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Trading town of Julfar

Date of Submission: 26/07/2020
Criteria: (iii)(iv)(v)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
United Arab Emirates National Commission for Education, Culture, and Science
State, Province or Region:
Ras Al-Khaimah
Ref.: 6465

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Julfar is part of the Musandam Peninsula, and closely situated to the Strait of Hormuz, where the alluvial plains separate the limestone mountains of the Ru’us al-Jibal from the coast of the Gulf. Due to a unique geographical feature, the two outwash fans of Wadi Bih and Wadi Haqil are situated in close proximity collecting the majority of rainwater and sediments from the high rising mountains. This resulted in both wadi fans forming one of the largest arable region and palm garden area in the United Arab Emirates, due to their high rate of exploitable water and sedimentation. This fertile alluvial plain enabled the rise of the trading town of Julfar.

Opposite the palm gardens, the coastline was characterized by three large lagoons, which were sustained by the rainwater of the gravel fans, and protected by long stretched sandbars towards the sea. Through all periods of time, the lagoons provided food for the coastal population, and acted as a natural shelter for their ships. For thousands of years, they were the main focus of settled life and trade lasting from the Neolithic to the beginning of the Islamic period. Only the southwestern lagoon still exists today forming the modern creek of Ras al-Khaimah town, while the two northern lagoons silted up over time changing into large sabkha areas.

Beyond this lagoon, Julfar was bordered by large dune fields, which form the easternmost end of the Rub al-Khali desert.

Since the beginning of Islam, Julfar is known to have been the only port in the Gulf providing access to Southeast Arabia. Therefore, historical sources mention it often in connection with Mesopotamian and Iranian attempts to invade Southeast Arabia. Julfar is further described as an important trading place and main centre for pearl fishery and pearl trading in the lower Gulf. Having been associated to the medieval ‘Kingdom of Hormuz’, and being one of its major towns, it is also mentioned in Portuguese texts as one of the few places resisting Portuguese control. The last port of Julfar, synonymous with the creek of Ras al-Khaimah, and still mentioned as part of Julfar in early 19th century English texts, dominated the lower Gulf until the confrontations with British forces in 1809 and 1819. These British attacks started a decline, which can be seen as the end of the trading town of Julfar.

Due to reoccurring natural changes in Julfar’s environment and land use, several important archaeological sites are directly connected with the trading town of Julfar. The three locations of Kush, Mataf & Nudud, and Ras al-Khaimah can be identified as Julfar’s ports and commercial centres, which were used during different times of the Islamic Period. A massive town wall was part of an impressive fortification system securing these ports and palm gardens towards the open desert in the southwest. Its remains, called Wadi Sur, can still be seen today.

Chronology of Julfar’s main sites:

1) Kush, 25°49’27”N - 56°00’29”E

The port of early Julfar (5th-13th century AD) and its commercial centre are represented by the archaeological mound of Kush. Excavations revealed a large building complex from the Sasanian period, a substantial tower from the early Islamic period, and the remains of house complexes dating until the 13th century.

Kush is directly situated at the Wadi Bih outwash fan and palm gardens facing the sabkhah, which represents a former northern lagoon. In a distance of approximately 50m from the mound of Kush, the landscape drops nearly 2m, representing the former shore between port town and harbour. With the beginning of Islam, northern Ras al-Khaimah was known as Julfar, and Kush represented its centre.

From 1994 to 2001, the mound was partly excavated substantiating its long settlement history from the Sasanian period until the 13th century AD. During archaeological excavations the mound’s earliest phases revealed several rooms of a large building dating to the Sasanian period.

During the 8th century, a large tower was erected and surrounded by a moat guarding the harbour as part of Julfar’s defence system. The archaeological excavations revealed that the mound of Kush was settled, with interruptions, until the end of the 13th century AD. It served as a focal point of the oasis settlement inside the palm gardens, and represented the administrative and commercial centre, and principal harbour of Julfar.

2) Mataf and Nudud, 25°49’54”N - 56°59’07”E

These two archaeological areas represent the medieval port and trading town of Julfar, which was settled between the 13th and 16th century AD. They are situated on two sandbanks protecting a lagoon southwest of the palm gardens, after Julfar’s earlier harbour in Kush had silted up making a change of place necessary. Archaeological excavations recorded areesh structures built from palm fronds in the lowest levels, before mud brick and stone buildings appeared by the end of the 14th century. They belong to densely settled town quarters, which included large courtyard houses and narrow alleys, a fort, and mosque. 

3) Ras al-Khaimah, 25°47’43”N - 55°56’50”E

Archaeological excavations revealed that the town of Ras al-Khaimah was settled since the 15th century. Historical sources attest that it became the main port of Julfar since mid-16th century, after the lagoon behind Mataf and Nudud had silted up as well. All following historical events mentioning Julfar during the Portuguese period centre on Ras al-Khaimah, which eventually developed into the capital of the ruling Quwasim family in the 17th century.

It became the centre of British attacks in the beginning of the 19th century, which destroyed the town and ended Julfar’s dominance. Today, two major buildings reflect the last 200 years of Ras al-Khaimah’s history. They include the Fort, originally built as a bastion against the British attacks, and later transformed into the ruling family’s residence, which is today accommodating the National Museum.

The Mohammed bin Salim Mosque, initially built in the mid-18th century, remains today the largest traditional building in the U.A.E., and one of the largest traditional mosques in the Gulf still used today.

4) Wadi Sur, 25°48’15”N - 56°00’47”E

The modern name for Julfar’s former town wall, Wadi Sur extends over more than 7 km running straight from the mountains of the Ru’us al-Jabal to the lagoon of Ras al-Khaimah. By taking advantage of the geographical situation and the natural defensive character of the high mountains in the east and the sea in the west, this impressive fortification secured both the oasis settlement inside the palm gardens, and the trading port and administrative centre at the coast.

The construction of Wadi Sur included a 3.5 m wide and 2.5 m deep ditch in front of a rampart, which was topped with a mud brick wall forming a 5 m high defensive structure. Semi-round towers were attached to this town wall in regular intervals of 150 m making it one of the most impressive fortification structures in Southeast Arabia and the Gulf. Despite heavy erosion and stone robbery, Wadi Sur still remains a remarkable landmark today.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The trading town of Julfar, and its three subsequent commercial centres in Kush, Mataf/Nudud, and Ras al-Khaimah, represent one of the very few existing Islamic towns in the Gulf and Southeast Arabia, which are characterized by large propertions and a continuous history throughout the entire Islamic period.

Until the 18th century, Julfar dominated the pearl trade in the lower Gulf, and a particular type of pearl was named ‘julaffar’ after the trading town. Archaeological finds from excavations in Julfar revealed its extensive trade relations not only with the Gulf, but also across the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia and East Africa. Julfar played an important part within the emerging Indian Ocean trade network, and is also the famous place where the oldest coffee bean in the world was found.

Large amounts of excavated blue-and-white Ming porcelain and Southeastern Celadon ware confirm Julfar’s significance as a unique place of transshipment, and bear witness for the Islamic trade with countries as far as China.

Criterion (iii):  Julfar is an exceptional testimony to a maritime society based on pearling and trading, which was unique along the Arabian side of the Gulf until the mid 20th century. It is outstanding in size and composition representing the most important Gulf port of Southeast Arabia, with a multitude of commercial relations during the entire Islamic Period.

Criterion (iv): Two outstanding structures exist inside Julfar’s various representations. One is Wadi Sur, the medieval town wall of Julfar, and largest fortification in possession of towers and a moat in Southeast Arabia. It represents a unique engineering accomplishment inside a vast gravel plain between the mountains and the sea, in order to fortify Julfar’s large palm gardens and ports. Wadi Sur’s rampart and wall, strengthened by a great number of towers and a moat, and extending for over 7 km, manifests the enormous efforts of the population to secure their town.

The Mohammed bin Salim Mosque, built in the 18th century inside Ras al-Khaimah, the last port of Julfar, is the only traditional central Friday mosque, which still exists along the Gulf coast. Its size of 22 x 35 m makes it the largest traditional building in the United Arab Emirates, and one of the largest in Southeast Arabia and the Gulf.

Criterion (v): Julfar’s varied locations, synonymus with the archaeological sites of Kush, Mataf/Nudud, and Ras al-Khaimah, represent an outstanding example of traditional human settlements in constant interaction with a changing environment. During its long existence, the trading town’s harbours had to be adapted to the silting up of lagoons, eventually depending on three different locations used as safe anchor places for the formation of pearl diving fleets and the commercial of shipping, both forming the foundation of Julfar’s success. 

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Archaeological excavations have been carried out at all sites establishing a timeline of their occupation and significance. All locations and their monuments are the original remains and as such exhibit complete authenticity. They are officially protected by the Government of Ras al-Khaimah, and have been integrated into the Emirate’s development plan for 2030. While selecting all of Julfar’s key-sites for the nomination, care has been taken to include and maintain their full variety, both in a chronological sense and their geographical expanse. 

Comparison with other similar properties

The town of Julfar is one of the few places, which has been settled during the complete length of the Islamic Period. No other large town in the Gulf or in Southeast Arabia witnessed such a long period of use. The size of medieval Julfar including its two areas of Mataf and Nudud outranges all port towns of Southeast Arabia, and may only have been outclassed in the Gulf by Hormuz and Basra.

Wadi Sur, Julfar’s fortified town wall, is unique. Although Bahla’s mud brick wall in the Sultanate of Oman may have been longer, it was built without a stone facing, without a tower every 150 m, and without a deep moat in front of it. No other fortification wall of any town in the Gulf or in Southeast Arabia reaches the length of Wadi Sur. Furthermore, it is an engineering feat to include the mountains and sea into the defence plan building a straight wall through the gravel plain of Wadi Bih’s outwash fan.

Ras al-Khaimah’s large Mohammed bin Salim Mosque is unique in its survival as a central traditional Friday mosque, which is still in use. Today, all other examples have either been destroyed and rebuilt in concrete, or are not any longer in use. The size of the Mohammed bin Salim Mosque covering 770 m2 and containing 60 columns is unparalleled in the surviving traditional mosques in Southeast Arabia and the Gulf.