Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Qatar in History: Ties to World's Earliest Civilizations

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Qatar in History: Ties to World's Earliest Civilizations

Article excerpt


The Qatar peninsula, which is 80 kilometers wide at its widest point and only 160 kilometers long, is composed of sedimentary rock, which explains its rich endowment of oil and gas deposits. Because its highest elevation is only 40 meters, and most of it is only a few meters above sea level, the peninsula's physical outline throughout history has depended largely on that level.

With the sea level considerably higher before the last glacial age, nearly all of Qatar was covered by the sea only 100,000 years ago. During the glacial age, with much of the earth's water tied up in Polar icecaps and in continental glaciers, Qatar emerged as the level of the Arabian Gulf receded.

Traces of Stone Age inhabitants dating as far back as 50,000 years ago have been found at coastal camp sites and at inland sites where flint could be found and chipped into stone tools. In modern times one of those sites first was spotted by aircraft pilots who noted the stone chips glittering in the low rays of the rising and setting sun.

At the end of the glacial age, perhaps 10,000 years ago, the Gulf waters rose high enough to turn Qatar into an island. Many of the flints may date from this period. From some time after that, traces of pottery have been found in Qatar from the Al Ubaid culture of Mesopotamia. This painted pottery represents the beginning of the continuously recorded archeological record in present-day southern Iraq, and predates even the culture of the Sumerians, who invented the first writing system and established the first cities in the world.

Whether these Ubaid pottery sites, dating to about 5,000 B.C., were permanent settlements or just campsites for fishing and pearling expeditions is not yet clear. There was a further lowering of the sea level after the earliest of these sites were established which exposed additional coastal strips and connected Qatar to the mainland, turning it into a thumb-shaped extension of the Arabian peninsula.

Its reconnection to the mainland made Qatar available as grazing land for nomadic tribes from the adjacent Nejd and Al Hasa regions in Saudi Arabia. There also is ceramic evidence of connections with the Dilmun civilization of 4,000 to 2,000 B.C. which is believed to have been centered in nearby Bahrain. Unlike Qatar, Bahrain and some coastal areas of Saudi Arabia had many dependable year-round freshwater springs and wells.

Throughout this period, trade between civilizations in Mesopotamia and settlements in the Gulf is well documented. Through sea trade centered on Bahrain, where ships could pick up fresh water and food, the Mesopotamians imported pearls from the Gulf, copper from "Magan," which is believed to refer to parts of present-day Oman and the UAE where evidence of mining and smelting operations has been found, and wood and lapis lazuli from cities of the Indus Valley in present-day Pakistan.

Stone cylinder seals, both in Mesopotamian and Indus Valley styles, with which individuals could place their personal stamps on clay tablets or on sealed ceramic containers; pottery in the styles of these ancient cultures; and imported coins from 400 B.C. and later periods have been found in Qatar and are on display in the national museums in Doha and Al Khor.

The Phoenicians of the Lebanese coast traced their ancestry to sailors of the Gulf, and the written records of the ancient world record Qatar's participation in the trade of the classical era. Alexander the Great's admiral, Nearchos, sailed Gulf waters and his logs record the skills and secrets of the sailors of Arabia. Herodotus, the Greek historian and traveler of the fifth century B.C., reported that Qatar's inhabitants were Canaanites and excellent sailors.

Pliny the Elder called the inhabitants of the Qatar peninsula in the middle of the first century A.D. the Catharrei and described the constant searching by nomads of the area for water and good grazing. …

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