Fort was built in 1768 to protect the wells which supplied the otherwise arid town with fresh water. It was a large rectangular enclosure which housed domestic buildings, a mosque, cisterns, and large wells with stone build shafts.

Aerial view of the canal linking the Murair Fort to the sea (2013) by Al Zubarah Archaeological SiteUNESCO World Heritage

Located away from the coast, the Murair Fort was connected to the sea by a vast man-made canal. 1.76 km-long and with an average width of 20 m, written sources suggest that it was built to allow the transportation of goods and fresh water between the fort and the sea.

One of the towers on the wall built on the ruins of Al Zubarah’s first major occupation (2013) by Al Zubarah Archaeological SiteUNESCO World Heritage

In 1811, Al Zubarah was attacked and burnt to the ground. The town was abandoned for a brief period. People eventually returned and a new, smaller fortified town grew in in the heart of the ruins until its final destruction in 1878.

The Al Zubarah Fort, seen from the south-west (2013) by Al Zubarah Archaeological SiteUNESCO World Heritage

The iconic Al Zubarah Fort was built as a police post in 1938, to protect the northern coast of Qatar. Measuring 30 x 30m, it consists of a series of rooms built around an open courtyard. By this time, Al Zubarah was eroding back into the desert.

Typical water jar, imported from Julfar (UAE) and discovered at Al Zubarah archaeological site (2013) by Al Zubarah Archaeological SiteUNESCO World Heritage

Thousands of artefacts have been recovered from Al Zubarah. The objects are catalogued, conserved and studied, and provide a rich store of information about the past. The most common finds are ceramics, some locally-made, but the majority from further afield.

Study of ceramics from the excavations (2013) by Al Zubarah Archaeological SiteUNESCO World Heritage

The artefacts represent all aspects of daily life, from the water pots and coffee cups of an 18th-century household to the weights of 19th-century pearl divers.

Pearl merchant's chest discovered during excavations at Al Zubarah (2013) by Al Zubarah Archaeological SiteUNESCO World Heritage

This wooden bishtakhta (pearl merchant’s chest) bears testimony to the pearling trade of Al Zubarah. The chest was used for holding collected pearls and measuring equipment, and traces of red cloth suggest that it was lined. It is now on view at the National Museum of Qatar.

Fragment of gypsum plaster with engraved decoration, originally surrounding the doorway of a palace (2013) by Al Zubarah Archaeological SiteUNESCO World Heritage

Entrances and doorways were often adorned with plaster decorations which featured Islamic geometric patterns. This particular fragment was found during the excavations in one of the palatial compounds.

Engraved image of a pearling or trading boat, discovered in one of the houses at Al Zubarah (2013) by Al Zubarah Archaeological SiteUNESCO World Heritage



Engravings of dhows (pearling and trading boats) that have been found on the walls of the houses in Al Zubarah reflect the importance of the boats to those who lived there. Dhows could spend months at sea, with smaller boats bringing them food and fresh water from the mainland.

The layers visible in this midden show many episodes of rubbish dumping (2013) by Al Zubarah Archaeological SiteUNESCO World Heritage

Tiny artefacts and small remains of ancient plants and animals can be found in middens (rubbish dumps). By floating these layers of kitchen waste in water and then sieving them, archaeologists gain information about what people ate in the past and what their environment was like.

Aerial view of a palatial compound in the north of the town, taken during recent conservation (2013) by Al Zubarah Archaeological SiteUNESCO World Heritage

Archaeology is, by nature, a destructive process, and once remains are uncovered and exposed, they are at risk of decay. Correct conservation techniques are vital but the processes involved are complex and require research, great skills, and specialised materials and equipment.

Wildlife is common around the town of Al Zubarah, including this harmless sand snake (2013) by Al Zubarah Archaeological SiteUNESCO World Heritage

Al Zubarah Archaeological Site is also one of the core zones of the Al Reem Biosphere Reserve, which, in 2007, became the first UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in Qatar. The reserve promotes protection and management of the delicate environment which is unique to the Gulf coastline. 

A boardwalk provides visitors with educational routes throughout the site of Al Zubarah (2013) by Al Zubarah Archaeological SiteUNESCO World Heritage

The Archaeological Site of Al Zubarah offers an outstanding testimony to an urban trading and pearl-diving tradition which sustained the region’s major coastal towns and led to the development of small independent states which eventually emerged as the modern day Gulf States.

Credits: Story

This exhibit was created by Qatar Museums: 
qm.org.qa/en/

More on the Al Zubarah Archaeological Site and World Heritage:  whc.unesco.org/en/list/1402/

Photos: Qatar Museums

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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