The excavation campaigns
Axelle Rougeulle (CNRS, UMR8167 – Orient et Méditerranée)
The mosque at Qalhât is a monument known from early descriptions. The traveller Ibn Battuta describes it in glowing terms after visiting it around 1330. He wrote that it had been built not long before his visit, and that it was situated on the seafront. In the early 16th century, the monument was also highly praised by Portuguese sailors, even though they would ultimately be at the root of its destruction.
The monument was officially identified in 2008, having been first located in 2007 by A. Rougeulle (CNRS), director of excavations at Qalhât. Several excavation trenches were opened as part of the Qalhât Project, which provided a preliminary insight into the nature of the monumental complex to which the mosque belongs. At the request of the Omani Minister of Heritage and Culture, the comprehensive excavation of this architectural ensemble began in late 2013 as part of the Qalhât Development Project. These excavations are ongoing and the detailed restoration of the building and the rest of the complex is planned for the upcoming seasons.
During the field season carried out from late 2013 to early 2014, a large part of the rooms which made up the foundation levels of the monument was uncovered. Inside these, a number of installations were identified – such as hearths and post-holes – although the function of these spaces could not be determined. In the central part of this lower level, a large corridor or covered passage gave direct access from the street situated to the south of the mosque to the courtyard to the north.
The excavations revealed large numbers of architectural elements from the collapse of the mosque: pillar and column fragments, pieces of the vault, parts of the wall facing and a few wooden elements. A number of these were left in situ as they illustrate how the mosque collapsed. The walls were built of pebbles and corals set in large quantities of mortar, but a large proportion of the pillars and columns were made from carved limestone blocks. Many of these mid-sized blocks were found among the collapsed material. The large quantity of decorative elements found among the remains is also noteworthy. Some of these were still attached to architectural fragments, while others were isolated. For the most part, these consisted of monochrome glazed tiles in green or blue, and of varying shapes: stars, half-stars, and crosses with pointed ends. Rare fragments of tiles from Kashan were also recovered from the building. All of these elements were carefully recorded and their location plotted precisely. Though painstaking, this work enables us to gain as detailed an understanding as possible of the appearance of this monument. It also demonstrates the differences in the organisation of the decoration, such as alternating pillar forms and different coverings. The continuing work – particularly in the area around the qibla wall – will provide a more accurate picture of the monument’s history and the transformations it underwent over time.
It is also important that excavation of the area around the mosque be completed, as the monument was part of a vast complex, the form of which is not yet fully understood. A large courtyard was present to the west of the religious building. Its western wall was contained a large door which opened into a secondary structure, possibly a madrasa. To date this entrance is the only one clearly identified in the upper courtyard. A second courtyard, lower down, occupied the area to the north of the mosque. This was accessed directly from the beach located to the east, and was also linked to the upper courtyard and the covered passage in the lower level of the mosque. A series of annexes are also associated with the north side of the mosque, forming a ‘north wing’ which was modified many times, so that its form is difficult to interpret in detail. Among the more remarkable elements is the presence of a stairs which gave access to the prayer room, and the large minaret which overlooked the complex and which the Portuguese used as a watch tower during their conquest of the town.