The ancient city of Qalhat

The town of Qalhat is situated just off the coastal highway between Muscat and Sur. Over 3 500 years ago, it was the location of a thriving port city, which played a vital role in connecting ancient trading routes throughout the Indian Ocean. It is now also where the ruins of the remarkable Bibi Mariam Shrine can be seen.

The ruins of the ancient city of Qalhat, along with Bibi Mariam’s Tomb, can be easily accessed via the Muscat to Sur coastal highway. The turn-off for Qalhat is around 150 kilometres from Muscat (around 30 kilometres before the coastal town of Sur). To access Bibi Mariam’s Tomb, you’ll need to drive through the town, over the wadi crossing, and then up the adjacent hilltop to the site itself.

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Qalhat was described in numerous first-hand historical accounts by travellers at the time as being a rich and energetic city, which was populated with bazaars and markets, a beautifully decorated central mosque, and a number of large villa-style houses belonging to wealthy merchants.

Qalhat was also described by both the Arabian explorer Ibn Battuta (1304 – 1377), and the European explorer Marco Polo (1254 – 1324), as a prosperous city famous for its export of horses. They were sourced from the interior of the Arabian Peninsula, and shipped via Qalhat to the kings and maharajas of India.

Qalhat is situated on a small coastal plateau, a few kilometres north of Sur. There is not much left of the ancient city to be seen, but the ruins of several small settlements and a number of fortification walls and defense towers are still visible.

It is also reported in various historical accounts that the city was partially destroyed by an earthquake in the 14th century.

From the early 1300s until the 1500s, the so-called Hormuzian Empire controlled much of the entrance to the Arabian Gulf – including Qalhat, which at the time was a vital point linking trade routes to Southeast Asia, China, India, and the Persian Empire.

Today, the most impressive of Qalhat’s archaeological remains is the Bibi Maryam shrine, which now stands out as a reminder of the past glory of this ancient city. Bibi Maryam herself is said to have been an elderly woman who was a governor of Qalhat during the reign of King Hormuz.

The shrine represents a ‘Rare masterpiece of architecture and sophisticated building techniques from its time,’ according to the UNESCO World Heritage Convention.

In the early 2000s, Oman’s Ministry of Heritage and Culture carried out various archaeological investigations around the site. An underwater survey of the area was also conducted just offshore of where the city was once located, and numerous remains of ancient ships were found and documented.

The Portuguese also invaded and occupied Qalhat until they were expelled by the Omanis in the late 16th century.

For visitors to Oman, Qalhat makes for an ideal short stopover point (and a chance for some photos of the Bibi Mariam Shrine), before they can head off to popular tourist attractions nearby – like Wadi Shab and Wadi Tiwi, the Bimmah Sink Hole, and Sur’s dhow-building yard.

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