Julfar Ware: The UAE’s Own Unique Ceramic Ware
Tucked away in the northern corner of the UAE, Ras-al-Khaimah is an emirate that is often overlooked by tourists, although the government is busy rectifying that by pitching it as the adventure hotspot of the UAE. There is a sleepy quality to it, despite the hotel and resort developments that have changed the landscape since I lived there almost a decade ago.
Sadly, I only spent six months living right on the corniche in Ras-al-Khaimah city, but they were the first six months of my life in the UAE, and as a result became the lens through which I viewed the country in general after that. It is by far my favourite emirate, as it contains all the different parts of the UAE I like the most: red dunes; high, rugged mountains; shell strewn beaches; and archaeological remains telling silent stories of a rich and varied history.
The mountains known as the Ru’us al-Jibal run parallel to the coastline from north to south, and are a distinctive feature of the geography of the emirate. It is also in these mountains where the highest mountain in the UAE, Jebel Jais (and what is said to be the world’s longest zip line), can be found.
Here, tucked between the mountains and the Arabian Gulf, on a semi-fertile plain known as the Sir and Jiri plains, the modern city of Ras-al-Khaimah can be found. Six kilometres to the north of it its predecessor, the historical city of Julfar once stood on the sites known as al-Mataf and al-Nudud, where numerous archaeological excavations have been carried out since 1973.
To the east of where Julfar once flourished, at the foot of the mountains, roughly 8 to 10 kilometres northeast of the city of Ras-al-Khaimah, the remains of pottery kilns (including Ghaylan and Wadi Haqil), tell the story of the pottery industry that existed here between the 12th and mid-20th centuries that only archaeologists are still able to read in the landscape, as the last potter who still made use of the traditional methods to produce these ceramics appeared to have passed away in the 1970s.
Julfar ware, as the pottery that was produced here was known, has been found widely throughout the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, and Bahrain, as well as the western Indian Ocean in sites such as Kilwa, Tanzania. This is no surprise, as this part of the UAE has been linked to maritime trade throughout history, because of its strategic location close to the Straits of Hormuz, linking the Arabian Gulf with the Indian Ocean.
Archaeological studies suggest that the production of Julfar ware peaked during the 15th and 16th centuries, coinciding with the main phase of occupation in the historic, and now vanished city of Julfar, which developed from a small fishing village in the 14th century to a large urban centre by the 15th, but appeared to have been mostly abandoned by the late 16th century, when Ras-al-Khaimah became the main trading centre. The demand for Julfar ware in overseas locations disappeared at the same time as Julfar lost its prosperity, and could be the reason why a shift from a diversified production to a simplified and more standardised production, catering to the demands of a smaller, more focused market, took place.
Trade through Hormuz boomed during the 14th to 16th centuries as a response to the affluence of Iranian cities at that time, which in turn influenced the transformation of socio-economic activities in the area, including an increase in agricultural production in the hinterland of Julfar, and a boom in the production of Julfar ware. This unglazed coarse earthenware, either handmade or on a slow wheel, could either have a dark orange or a grey body, which were left plain or were decorated with rust-red or purple paint, sometimes done on top of a whitewash or thin paint. The pots were fired at low temperatures, making them soft and friable, and as the firing was sometimes uneven, so was the colour. Cooking pots were the most common item made, but bowls, jugs and storage jars were also produced.
The potters had to collect up to four different kinds of rock, pound and sieve them, before mixing it to the correct consistency with water that was a precious and limited resource, just to produce the clay they used to make their pots with. To fire the pots they had to collect another limited resource, wood. This makes it all the more amazing that pots were produced in the traditional way in Wadi Haqil as late as 1969.
GPS Co-ordinates: N25o 49’ 14.00” E56o 02’ 51.00”
Academic paper: Kiln sites of the fourteenth-twentieth-century Julfar ware pottery industry in Ras al-Khaimah, UAE by Gen Mitsuishi & Derek Kennet, with contributions from Jeffrey Szuchman & Ronald Hawker
Watch this YouTube Video produced by The National Newspaper in the UAE
Links to other Interesting Articles:
# Ruth Impey (ceramic artist)
# Pottery: Re-imagining UAE Heritage
# Ancient Clay Hidden in Plain Sight
# An Example of a Julfar Ware Jar
Completely unknown to me.
Thanks for writing this Information on your blog.
At the same Moment, I thought you moved away?
I have indeed, Rob. Living in Portugal now, but the UAE is a place I will write about for a long time to come, as I’ve not yet exhausted everything I can write about it, so I’m keeping this blog going, as well as writing my new one about life in Portugal:
Hope you are well.
Thanks so much for introducing me to Julfar ware. Glad you had the chance to live in Ras-al-Khaimah.
So am I, Peggy. I’m grateful that I could have lived in three different places in the UAE, as they’ve all three been so different from one another. And there is a rich archaeological history in the country that is mostly overshadowed by the glitz of the new cities.
It must have been really something, to be right there, in a place where history is quite literally in front of your eyes! Going back and forth from this blog to your current (and just as amazing) location in Portugal, it is a real opportunity to get glimpses to different areas of this world. I too, am very happy that you’re continuing to keep this site updated. It must be a lot of work, but it’s much appreciated 🙂
I’m so glad you are enjoying glimpses from two vastly different worlds, Takami. Life in Portugal is so different from that in the UAE, and although I post weekly on life in Portugal I’ve committed to a once a month post here on this blog, as there is still so much I can write about the UAE. And as Michael is still living in the UAE, I guess half of me is still residing there too. 🙂
Jolandi, you have me captured with your description: red dunes; high, rugged mountains; shell strewn beaches; and archaeological remains…I have a weakness for landscapes that feature desert meets sea. I know so little about the UAE. Thank you for this intriguing post.
The UAE is so much more than just the glitter of its cities, Caroline, so I’m glad I could show you a different face of this place that is very close to my heart.
Much obliged for composing this information on your blog. At a similar second, I thought you moved away?
I did indeed, but I will keep blogging about things related to the UAE as my husband still lives there and I have lots more research I can use for blog posts like these.
Lovely post. I think it is serendipitous that your introduction to UAE was through Ras-al-Khaimah. It seems like it was a good single place to learn different parts of your new country, since they were all there: mountains and beaches, etc.
I watched the video, which is really well done. I was so concerned about the water being used, ha ha. The landscape is so dry, then the scene cuts to a bowl of water! (The potters in the video must buy bottled water now?) And you mentioned that wood is used for the kiln? My goodness, such extravagance. Can you tell me your theory on why a large pottery industry developed there in the first place? Are the traditions handed down by tradition from a time when those resources were better available? Or was being able to create their own pottery simply that valuable? What kind of vessels could be used to store things if the people of 12th century Wadi Haqil, for example, had no ceramics?
Thank you, Crystal.
Most of the water in the UAE today comes from desalination, but a rich source of groundwater has made life possible in the past even though in most places in what is now the UAE, it was brackish, it wasn’t the case everywhere. So much of the history, because it is an oral one, is educated guesswork by historians and archaeologists based on written texts from other parts of the world and archaeological finds.
Before pottery was produced in the area, it was imported from other parts of the world, as it has always been part of extensive trade routes. The pottery they produced here was not quite of the same quality as most of the imports, which would have made it much cheaper, and while the industry flourished when Julfar was a main trading port, I doubt it was ever on a scale that could not have been sustained by the resources they needed, even when these were always considered precious.
There must have been more trees in the past, but I haven’t yet come across any definitive writings with concrete answers regarding this.
You may also find this post interesting, which focuses on a Bronze Age site where copper was smelted. An activity that needed a lot more wood than pottery kilns: