Unwrapping the gift of the old city of Qalhat

Photos by Lena Petersen

MUSCAT: Almost everybody, at some time or another has remarked upon the remarkable prominence of the archaeological feature known as Bibi Maryams Tomb, either built for her by Baha al Din Ayaz, or by her for him. It stands proudly, clearly visible from the coastal highway, 25kms North of Sur, despite its continued deterioration over the last 500 years.

However, few have ventured on the trek to the ancient city that Bibi Maryam’s Tomb overlooks nearer to the sea, and once the capital of old Oman. In fact, says historian Mohammed Shabankariyei, “An Omani, Mohammed Diramku, laid the foundations for the Hormuz Kingdom, establishing the port city of Hormuz, and the region’s growth and affluence on Kish Island, during the late 11th Century.”

The succession passed to Sulaiman, Issa, Lashkari, and Kay Qubad until the latter’s two sons Isa and Mahmud fought over the succession, allowing Shihab ud-Din Muhammad to ascend to the throne, and take the hand of Bibi Nasser Ud din in marriage. However, the scheming woman had her own agenda, and identifying Abulmakarim Rukn ud Din Mahmud Qalhati, as the man to give her a true kingdom, Bibi poisoned Shihab, and married the bolder man in the mid-13th century.

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Together they forged a trade empire that stretched from China, through South East Asia and India, to Africa, with Qalhat as the nominated second capital of the Kingdom. The dynasty ruled with equal reigns of peace and conflict, until the Portuguese, under Alphonso de Albaquerque, during the 16th Century, invaded the kingdom’s territories, including Qalhat, in a bloody invasion, and took control of Sayf Uddin Abu Nasr Shah’s family’s trade and wealth.

For close to a hundred years, the royal family lived in their accustomed wealth and prosperity, but their weaknesses were exposed and the empire disintegrated as the Portuguese lost interest, with ironically, Muscat becoming one of the first states to become independent from the old kingdom.

The bare bones of that period of history would appear to be grounds for a fantastic television epic, let alone the embellishment offered that the Hormuz empire was, according to H J Coleridge, a place where, “Foreigners, soldiers and merchants, threw off all restraint in the indulgence of their passions … Avarice was made a science: it was studied and practiced, not for gain, but for its own sake, and for the pleasure of cheating. Evil had become good, and it was thought good trade to break promises and think nothing of engagements.”

Protected, and marked for restoration by Royal Decree 6/80, the work does not appear to have progressed remarkably beyond the archaeological investigations conducted recently by Alina Marie Ermertz and her colleagues from the University of Bonn, in Germany, which are chronicled in “Geoarchaeological Evidence for the Decline of the Medieval City of Qalhat, Oman,” published last year.

The city of Qalhat was recently placed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites for its “historical significance as the seasonal residence of the Hormuz Royal family,” and it’s “archaeological potential,” Qalhat’s history traces back to the Bronze Age, and from the Portuguese pillage of the city in the early 16th century, to their expulsion almost a century later, the settlement has fallen into disrepair.

Qalhat was once the jewel of the Omani coastline, lauded by Italian explorer Marco Polo as having “fine bazaars and one of the most beautiful mosques,” and one does not need too much imagination to see the people, the souqs, and a bustling foreshore fishing and trading port of Qalhat, alive, and in its prime.