September 11, 2023

Exploring Qatar's Archaeological Heritage On The Coast

Qatar only became an independent state under sovereign rule in 1971. However, the country's history stretches back much further, and archaeological findings across the country, especially in the coastal areas, support and provide evidence of the nation's development from many thousands of years ago to modern times. 

A Potted History of Qatar

Relatively little is known about Qatar before the 18th century when migrating families from Kuwait arrived on the peninsula and settled in coastal areas like Al Zubarah. But, evidence of human occupation found during archaeological digs suggests that people lived or traded along Qatar's northeast coast during the Stone Age, as early as 4000 BCE. Evidence found in Al Khor of purple dye production, commonly used by people from the near east in the Bronze age, between 3300 - 1200 BC, suggests coastal occupation and trade with modern Iraqi and Iranian people. From Bronze Age to Iron Age, stone burial mounds found in Umm Al Ma'a, also near the seaside town of Al Khor, provide additional evidence of human habitation in Qatar around 1000 BCE.

From that time onwards to the 16th century, Qatar was ruled by a succession of conquering nations, including the Greeks, the Persians, the Umayyad and the Abbasid dynasties. During those reigns, the tiny Arab peninsula was a place of small fishing villages and settlements, a country wandered by Bedouin nomads, a centre for horse and camel breeding, and a trade centre for pearling. It also became an Islamic country. Archaeological discoveries of the remains of fishing villages and settlements (including Christian habitations), burial mounds, potsherds (fragments of pottery, glass and stone vessels) and pottery along the coast in Dukhan, Ras Abrouq, Al Khor, Mezuzah and Murwab support assertions of occupation found in ancient maps and texts. Findings also support the notion of trade with surrounding countries and those even further afield, such as China, West Africa and Southeast Asia.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Qatar was conquered by the Portuguese and then the Ottomans. Then, up to the 20th century, the country was a battleground for control between Arabs, such as the Kuwaitis, the Saudis, the Iraqis, and the Ottomans. During those times, towns such as Zubarah on the east coast, a major trading and pearling centre for the first known settlers, Al Khor, Furwayrit, Al Bidda, Doha and Al Wakrah on the west coast were important strongholds. Evidence from these eras and specific strongholds is more prolific than earlier periods in the country's history. The remains of settlements and villages, forts, mosques, palaces, etc., can be found up and down the country's coastline.

Though Qatar has come into its own since the discovery of oil in the early 20th century and is now a modern, vibrant, international country, some archaeological sites remain intact today. Many of these have been restored and are now home to museums or serve as visitor centres and attractions for Qatar's tourism industry.

If you are interested in Qatari history or want to take a glimpse into a modern country's past, you may wish to visit the following archaeological sites that highlight Qatar's bygone ages:

Archaeological Sites

Working your way up the east coast of Qatar and down the west coast, the following highlights some of Qatar’s best coastal archaeological sites:

Jazirat bin Ghannam - Purple Island

Image: Hasan Zaidi/

Purple Island is a naturally formed island in Al Khor Bay on Qatar's east coast. Today the isle is attached to the mainland by a wooden walkway. It is a tranquil haven for native and migratory birds and fish, and sea life attracted by the mangrove forests surrounding its rocky and sandy shores. However, it is also a site of historical importance. Findings uncovered on the island provide evidence of ancient occupation from numerous eras. The most interesting discoveries have been those that gave the island its name. 

The isle, originally named Bin Ghanim Island, has long been dubbed Purple Island due to archaeological evidence dating back to the Kassite period, 1595 to 1155 BC. The Kassites were people of the ancient near east, specifically from modern-day Iraq, Iran and Syria. They were known to have produced purple dye - reportedly for dying garments for royalty - by extracting the secretions of a predatory sea snail. Indeed, over 3 million crushed snail shells and Kassite ceramics associated with dye production were found during digs on the island - hence the moniker Purple Island.

Today, though there is no evidence of the past, visitors can spend an hour or two on the island exploring the beaches, birdwatching and wildlife spotting, picnicking, climbing rocky outcrops, fishing, swimming or investigating the mangroves by canoe, kayak or paddle board.  

Getting There and Away

By car or taxi, Purple Island is around an hour's drive from central Doha up the Al Khor Coastal Road or the Al Shamal Road. Visitors should head north of Al Khor towards Al Dakhira, then around Al Khor Bay to the island.

Al Jassasiya Rock Carvings

Image: Alizada Studios/

Qatar is home to several ancient rock art sites. However, the most extensive site, discovered in 1957, with almost 1,000 carvings, is at Al Jassasiya on the northeast coast. 

An hour's drive north of Doha, the petroglyphs are carved on a rocky sandstone outcrop set back from the coastline, reportedly used as a lookout point in times gone by. The images carved include traditional row boats known as Dhows, strange marine-like animals and fish, and circular cup-style indentations of various sizes, in rows, individually, in groups and patterns, similar to a rosette. 

The dating of the carvings has been inconclusive, but archaeologists suggest the site is either neolithic from around 3000 BCE or from the era between the 8th and 10th centuries. Some suggest that the drawings could have been added on multiple occasions over time.

While some of the carvings are thought to be a direct representation of Qatar's past maritime endeavours of fishing and pearling, some are thought to have been carved and used as part of a primitive board game. Considering the site is also believed to be a lookout point, it makes sense that watchmen would carve something to keep them amused during the long hours on duty. The mysterious cup-shaped indentations, it is thought, could have been used to hold pearls or stone used in a game similar to mancala - one of the oldest board games in the world. The aim of the game, played between two players, is usually to collect as many counters (generally stones or seeds) as possible by moving them from cup to cup and finally to a store to win. A similar version of the game is still played in Qatar today called Al Haloosa or Al Huwaila.

Getting There and Away

Al Jassasiya is easy to reach via car on the Al Shamal Highway north of Doha. Visitors should exit Al Shamal Road at Exit 66, travelling eastward, then take the first left and follow the road to a signposted and fenced-off area that is Al Jassasiya.

Al Ruwaida Archaeological Site

Image: qatar22

Al Ruwaida is one of Qatar's largest archaeological sites covering an area of 9 hectares. The ruins date back to the 16th century. They include the largest fort in Qatar, several mosques, a boatyard and repair shop, numerous merchant warehouses, a walled tomb, various temporary structures, and a central garden. 

Relatively little is known about the site, but findings from archaeological digs, excavations, and historical texts suggest that the area was inhabited at various times from the 1500s to the late 1700s. Inhabitants have included the Portuguese, credited with building the fort in the 16th century and, temporarily, Kuwaiti Bedouins in the 1700s. The availability of freshwater and oversea routes to trade with Asia, Africa, Europe and Arabia is thought to have been the catalyst for the site's creation. No one knows why the site was abandoned, but the final inhabitants are thought to have left the site in the mid-1700s, around the same era that the Wahhabis of Nejd from central Arabia are thought to have raided the town. 

It is possible to visit the site and wander the ruins by the sea. The town's remains are clearly laid out to be recognisable as a fort, a mosque, etc. and give insight into how Qatari ancestors and conquerors lived hundreds of years ago.

Getting There and Away

Al Ruwaida can be reached via car in just over an hour. Visitors should head north out of Doha on the Al Shamal Highway. At Al Ruwais, Qatar’s most northern town, the main road to the left, Abo Dhalouf Street, runs down the northwest coast to the site just above Umm Jassim.

The Nitty-Gritty

The site is open Saturday, Tuesday and Thursday, 9 am – 5 pm, and Friday, 12.30 – 5 pm. Entry to the site is free.

Al Rekayat Fort

Image: Qatar Museums

Al Rakayat Fort lies slightly inland, south of Al Ruwaida Archaeological Site. The area in which the fort lies was the most populated region of Qatar across the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of the towns and villages in the area were initially founded by Bedouins and merchants from Kuwait during settlement and trade along the northeast coast. The main town was Zubarah, around 15 km south. Following the migration of Kuwaitis to Bahrain, most of the area was inhabited by Bedouins of the Naim tribe, loyal to Bahrain's rulers. However, in 1937, the Al Thanis ousted the Naim in their bid to free Qatar from Bahrain's rule. Most towns were abandoned during this period; as a result, the region is a treasure trove of archaeological sites.

Al Rakayat Fort was built in the mid-1700s to protect the local water source, an excavated five km-deep well. However, the fort was likely designed to protect the trading frontier. The defence is typical of those built during the era, having a large central courtyard surrounded by four walled fortifications with a tower (three rectangular and one circular) in each corner and being constructed predominantly from limestone and mud. A date press was uncovered during digs in one of the rooms underneath the fort's ramparts, and a mosque was located southwest of the structure. All the structures have been restored, once in 1988 and most recently in 2021.

Visitors can also visit the ruins of the nearby settlement, Ar Rakiyat, the local village that grew up around the fort. Or, visit the old coastal settlements of Al Jumail, Al Khuwair, Al Arish or Freiha. The ruins at each site date back to the 18th and 19th centuries and are typical of fishing and pearling villages from the era.

Getting There and Away

Al Rakayat Fort is easily reached via car from central Doha in an hour and a half. Visitors should head north out of Doha on the Al Shamal Highway. At Al Ruwais, Qatar's most northern town, the main road to the left, Abo Dhalouf Street, runs down the northwest coast past Umm Jassim to the fort on the right-hand side of the road.

The Nitty-Gritty

The site is open Saturday, Tuesday and Thursday, 9 am – 5 pm, and Friday, 12.30 – 5 pm. Entry to the site is free.

Al Thaqab Fort

Image: AEB

Al Thaqab Fort is another remnant from the 18th/19th centuries, though evidence of habitation in the Al Thaqab area dates back to the 10th century. The fort was primarily built as part of the north coast fortifications and to protect a 35 km deep well used by numerous villages in the area.

The fort was originally built using limestone, coral and mud to create thick walls surrounding a rectangular courtyard, cornered by three circular towers and one rectangular tower. The circular towers each have stairways from the yard to the first floor. The rectangular building has a staircase leading to ramparts, under which are accommodation and storage rooms.

Abandoned in the early 20th century after skirmishes between the Naim and Al Thani tribes, the fort was restored in 2003. Visitors can visit the restored building today, as well as the surrounding ruins of the old Ath Thaqab village.

Getting There and Away

Al Thaqab Fort is easily reached by road from the centre of Doha in an hour and a half. Visitors should head north out of Doha on the Al Shamal Highway. At Al Ruwais, Qatar’s most northern town, take Abo Dhalouf Street to the west and follow the coastal road past Umm Jassim. The fort can be accessed via a dirt track on the right-hand side of the road.

The Nitty-Gritty

The site is open all day, every day and is free to enter.

Al Zubarah World Heritage Site

Image: HasanZaidi/

Al Zubarah is Qatar's largest archaeological site and has been a recognised UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2013. UNESCO accepted the site for evidencing Qatar's history and heritage and because it is the Gulf region's best-preserved example of an 18th-19th century trading port and pearl fishing town. Since the site was abandoned in the early 1900s, it has remained virtually untouched. The town's original layout and features are still intact and recognisable, giving an unprecedented window into the past.

The walled coastal town was once a powerhouse of trade founded by merchants from Kuwait in the late 18th century and occupied by up to 9,000 residents. The town predominantly traded horses, camels and pearls with neighbouring Arab countries for food supplies and materials. However, many of the excavated objects found at the site also suggest trade links across the Indian Ocean and Western Asia. The quest for regional domination across the Gulf saw the town destroyed in the early 19th century. Although the town was not abandoned for at least a further century, it never recovered its status as a centre for trade and commerce. It was deserted in the early 20th century and left to the ravages of time.

The site covers an area of over 60 hectares. It includes the remains of a canal, fortified buildings, defensive walls, streets, a marketplace, mosques, courtyard houses, fishermen's huts, date presses (for molasses production) and cemeteries. Nearby and included as part of the site is the fortified settlement of Qal'at Murair, built to protect the town's inland wells, and Al Zubarah Fort, built in 1938 to guard and protect the country's northwest coast.

The restored fort now serves as a visitor centre and the starting point for guests to the site. The building incorporates displays and information that give visitors an insight into the area's history and use during its occupation. It is a great place to garner more details before heading down to the raised walkways that allow visitors to view the town.

Getting There and Away

Located just over 100 km from Doha on the north-west coast, Al Zubarah Heritage Site can be reached via car in an hour and 20 minutes. Visitors should head north out of Doha on the Al Shamal Road, join the Al Zubara Road heading west at Exit 59, and follow to the fort.

The Nitty-Gritty

The site is open Saturday through Thursday, 9 am – 5 pm, and Friday, 12.30 – 5 pm. Entry to the site is free for residents of Qatar and GCC countries, One Pass holders and children under 16 years. For everyone else, the entry fee is QAR 35.

Zekreet Fort and Mosque

Image: SLSK/

Zekreet Fort is located on Qatar's western coast at the bottom of the Zekreet Peninsula. It is reportedly the only known fortification structure in the country's western region. The structure was built in the early 1800s using beach rocks and was most likely constructed to protect the coastline from sea invasion or attack. It is claimed that the defences were built in the early 1800s by a pirate ruler of Qatar, Rahman bin Jaber Al Jalahman, who was responsible for several fortified settlements along the northern coastline, including Al Khuwair. Archaeological evidence indicates that the fort was only used for a decade or two before it was abandoned.

The fort remains were discovered in the 1970s and excavated several times in the intervening decades. The ruins were built on the traditional rectangle plan; parts of the fortified walls, with three circular watch towers and one rectangular tower, can still be seen today. 

Just south of the ruins lies Zekreet Village, a small habitation for local workers. It is worth stopping at the village to see the restored Heritage Mosque and 1950s Imam's House to get a snapshot of traditional Qatari village-style architecture. 

Getting There and Away

Located just over 80 km from Doha on the northwest coast, Zekreet Fort and Mosque can be reached by car in just over an hour. Visitors should head west of Doha on the Ar Rayyan Road and follow the Dukhan Road. Once past Bir Zekrit, Zekreet Village can be found north, off the Dukhan Highway, past the Cuban Hospital. The fort is located on the other side of the village.

The Nitty-Gritty

The site is open all day, every day and is free to enter.

Worth Noting

  • Once away from the main highways and roads, many of Qatar's archaeological sites can only be reached via dirt roads; travelling by 4X4 is recommended.
  • Qatar's heritage and archaeological sites suffer harsh climatic conditions and are fragile. Please remember to treat the remains and ruins with respect.

Main image: Vladivald/

Published: September 11, 2023
Last updated: September 11, 2023
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