The ancient city of QALHAT was, up until the sixteenth century, one of the most important on the Omani coast – “A sort of medieval Dubai” as travel writer Tim Mackintosh-Smith described it in his Travels with a Tangerine. Qalhat’s importance derived from its status as the second city of the Kingdom of Hormuz, serving as a major commercial hub in the Indian Ocean trade routes. The fame of the city attracted visitors including both Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta. Despite its prosperity, the city suffered from certain strategic weaknesses. A falaj system provided a reliable source of water, but there was almost no agricultural land available and all food had to be imported by land or sea. Qalhat’s already tenuous foothold on the Omani coast was futher undermined by a serious earthquake at the end of the fourteenth century, while just over a hundred years later, in 1508, the newly arrived Portuguese delivered the coup de grace, sacking the city, massacring its inhabitants and setting its buildings and large fleet of boats on fire, an event from which Qalhat never recovered.

The ruins of the city, originally triangular in plan, cover an area of over sixty acres, although it’s difficult to make much sense of the confusing wreckage of assorted walls and towers scattered over a rocky headland and along the adjacent wadi (look out for shards of antique Persian pottery and Chinese procelain which litter the site). The only notable surviving structure is the Mausoleum of Bibi Maryam, a quaint little cuboid building enshrining the remains of the saintly Bibi Maryam who, according to Ibn Battuta, had ruled the city until a few years before his visit in 1330. The colourful tiles which covered the walls right up until the nineteenth century have now vanished, and the dome has also collapsed, though the remains of the delicately moulded arches and doorways have somehow survived the years.

The site was officially closed at the time of writing, although there’s nothing to stop you walking up for a look anyway.

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