Ancient city of 70,000 uncovered in RAK

A town that was once one of the two most important places in the Gulf has been uncovered beneath the medieval trade city of Julfar, the port that preceded Ras al Khaima.

Kevin Lane, the director of the excavation work in the medieval city of Julfar in Ras Al Khaimah.
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RAS AL KHAIMAH // An ancient town has been uncovered beneath the medieval trade city of Julfar, the port that preceded Ras al Khaimah, suggesting the city was of even greater importance on the trade routes between Asia and Europe than previously believed.

The discovery of an older, mud brick city was made at the end of a “rescue excavation” funded by the Government of Ras al Khaimah and archaeologists are hoping for a second season to excavate before a desalination plant is built on part of the site.

Dr Kevin Lane, the project manager, said: “It’s completely revised what we thought of Julfar. It’s much more substantial. We already knew that this was a bustling port. Now we have the evidence.”

It takes some imagination to transform the barren seaside strip of powdery mounds into a bustling medieval port city of narrow alleyways and coral stone townhouses, but Dr Lane's enthusiasm is infectious.

"We are in the middle of medieval Julfar and this is a medieval floor, believe it or not," he said, jumping on a brown patch of hardened earth, which apparently served as a 14th-century floor. "You have to take into consideration that before oil, RAK was the place to be. It' s a coastal oasis. It's only really with the discovery of oil that RAK starts fading into the hinterland."

Julfar was a fertile port at the entrance to the Gulf that connected Iraqi rivers to Ottoman and European markets and trade between Africa and India that extended to Siam and China.

Secrets to Julfar's rich past may lie under this barren floor.

Archaeologists have discovered remnants of a mud-brick settlement just 10 to 50 centimetres below an ancient coral stone city that was home to 50,000 to 70,000 inhabitants at its height in the 14th to 16th centuries.

The mud brick settlement, built at a depth of two to three metres and at different angle to the coral stone city, is believed to be unconnected to the town above, though only 20 to 50 years separates the two cities. Mud brick buildings, made of clay from nearby riverbeds, have been found at two main trenches but not in outlying areas. Pole holes, probably for palm front houses, suggest fishermen inhabited the area before and after.

The mud brick city, possibly 13th century, was found by accident when archaeologists tried to confirm the end of the sequence. "The excavations have revealed that the story has changed," Dr Lane said.

"Like most things in archaeology, we found it purely by fluke. It could be brilliant to have a second season, we expected only one phase of building and there's at least two there."

Julfar stretched about five kilometres along the coast. Housing developments have left three kilometres, including a two-kilometre area protected by the RAK government.

Dr Lane said: "Julfar is one of the two most important places on the south coast of the Persian gulf, the other one being Bahrain. There's nothing like it in the whole of the Emirates and a lot of medieval Bahrain is under modern Bahrain."

End-of-season excavations revealed that the southern al Nudud district, once thought to be a later and poorer suburb of al Mattaf, was possibly the town centre, said Dr Rob Carter,excavation director for the project.

"We discovered was that it was as significant and has the same date age as the rest of the site," Dr Carter said. "It could have been even grander because it had a lot of stone architecture there, which we don't have in what used to be considered the centre of the town."

Coral stone used to build the later settlement was quarried and imported from the Hormuz islands because it was so difficult to transport mountain rock a few kilometres over land.

Early written references to Julfar predate the town itself and may refer to the 12th to 13th Kush, and perhaps even the entire oasis area.

"It was more than just the Dubai of its day, it was the whole of the emirates towns rolled into one," Dr Carter said.

Great and small vessels alike docked at Julfar as they entered the Gulf from India and Africa. "Many of them, perhaps most of them, would stop at Julfar as they passed up to Iran and into Mesopotamia and the great Islamic states that were found in Iraq," said Dr Carter.

The Arab geographer al-Idrisi wrote of Julfar as a long-established pearling centre in about 1150, a mention that predates the town itself. Portugal's Duarte Barbosa wrote in 1516 of the "many respectable people" and pearls traded from Julfar across the Indian Ocean.

The historical references went curiously quiet in the 400-year interim because of the poor survival of Hormuzi records and their Hormuz-centric slant.

"We know enough from the records that Julfar was around, but there's no detailed descriptions of it," Dr Carter said. "One thing we will be able to get out of this study is a very good understanding of the chronology and the different phase of the buildings and how they're dated."

Julfar was abandoned in the early 16th century when its creek silted over from the coastal currents and the sedimentary deposits of three major wadis. This corresponded to the arrival of the Portuguese, who installed a Hormuzi government to oversee affairs.

The Federal Electricity and Water Agency were not available for comment on when construction of the desalination plant would begin.

Though part of the site may be lost to progress, it could have been years or even decades before such an extensive study was done if the "emergency excavation" was not undertaken.

"It has been generously supported and it's enabled us to get the best specialists in and give the material the full study and to study them quickly. It can take years, sometimes decades to get studies done but because we've been funded by the government, we've been able to do it very quickly," Dr Carter said.