The 18th of December, Qatar National Day, marks the founding of the modern state: the day on which, in 1878, Sheikh Qassim Bin Mohammed Al Thani succeeded his father as ruler, establishing a unified nation on the whole peninsula for the first time. Finally shrugging off both Ottoman and British influences, Qatar then formally declared its independence on September 3rd, 1971, and joined the United Nations on September 21st, 1971.
The roots of wealthy modern-day Qatar with its multinational, multicultural population can be traced back to the people who lived on the peninsula hundreds – or thousands – of years ago. But the strategic location of the country has always attracted both resident and transient populations. Initially, there were permanent communities around the coast, and temporary or seasonal settlements in the desert. Throughout history the peninsula has also attracted major powers, interested in using Qatar's strategic location to further their own interests.
Hundreds of years ago, nomadic Bedouin roamed the Arabian and Qatari peninsulas with their families and their livestock, while the resident population earned a meager living fishing, pearl diving or creating a valuable purple dye from shellfish. Even today, you will find Qatari families who can trace their history to the coastal or desert dwellers.
Originally, the sea itself was a source of sustenance. Now, it’s the exploitation of rich undersea hydrocarbon deposits that brings wealth and prosperity to the country, while the warm turquoise waters feature prominently in the attractions of the tourism industry.
24 million years ago, the Qatari peninsula lay under the sea; yet there were times – between 44,000 and 70,000 years ago and then again about 15,000 years ago – when the whole of the Arabian Gulf area was dry land; it would have been theoretically possible to move on foot from present-day Saudi Arabia to Iran.
Remains of a two-room sandstone structure in the southeast of Qatar (at Shagra) appear to date from about 6,000 BC, with both leaf-shaped flints and barbed stone arrowheads also found. Hearth remains at Al Khor, north of Doha, date from the second half of the fifth millennium BC.
The Ubaid Period
Archaeologists have frequently uncovered large piles of fish bones or shells in the same vicinity as tools, indicating both settlements were used for a prolonged period and highlighting the importance of the sea. Fish was ‘cured’, with excavations at Al Da’asa on the west coast of Qatar revealing scores of ‘curing’ pits full of burnt stones, together with stone tools and shards of Al Ubaid pottery (named after a small site near Ur in Iraq, where it was made).
Sites such as Al Da’asa were probably inhabited seasonally by hunters and fishermen who returned to the same location year after year. Limestone querns also at Al Da’asa suggest the harvesting of cereals. There is no evidence of dwellings, indicating perhaps the use of huts made from ‘barasti’ matting, a style used throughout the Gulf until the early 20th century.
More evidence of fish ‘processing’ was found near Al Khor, together with the cremated bones of a young woman, dating to the second part of the fifth millennium BC. Numerous other excavations have uncovered worked stone tools, including on the west coast.
In the 3rd millennium BC, Sumerians from Mesopotamia are known to have settled off the Saudi Arabian coast, about 100 kilometres from the Qatari coast, which makes some form of contact with Qatar highly probable.
On the fringes of the Dilmun Civilisation
With its capital in modern Bahrain the Dilmun civilization developed in the third and second millennia BC, forming an important trading link between the civilisations of Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley. Barbar pottery, typical of Dilmun, has been found on the Ras Abrouq peninsula and at Khor Shaqiq, just south of Al Khor.
Dilmun is thought by some to have been part of Kassite Babylonia in the 2nd millennium BC, and Kassite pottery has been found on a small island in Al Khor Bay where it appears a popular purple dye from Murex molluscs was produced. Another dye production site has been found in the Khor Al Adaid area.
Greek and Roman influences
In the 5th century BC the Greek historian Herodotus referred to the seafaring Canaanites as the original inhabitants of Qatar, praising both their trading and navigational skills. The geographer Ptolemy also showed “Qatara” on his map of the Arab World, believed to be a reference to the town of Al Zubara which acquired fame as one of the most important trading ports in the Gulf at the time.
Having conquered Persia in 326 BC, Alexander the Great returned to Babylon but ordered the exploration of the coastline of the Arabian Peninsula prior to a proposed invasion of the area. In fact Alexander died of fever three days before the onslaught was due, and it never happened.
Alexander’s empire then became under Seleucid rule. A site on the coast at Al Wasil (Lusail), north of Doha, includes the ruins of dwellings and defensive structures as well as burial mounds, dated between the 7th and 1st centuries BC.
The Sasanid Empire
Pearls and murex dye from Qatar could perhaps have been two commodities traded from Qatar during the Persian Sasanid era dominance of commercial activity in the region during the 3rd Century AD. ‘Sasanian-Islamic’ pottery shards have been found close to Umm Al Ma’ in Qatar and other finds in the same locality, of red polished-ware and glass, have suggested the inhabitants were perhaps traders who enjoyed a good standard of living.
The Spread of Islam and the Abbasids
In the middle of the 7th century AD, King Al Munzir Bin Sawi Al Tamimi called for the Gulf region to adopt Islam. The Umayyad dynasty, based in Damascus, was overthrown in 750 AD by the Abbasids, descendants of the Prophet Mohammed’s uncle, and they moved their capital to Baghdad in 762 AD.
At the time, Qatar was renowned for its boatbuilding and for the skills of its seafarers. It played an important role in the spread of Islam by providing the first naval fleet during the Islamic conquests.
The Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) and his wife Aisha are reputed to have worn Qatari cloaks; Qatar was famous for its weaving and embroidery, especially rough red woolen cloaks called qitri. Qatar was also known for its leather and spears, as well as its camels and horses, and poets spoke repeatedly of the wealth and prosperity of Qatar.
During the early Islamic period Qatar thrived as a trading outpost with much of the activity concentrated in the north, as a result of easy access to underground water sources which are still in use to this day. At about the same time, Al Huwaila in the northeast of the country functioned as the principal town of the peninsula.
During the Abbasid era, in the 8th century Hijri (14th century AD), Qatar witnessed a period of economic prosperity, mentioned in documents originating from Murwab Fort on the western coast.
Remains of another Islamic-era village were found southeast of Al Zubara with ceramic fragments indicating trade with China.