Al Zubarah – Lost and Found
When teachers are preparing for a field trip it’s always nice to visit the area shortly before the students do, so as to check for any calamitous changes, increased risks and to ensure any activities will be able to go ahead. Being a conscientious educator (!) it was obviously my duty to re-visit Al Zubarah Fort and City prior to allowing 57 twelve-year olds loose on Qatar’s most famous historical monument. I did so on the weekend of 21st January accompanied by the ever-willing Ms. Kidd.
To say it was disconcerting to find Al Zubarah Fort closed is a massive understatement; when I found out that a visit to the city would require a guided tour I almost cancelled! However, in the end everything went ahead and we all had an extremely enjoyable day out.
I will confess that our visit was saved by Doctor Iman Saca of the Qatar Museums Authority, who stepped up at the last minute to fill in the gaps left by the seemingly insoluble closures; my most grateful thanks go out to her.
The present day Al Zubarah Fort is a somewhat uninspiring structure dating back to 1938. It was built by the ruling Al Thani family close to the ruins of an older fort, M’rair, which had links to the nearby abandoned city of Al Zubarah. The function of the older fort is unknown, although one could conjecture that it provided two roles, one to house a garrison protecting the city from land attack from the east and the other to provide an elevated position to observe movements at sea. Certainly this latter role was reprised in the second half of the twentieth century, at the newer fort, when it was also used as a coast guard station, which explains the helicopter landing pad adjacent to the fort. There are also rumours that the place was used as a prison at some point, although it has to be said digging through the walls would not prove that difficult.
Al Zubarah Fort was built in response to the Bahraini’s placing fortifications on Hawar Island, a piece of land that has had disputed sovereignty for some time, but one which the International Court of Justice deemed to be Bahraini in 2001. Although I have heard stories of battles between Bahrainis and Qataris around Zubarah these details seem to be an oral history rather than a written one. What is almost certain is that Al Zubarah was, at one time, a Bahraini settlement and that it is now, as a ghost town and abandoned fort, under the Qatari flag.
The present fort is not really linked to the older forts or the city of Al Zubarah in terms of a continuous development, although it seems the location remained important, possibly because the Bahrainis continued to use the port facilities to land on Qatari soil; I’ve heard they would come over for hunting trips. Quite obviously, with the discovery of the huge natural gas deposits in the area, the demarcation of borders became incredibly sensitive. Ironically the Qatar-Bahrain Friendship Bridge, now on hold, is planned to come into Qatar close to Al Zubarah.
I met a Danish engineer, Kenneth, at the fort on my first visit and two archaeologists from England, Alistair and Katie, when we went with the kids. They proved invaluable as sources of information, together with Iman at the QMA HQ, and some of this piece is based on comments they made that I have been unable to verify from other sources; I did feel they had a good handle on what had gone on in the area and they were kind enough to support some of my own suppositions.
Kenneth talked us through the rebuilding of Al Zubarah Fort; he said the task was complicated as they were trying to restore it to its original state, but that as the original construction was relatively poor, it was tricky. There were few straight lines and the construction materials were of a poor quality; not what you’d hope for bearing in mind modern day safety is a crucial aspect of the reconstruction. The work will take place in two main phases and is due for completion in 2013.
I would hazard a guess that the place never saw real action; there are no obvious bullet holes for example. It would have been used as a look out post, from which to send out an investigative party if there were small numbers of people who were considered risky, but they would have remained in the fort if a larger invasion occurred, sending a message back to Doha for reinforcements. I guess that if any attackers were armed only with rifles the force inside could hold out for a day or two if they numbered thirty or forty men.