Members of the Qatar Natural History Group with Dr Andrew Petersen. RIGHT: Al Ruwaida - a solid tower at the corner of the fort, which may have had a cannon on top. PICTURES: David Gillespie
By Fran Gillespie/Doha
On a deserted stretch of coastline in the far north-west of Qatar are the ancient ruins of a large fortress, one of several between Al Zubara to the south and Al Ruwais on the northern tip of the peninsula. The name of the fort, Al Ruwaida, is a diminutive of the Arabic word rawda, meaning a fertile area in a depression, and the area is noticeably green today even after so little rainfall.
Since a brief stop by a team from Beatrice de Cardi’s British expedition to Qatar in 1972-73, which made a surface collection of pottery, no archaeologist had examined this large and intriguing site until 2008, when a team from the University of Wales in Lampeter arrived to excavate Al Ruwaida, together with colleagues from the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA).
On a tour of the site last weekend with members of the Qatar Natural History Group, Dr Andrew Petersen, the director, explained why the plan of the huge fortress, the largest in Qatar, is so complicated.
“We now know that there were three main phases,” he said. “The earliest fortress was a simple square structure. Then a tower was added on one corner. Later, the fortress was massively enlarged to eight times its original size. Some years afterwards, it was reduced in size and the walls were made much thicker, which suggests that a more defensive structure was required.”
The largest fort had a tower on each corner and one halfway along each side. When the most recent fort was constructed, the longer walls of the second phase were demolished, leaving towers rather oddly sited a short distance from the corners. One corner tower is large and solid, rather than hollow as is normal, and Dr Petersen believes that it was designed to carry the weight of a cannon and would have stood about 4m in height. Such cannons may have been Ottoman or could have been acquired from European ships.
This month, the archaeologists are attempting to solve a mystery: as yet no means of communication has been found between the smaller fort and its extension. A solid wall divides the two, and no entrance has yet been uncovered. Did the occupants scramble up and down ladders? Was there a staircase? Hopefully the answer may emerge over the next couple of weeks.
At its largest, the fortress must have protected a sizable population, and remains of buildings stretch along the coast for almost 2km, with the fort at the centre.
The people were engaged in fishing, pearl fishing and trading. Rich pearl beds lie only about 10km from Al Ruwaida, and the remains of stone fish traps can be seen all along the coast. The sea is too shallow for boats to come close to shore, so a shipping channel was dug, stretching out to sea. Its site is now marked by the mangroves fringing the shore, which grow much higher in the channel than on either side.
The beach rock excavated from the shipping channel probably came in useful for the construction of the courtyard houses and other buildings which were made either of beach rock or from the limestone that is plentiful in the area. In addition, said Dr Petersen, many people would have been housed in tents or in palm frond huts.
Two mosques have been located and one has been excavated, sited beside the beach at the northern end of the settlement, in fact so close to the sea that the ground around it sometimes floods at high tide! Sailors would probably have made the mosque the first place they headed to after a voyage, to give thanks for a safe journey.
The mosque had been rebuilt five times and its orientation changed slightly. On one side are steps which would have led to the minbar from which the imam addressed the congregation. It was not inserted into the wall as is usual in later mosques, possibly indicating a date in the early 1700s. Pieces of dry mud imprinted with palm fronds are evidence that the roof was thatched and then coated with mud.
From the mosque, sailors may well have headed to the merchants’ warehouses, or to the marine workshop which lies a short distance away. The remains of iron rivets and of bitumen, used to coat the outsides of ships, provide clues to the purpose of this building.
Unlike the large coastal town of Al Zubara some distance south of Al Ruwaida, which was built on sand and had inadequate water supply, Al Ruwaida had wells, one of which has been excavated. The water table lay only a few metres below the surface. The inhabitants of the settlement may even have been able to grow some crops, so green is the area.
Several houses situated either inside the fortress or built up against the outside of its walls have been uncovered. Small finds include fine Chinese ceramics from the 18th century, and colourful red and blue glazed fragments of pottery dating to the late 16th or early 17th century, made in Iran.
The everyday occupations of the inhabitants are indicated by the remains of tannur ovens for baking bread, a ball of daisy coral which was probably used for grating food, a coarse pottery jar with bitumen inside it, and small flat stones pierced for use as fishing weights. This species of coral does not occur in the Arabian Gulf and had been brought from some distance. Fragments of bowls made of a soft stone called chlorite schist have been found, and beads made of cornelian and glass.
Why was the site, apparently the home of several thriving industries, abandoned?
Local people interviewed in 1900, said Dr Petersen, believed that the inhabitants moved to Al Zubara in the 1760s. One reason may have been the silting up of the bay. Severe epidemics of cholera in the lands surrounding the Arabian Gulf broke out around this time, and if the disease reached Al Ruwaida and decimated the population, the survivors may have been too few to continue there. Whatever the reason, the fort and the village were left to the drifting sand, until the archaeologists arrived.
Al Ruwaida has been fenced and is not open to the public at present. But once excavations have been completed, it will become a heritage site under the management of the QMA.
1) Red granite mortar. RIGHT: Base of fritware coffee cup, Iran, 18th century. PICTURES: Andrew Petersen
2) Dr Andrew Petersen. PICTURE: David Gillespie
3) A boat repair workshop and warehouses beside the shore. Taller mangroves in the background indicate the site of the shipping channel. RIGHT: Al Ruwaida - the base of minaret on early mosque. PICTURES: David Gillespie