Salalah Port in South Arabia
Ancient Al Baleed (Zofar?)
The Museum of Frankincense Land opened in 2007 near Salalah at al Baleed Park in Oman’s southern region of Dhofar where Boswellia trees grow. The museum is located in an archaeological park of historic city-port Al Balid, selected by UNESCO in 2000, as one of the four World Heritage Sites of the Land of Frankincense.
Al Baleed is the ancient port located near Salalah, Oman. Evidence from recent excavations has shown that the site was inhabited in the pre-Islamic period. Since its origins, about 2000 BC in the Bronze Age and its continued rise in the late Iron Age, it was a key center which dominated the East African, Indian and Chinese trade. Both Arab and European historical references indicate that it was rebuilt a number of times from the 4th century AH (10th century AD) to its final demise around 618 AH (1221 AD). Al Baleed, the ancient Zafar of Arab historians was a prosperous port and trading center. Arab travelers, including Ibn Mujawir (1232 AD) and Ibn Battuta (1329 and 1363 AD) visited the city and described its people and economy. Shifting economic, ecological and political conditions along the North Indian Ocean led to its slow demise by the mid 16th century AD.
Al Baleed’s layout (above) is similar to other Southern Arabian ports such as Sohar. The dark blue at the top of the drawing above indicates the current ocean shoreline. A major lagoon or khor is indicated by the smaller dark blue area below the city. This is in essence a fresh water lake today. This lagoon is created by a series of spring run-offs from the Dhofar hills, thus providing al Baleed with an abundance of fresh water. The light blue area shows how the shore line has expanded outward, blocking the lagoon’s connection with the sea. Eventually ships could no longer enter the lagoon, and the port facilities became distant to the sea.
Concerning its prosperity from foreign trade, smaller boats would enter the lagoon to a customs house off-loading the cargo from the ocean-going dhows anchored offshore. A formidable city wall with perhaps four gates and associated bastions as described by Ibn Mujawir (1232 AD) is at least 2 km long and 4 meters high n places, protecting the western section of the city which covered 25 hectares. The large urban area dominated by formal buildings such as mosques and houses can be seen along the western portion of the city. The large open spaces of the eastern part of the city may have held horse stables, sardine drying fields and frankincense storage areas. The low lying hills of dressed stone rubble as well as numerous artifacts strewn across the surface are indicative of buried buildings.
Al Baleed’s Grand Mosque was the greatest building in the city. It covered an area of 1,732 sq metres, had 144 stone pillars, a central courtyard and a large minaret, which was at least 5 metres high. The mosque was first built during the 10th century and remained in use until the 16th century. Most of the columns you can see standing today appear to be recent reconstructions, but some of the original columns are laid out on the ground in front of the mosque. Other original features which you can still clearly see are the mihrab (pointing to Mecca) and the ablution area.