The ancient city of Qalhat has just gained UNESCO World Heritage Site status and is slowly gaining traction as a tourist destination in Oman. But, there’s more to this ancient city than what’s told in the history books. Y’s Alvin Thomas talks to residents about the stories and myths that surround it to round up the facts.
Entering the ancient city of Qalhat, the thought of standing on grounds that once bore the weight of some of the world’s most powerful minds such as Ibn Battuta, and dictators such as Bahauddin Ayez, brought shivers down our spines as we passed through its battered gate. Today, the 920-year-old abandoned city is a recipient of electricity and, that harbinger of digital modernity, 4G connectivity.
But it’s there, deep in the heart of Al Sharqiyah, that lies a mausoleum so desolate that even those living around it are completely oblivious to it. Little do they know that the ruins of what remains of the ancient city of Qalhat is, today, putting the Sultanate on the map.
For the handful of those who visit the town for its historic value – or rather to catch a glimpse of the ruins that remains of the city – Qalhat is a sight to behold; much like how awe-struck Ibn Battuta would’ve been when he first visited the city in 1311.
Little wonder it’s become a talking point around the globe. And, as of this month, Qalhat will also rank among the 1,902 sites across the world protected with the prestigious World Heritage Site status by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
The ruins of Qalhat
Today, the only remnants of the ancient city – which dates back to the early 11th century – is the tall mausoleum of Bibi Mariam, also known as ‘Lady Maryam’, who ruled the city of Qalhat and Hurmuz after the death of her husband Ayaz. Virtually all other portions of the city now remain in rubble, save for a few structures peppered across the sandy terrain.
The sands of time have taken their toll on the structure that dominates the otherwise rocky skyline, as the mausoleum now stands without its dome, and the wrinkled remains of its stone and sand walls have forced authorities to shut the site around it from tourists and adventurous teenagers.
Still, the beauty and mystery surrounding the city remains. And each structure that remains along with it has a story to tell those who would listen. At least that’s what Sulaiman al Kindi, a 74-year-old resident of Qalhat told us when he saw us scouting around its perimeter.
“You really shouldn’t be so close to this building,” he said initially, as he advanced towards us as we clicked photos of the tall tomb.
“Even the slightest of disturbances can affect the structure. The building is also very weak, so it’s best to stay far away from it,” he added.
Owing to his knowledge on the building, our translator proceeded to question him about the significance of the locale to Oman.
He answered: “There are so many stories that are told about Qalhat. But, you should always open your ears to the stories that the building tells you. These walls have seen far more than what anyone could tell you.
“This is where Bibi Maryam was buried. And who knows, it might be her spirit that speaks to you as you walk around the town,” he said with a teasing grin forming on his wrinkled face.
But there are conflicting stories about the mausoleum, as some say the structure is a mosque that was built by Lady Maryam herself, while others say that her husband, Bahauddin Ayez, built the tomb in the 13th century in honour of his wife.
The shrine measures in at about 30m in length and 25m in depth, with a basement or underground corridor beneath. Access is denied with a large metal door that seems to have escaped erosion – unlike much of the tomb.
We then talked to some youth relaxing by the beach about how important Qalhat has been to them. Shabib al Wahaibi, an undergraduate student, said: “The city defines our life –as I remember as a child we all had to sit and learn about it from our parents.
“It’s like a tradition for those who were born here – sitting on the ground and hearing abbie (father) talk about it comes back to my memory. Back then, we didn’t have electricity either, so we felt that the place on top of the hill [Qalhat] was very scary. Some of my friends also made up scary stories, so we wouldn’t go up there very often.
“To be honest, the first time I went up there was with my friends when I was 21-years-old. Until then, all I knew about it was Bibi Maryam’s tomb that you can see from down the hill,” he added.
The tides of history
The earliest recorded history of the city dates back to the 11th century, when Qalhat was known to be an important stop in the wider Indian Ocean trade network, and also the second city of the Kingdom of Ormus.
The Kingdom was established by Arab princes in the 10th century and was developed into a major port of the east coast of Arabia, but soon changed powers after the arrival of the Portuguese.
The latter also marked the end of an era for the beautiful city, for Sulaiman believes that it’s the Portuguese who ransacked Qalhat, burning most of the ships and buildings as they went along – while the rest of the damage over the years is owed to time, environmental factors, and man.
But standing there it’s hard to avoid looking at the ever-present sea and think about all the life – the hustle and bustle – that once kept this city alive.
Time, for Qalhat, has been the ultimate custodian of change – an ancient city which, upon its ruins, once thrived a dynamic civilization that underlines the very core of Oman.