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.

Julfar ware

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. 

Julfar ware began to appear in the Oman Peninsula in the 12th century, and was produced in kilns like these in Wadi Haqil until 1969.

GPS Co-ordinates: N2549’ 14.00”  E5602’ 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

The remains of a stone house in Wadi Haqil