For this week’s letter – Q – we will be exploring Qatar. The previous places I’ve written about have been more modern history, but my specialism is in Ancient History, so I want to return to this period while exploring Qatar. In this blog, I’ll be looking into Qatar’s earliest history through to the withdrawal of the Seleucid Empire in the region.
Qatar, for much of it’s earliest history, does not appear to have been settled to any major extent up until the mid 1st millennium BC. The climate and harshness of the land encouraged more nomadic habitation and settlements. The people of Qatar appear to have had strong trade relations with the Dilmun civilization, located in Bahrain, and Qatar appears to have heavily influenced by Dilmun culture through this trade. Dilmun pottery, as well as settlements have been discovered, but these may not be direct evidence of any permanent habitation, and nomadic tribes still appear to have been the main style of living for the area; the settlements were possibly more temporary outposts to as a result of the increasing trade and expeditions of this type into the land. However, Qatar does gain its earliest fame through currently providing the earliest evidence of a purple dying industry from shellfish. The site of Al Khor Island has revealed an immense purple dye industry through the discovery of three million crushed shells. This discovery has given the island the nickname “Purple Island”. The significance of this discovery is of such importance when considering how important the colour of purple in clothes came to be and the symbolism it gained throughout history. However, in the 7th century BC, Qatar would become part of the stage for the great Mesopotamian powers of the time, and from then factor into some of the greatest powers of the ancient world.
During the 7th century BC, King Esarhaddon of Assyria campaigned against the land of Bazu which encompassed both Dilum and Qatar. Assyria, or the Assyrian Empire as it can be commonly be known, was a Mesopotamian power that lasted almost two thousand years – from the early Bronze Age, through to the Late Iron age of the area. The campaign was a success and Qatar became part of this vast power in c. 680BC. Towards the mid-6th century BC, the Assyrian kingdom was ruled by the Medes. But, in c. 549, the Medes were defeated and overthrown by the Persians – a people from modern day Iran. Persian rule was the most dominant for centuries and became to be known as the Persian Achaemenid Empire. This ancient power had become the most powerful there had been in the Ancient Near East, and whose influence spread into ancient Europe. Most famously are the conflicts between the empire and the Polei of Hellas. The historical landmark battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and Platea are all famous in featuring the fabled story of under-dog Greek states fighting for freedom against the almost unstoppable power of the Persian empire in the early 5th century BC. It was during this period that the “Father of History”, Herodotus, published the earliest known ethnographical account of Qatar. In this, Herodotus terms the people of Qatar as Canaanites; the name has links with the Phoenicians who established Carthage, and, later, becoming a common umbrella term for referring to people of the Levant in the Bible.
Even during conflicts not involving Persia directly, the East was still a power with influence and who the Greek states even appealed to at times. Towards the end of the Peloponnesian War, Sparta only began exerting truly challenging pressure of on Athens when they were granted the use of Persian fleets to help them with the maritime arenas of the war. the Persian empire would continue until its fall to Alexander the Great and the beginning of the Hellenistic period.
The Hellenistic period in Qatar lasted c. 325-250BC. In c. 325, Alexander ordered a survey of the entire Persian Gulf. His admiral at the time, Androsthenes of Thasos, was placed in charge of this project. Unfortunately, Alexander died (323BC) before the survey was completed. During the fallout of Alexander’s death and the resulting power-grabs and conflicts between his generals (often referred to as Successor Kings). Seleucus I Nicator gained control of the Eastern part Alexander’s empire and established a dynasty known as the Seleucids, forming the Seleucid Empire. From c. 312, the Seleucid empire expanded Eastwards, and it is during this time that Hellenistic finds appear in quantity in Qatar. One of the most iconic discovery from the period is the cairnfield consisting of 100 burial mounds at Ras Abrouq. Greek influenced material pottery have also been discovered as well as direct Seleucid pottery. The material culture collected indicates a strong sea-faring culture and trade in the region. Through a combination of threats from the West, but also the aggressive expansions of the Parthian Empire, Seleucid rule in the area ceased in 250BC. The Dynasty continued until the 2nd century BC through being trapped between the Parthians and the new hegemonic power of Rome. Doman over Qatar thus changed from Seleucid rule to that of the Parthians.
I hope that has given a nice insight into Qatar’s early history, and looking forward to working on next weeks topic for “R”!