Qalhat is perhaps one of the more obscure archaeological spots in Oman: tucked all the way to the northeast and bordered by only a small coastal town, it is not a place most tourists think of coming to. Yet it would be a missed opportunity indeed to submit to that popular view. This place hosts, after all, the ruins of the city that was once the most important and prosperous in Oman, ages before the current capital, Muscat, even began to rise to power.
Qalhat was the capital of Oman so long ago, in fact, that it was even before Islam reached the country’s shores. Before Muscat supplanted it, it was the primary port of trade in the area from the 13th to 15th centuries. Its ruins were discovered by an expedition led by both Omani and French archaeologists, who pronounced civilisation or occupation in the area to date all the way back to the Bronze Age. The actual city’s foundations, however, were laid in the 12th century, and its walls and fortifications after that.
In its time, Qalhat was seen as “the other city” or “twin city” of Hormuz, whose ruler once controlled Muscat as well. Its importance was to be expected, most of the goods going to or coming from Hormuz and adjacent territories passed through its port at the time, rendering it of great commercial significance to the region. Some of the world’s most famous travellers have in fact passed through it. Marco Polo visited the city at some point in his travels and wrote of its busy markets and thriving trade in his records, using the obviously transliterated name “Calatu” to refer to the city. Another great traveller, Ibn Batuta, passed through the city as well. He came to it in the first half of the 14th century, and even mentioned in his records the Bibi Maryam Mosque of the city, which he praised as one of the “most beautiful” edifices of its type in the world at the time. We know from his account that the mosque used to have blue tiles on its walls, but these are all gone now, with only the bricks remaining. Part of the dome has gone as well.
The mosque, also called the Friday Mosque, is probably the most visible of all the ruins at the dig site now. It is said to have been built by Lady Maryam (“Bibi” is “Lady”), a person archaeologists believe to have been a woman of great influence as well as the wife of Qalhat’s governor. Although the mosque has lost most of its dome and is definitely just a ruin of its old self going from descriptions of it in the past, it is still a monument worth seeing, and impressive relic several centuries in age. It was apparently reduced to ruins by the Portuguese when they came here in the 16th century.
Qalhat is no longer a glorious city, certainly. There was supposedly an earthquake that wrecked it in the 1300’s, and shifting trade routes moved port activities in the region to Muscat, taking away the primary purpose of the old capital. Even so, it is yet a place of interest to those who love to visit old ruins, especially ones with such ancient history.