The Ancient City of Qalhat

On highway #17 between Quriyat and Sur, 20 kms before Sur, one can see this sign on the highway.

Qalhat is a tiny town and few people make it here.  I know plenty of people who have been in Oman for years and have never taken the time to travel to Qalhat.

This sign is next to Wadi Qalhat.  You can see the famous Bibi Mariam Tomb on the hill just above the palm trees.  It was this site that brought me there on my recent journey.

Qalhat (like Muscat, Sohar and Quriyat) was an important trading city in the 14th and 15th centuries.  They have found pottery and other artifacts from Persia and even from as far away as China.  Qalhat remains on UNESCO’s tentative list of cultural heritage sites. Qalhat was Oman’s first capital!

It seems that the site is closed.  No one was around to police it so I thought nobody would mind my exploring for a quick pic or two.  It’s very hard to reach even up to this point up a very steep hill with the same warning sign on the bottom.  You definitely need a 4X4 to explore the ruins of Qalhat.  There is  a parking area on the side of the main highway coming from Sur that allows distant shots of the site.  You can see Highway #17 in the background!

Although the tourist sign reads “Ancient City of Qalhat” there is nothing left really.  This tomb is virtually all that remains of a once thriving trade town.  It is known as “The Tomb of Bibi Mariam“.  Also called “The Mausoleum of Lady Mariam“.  (“Bibi” means “lady” or “dame” from the ancient Arabic use of the word.)

Lady Mariam is said to have built a splendid mosque somewhere in Qalhat and some think that this ancient site is it.  Others believe this to be her mausoleum with no clue as to where the mosque was (so for any aspiring archeologists out there, you could come over to Oman, do some exploring and go down in history as the one who found the ancient mosque of Qalhat.  :-)  )  Some believe this was both the mosque she built and the place where her body was placed.  Ah, mysteries!  

Qalhat was visited by Marco Polo in the 13th century, but he refers to it as Calatu.  Qalhat is also described by the famous Muslim traveler, Ibn Battuta, of the 14th century who was known as “the Marco Polo of the Muslim world“.  Unknown to most westerners, this man is known as one of the greatest travelers of all time.  He traveled to and described his journeys to more than 40 countries (predominately in the Islamic world) during a period of 30 years covering more than 75,000 miles.

I wonder when this site will be reconstructed and open to the public.  Qalhat should have a small visitor’s centre/museum.  They should also put more effort into archeological research here.

“underground is the crypt leading to underground corridors beneath the floor of the shrine…”

It would be fascinating to learn more about this place from someone with extensive knowledge of archeology.  This could be a real addition to Oman’s tourism market is it were handled properly.  Instead little or nothing is known or heard of Qalhat by the inquisitive tourists to the Sultanate.

Marco Polo wrote of Qalhat: “Calatu (his name for Qalhat) 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 of 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“.

Ibn Battuta described Qalhat with these words: “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 “.

These are the remains of Qalhat’s ancient water cistern

So many ruins, so many questions, so few answers!

It is said that the destruction of Qalhat was due mainly to an earthquake in the 14th century. (read this on an Omani tourism site)

A look down at modern day Qalhat from the archeological hill site

Qalhat LNG (operated by PDO) runs out of Qalhat, Oman.  They have a great description of the glory of Qalhat’s past on their website.

This final pic is of the ancient site of Qalhat as seen from highway #17 (with a 55-250mm zoom lense) coming from the direction of Sur driving towards Quriyat/Muscat.

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26 responses to “The Ancient City of Qalhat

  1. Beautiful photos but I am curious as to why the sign looks batter in the third photo?

  2. Photo of the stairs and your shadow gives me the creeps, looks like some haunted prison from them discovery shows :)

  3. Leonargo,
    Great question! I was wondering the exact same thing myself. I can only guess that local kids got bored and decided to throw rocks at the sign. (?!)

    Kapil,
    If that gave you the creeps, you should have been there to hear the haunting sounds of nearby goats that really sounded demonic! (while taking those photos)

  4. Very good pics…in fact these pics seem to be better than previous posts I’ve looked at–are you shooting with a different camera? What kind is it? And the lens?

    Anyways, the shots in this post are well composed and clear–keep up the good work!
    J

  5. J,
    Thanks! Glad you enjoyed the pics. Most of my older pics are with a simple point and shoot automatic camera but months ago I bought myself a Canon EOS 500D which really rocks! Now I use either the standard 18-55mm lense and occasionally (like in concerts or the shot of Mariam’s tomb from the highway) the 55-250mm zoom lense.

  6. I haven’t been to Qhalhat. I love archeology—-I think PDO’s archeology/historian club does have some research on it if you’d be interested probably, more than the Gov.. PLus the Italians. They have alot of archeologists in Sur:)

  7. OPNO,
    Looks like you or anyone wishing to visit Qhalhat will have to wait a while until all the renovations are done. That’s why I posted so many pics. Now people can enjoy seeing it without the long drive and all the hassle! :-) Even if someone did have a 4X4, it really looks like they don’t want anyone there with 2 warning signs and a locked gate. I think it was very fortunate for me that there were no security folks around to tell me to scram! :-) I might look into the PDO archeology/history club if I get a chance. Thanks!

  8. Qalhat is currently being excavated by a joint French-Omani team led by Axelle Rougeulle, who has presented their findings to the Seminar for Arabian Studies over the last two seasons. During this period they have identified the large mosque (it isn’t at the Bibi Miryam mausoleum, but down on the coast) as well as other structures and houses. The whole thing looks pretty good. Before this it was worked on by Tom Vosmer in 2004 who conducted a large scale mapping program of the site and the underwater area just off the coast. He found a large number of medieval anchors out there, backing up the mercantile history of the site. Nice pictures by the way, nice to have a good look at a site I am currently studying. Cheers

    • Thanks for the Qalhat excavation update! If they have identified the large mosque, that should be big news, shouldn’t it?! Thanks for the fascinating tidbits like the finding of medieval anchors to back up the claimed history of the site. Does this mean that you are living out there on site? God bless you with your work/studying there. Lovely to get a post from someone currently studying the site. WOW! That is so cool! :-)

  9. Prof. E. Ismail

    The remains of Qualhat are still found in the coastal areas near the town of Sur.During our visit in Oman we could collect valuable information about the site and the places where Ibn Batuta landed. The remnants including that of Mariam Mosqe are still the relics of the past.Prof. E. Ismail Formerly Head of the Dpt.of History Sir Syed College Taliparamba&Kunhali Marakkar Centre for West Asian Studies University of Calicut

    • Prof. Ismail,
      i am waiting to hear more as I realize that this is quite a significant historical find! I wonder when the public will know more and when we’ll have access to the newly found site(s). Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  10. very informative, the place is really well presented, i admire your patience of posting the said blog. I am currently living Sur, and I love viewing this pictures cos it depicts the place where we located. I really pray that this historical site of Oman must be preserved for their own future generation.

    • Larry,
      Thanks for commenting. Sur’s a beautiful place. I just wish it was “more happening”. Glad you enjoyed the pics. I hope and believe that the ancient city of Qalhat will be quite an interesting spot for tourists once all the excavations, discoveries and plans are completed!

  11. Very informative and interesting.

  12. Hi Andy:
    Some years ago (25) I had a car accident, (fractured spine). I dare to make this comment because I read that you are a Christian, otherwise I would not. During the ordeal of that accident I became a Christian. God started dealing with me, or should I say talking to me in dreams and visions. Things that were so awesome that only He could have disclose them to me.
    In one of the dreams He said to me: “Beware that what happened to Oman’s Princess doesn’t happen to you” At that time I had read in the Bible about Aman but didn’t know about Oman. When the war in Kuwait took place, I think it was in the 90’s, one day I saw in the headlines the name of Oman. You can imagine my surprise.
    I have been searching in ancient Oman history about this, but I can’t find an answer, since you know so much about this country maybe you can help me. Thanking you in advance,
    Miriam F

    • Hello, Miriam. I love that name! That is the Old Testament name of Mose and Aaron’s sister and also the name of the Lord Jesus’ mother (during his earthly ministry, that is). Many call her “Mary” but her name was actually “Miriam”. Your story is fascinating. Thanks for sharing. There are intimite things that God shares with individuals (those who know Him) that are too wonderful or incomprehensible to bother even trying to put into words and explain (especially to those undiscerned folks who despise and mock anything one would share anyway). The fact that God shares intimate details with those who know Him is revealed throughout Scripture. One powerful testimony to that fact is Psalm 25:14 which reads, “The LORD confides in those who fear him; he makes his covenant known to them.” Another version puts it even better in reading, “The secret of the Lord is with those in whose hearts is the fear of him; he will make his agreement clear to them.” I pray that God reveals to you the meaning of that dream that most likely only you will be able to determine, with the aid of His Spirit, (John 14:26). The only princess of Oman that I am aware of that relates to Jesus is Emily Ruete (born Sayyida Salme) who wrote, “Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar”. I would love to read that book but I understand that it is banned here in the Sultanate due to her conversion to Christianity. The longing of this woman and her torment (that may be related to your dream) was that she was never able to claim her inheritance from Zanzibar and she was extremely homesick for her lost home. Not sure how that relates but thought you might want to check up on her history. God bless! Now that you are a Christian, there is no need to dwell too long on dreams and visions though as we have the revealed Word of God. (any individual dreams/words would never contradict His Word. Something to allows keep in mind.) In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” (Hebrews 1:1-3)

  13. Very interesting Andy and most exciting that you were there!
    Lovely pics and you are helping uncover history!
    Seen the sign, just never had the time!
    thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks, Kerry!
      The roads are too rough to climb up there in a vehicle anyway so probably best that you just enjoy the pics on my blog! ;-) I’m hoping they get a tourists centre/museum built there sometime in the near future. Always fascinated by the history of this beautiful country! So much to see and learn!

  14. Pingback: Sinkhole Park – a MUST-see for all Visitors to Oman! | Andy in Oman

  15. Went there today. You can just walk up to the site! Extremely interesting and exciting. There are loads of pieces of pottery etc just lying around! Does anyone know why they used coral for building? Was it lighter, cooler or just easier than the rocks and stones? I do hope they continue excavating the site and put up more information! I have a couple of photos but don’t know if I will be able to upload them as I am new to all this! Gill

    • Gill,
      Nice to know people can still check out the site. Thanks for the update! I definitely think it’s worth a visit and found it interesting and exciting as well. Let’s hope they put up some info soon like maybe in a small visitor’s centre or museum.

  16. thnx for all thos information..surely it wil help me. but u know…omani people doesnt have any idea of history and also they dnt care for it..

    • r. mostofa,
      That’s quite a generalization to say that “omani people don’t have any idea of history and don’t care for it”! I really can’t agree with that at all! The fact that Omanis are passionate about their history can be seen by the fact that there are so many museums dealing with their history.

  17. Hi,
    You’d be happy to know that a visitor’s center is expected when renovations are over. For now, the excavations are going on for 4 more years, I think. And then, it’ll take a couple of years again in order to restore excavated settlements.
    If you wish to, I can update with news infos after the autumn campain.

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