Qatar’s 19th Century Barzan Tower Pavilion

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“Watch for the old towers that look new,” the young Qatari man responded, as he pointed in a northerly direction toward a skyline of rooftop villas and commercial buildings.

“We’ll never find it,” I confided to my husband as we pulled away. But miraculously, somehow, we did, tucked in and around unmarked streets and residences.

The description from the website claimed the archaeological site was in Umm Slal Mohammed. “Stretching into the Arabian sky, the Barzan towers loom above the surrounding landscape and provide the perfect place to gaze out to sea.” Wrong. I wonder how much sheesha the writer smoked before posting that description… or maybe it was written back in the 1960s when the sea was still within sight. Certainly not in 2013!

The Barzan Tower site is situated in the Bedouin community called Umm Slal Mohammed. This old village, located just 12 ½ miles north of Doha, and six miles west of the sea, was well known for its pomegranates, almonds, date palms and vegetables. There are reportedly numerous wells in the area with a “huge water tank chiseled from the stone to act as a reservoir”.

Barzan Tower is characterized as a 20th century complex with a T-shaped, three-story western tower; a 46-foot rectangular eastern tour; a majlis (reception room where guests gathered); and a small mosque. A stone boundary wall surrounds the entire complex.

Barzan is Arabic for “high place”, hence, the name of the towers. Built in 1920 by Sheikh Mohammed bin Jassim Al Thani, founder of the Modern State of Qatar, to protect the valley (“raudah”), this valley was a vital link for collecting precious rainwater that ran down from the adjacent higher ground.

In Islam, monitoring the track of the moon was – and continues to be – essential. Islamic countries follow the moon’s phases with each month starting when the crescent appears after the new moon. This tracking is crucial for Muslims to mark the time when the holy month of Ramadan begins. To ensure accuracy, two observers would climb to the top of these towers, view the moon, and jointly agree – or disagree – when the crescent appeared.

According to Wikipedia, the twin towers were constructed in the late 19th century as watch towers to alert against invading Ottoman soldiers. “Although he [Sheikh Mohammad bin Jassim Al Thani] had defeated the Ottomans a few years before, he still had some unknown reasons to be insecure to build these towers,” states the Wikipedia information.  (No additional research verified this statement.)

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The Two Towers
Constructed for strength and durability, the tower walls are 3 ¼ feet thick. Wood staircases further strengthen one tower, while the second tower features exterior cones at its base. Historical data indicates that these cones serve the same strengthening purposes as Europe’s popular flying buttresses on their cathedrals.

The smooth, sandy brown exterior with its medieval crenellations (alternating crenels consisting of gaps and solid blocks on top of a wall) hand formed at the top beckoned us to explore further. The old strong wooden doors in the traditional Islamic soft curves opened easily. In the cone-supported tower, a narrow wooden staircase led to the upper floor. Exiting that and moving upward along another narrow stairway through an even smaller door, heralded the light of day as we stepped out into the open air at the tower summit.

The other tower featured thick concrete steps making their way skyward. The aerial views were wide sweeping. Interestingly, however, viewed from the tower summits, on one side of the complex are large, modern houses and sprawling compounds and schools, while a view from another angle shows makeshift, dilapidated shacks directly across the road. Quite a juxtaposition for an oil rich country!

Majlis and Mosque
The L-shaped majlis room had numerous very small windows allowing for ventilation. The door was locked inhibiting entrance and the windows were too high up to peer into.

The small mosque door was unlocked. Entering, it consisted of a simple one-room prayer room with its Mecca-facing niche and a small window. A lone prayer rug lay on the smooth concrete floor within the niche breaking up the solid white-washed wall. The mosque was void of any ornamentation. At some point during the early 20th century, it also functioned as a “madrassa”, a school or classroom for teaching area children the Quran readings.

According to documentation, the Barzan Tower Pavilion “provides an excellent example of traditional Qatari building methods and techniques”.

Thick walls keep the interiors cool, which I embraced immediately as the afternoon sun was registering a sweltering 95 degrees outside. The walls, I learned, were constructed by first overlapping “raw pieces” of coral rock with limestone, then cementing the two with mud mortar. Once dry, the mortar was then covered with a gypsum-based plaster.

Traditional roofs were built in four layers starting first with a series of “danchal” wood poles, which were occasionally painted with bitumen for protection. A layer of woven bamboo strips next covered the wood poles tied together by rope. Tightly woven mangrove branches made up the third layer. Finally, a layer of compressed mud completed the process whereby protecting the buildings from the scorching desert sun.

In 2003, the Qatar Museum Authority performed extensive restoration work at the site in addition to adding numerous sidewalks and landscape lighting.

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Umm Slal Mohammed Fortress
Not far away is a castle, we were told, known as Umm Slal Mohammed Fortress. Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani (1826-1913), built his fortress, sometimes referred to as a castle, approximately three miles from the Barzan Tower complex.

It is private property with no visitors allowed. Currently undergoing massive reconstruction, the property is tightly sealed off by construction hoarding. A guard allowed me inside the gate to snap a few photos despite the no admittance sign.

From my vantage point, I could clearly see one of the two fortress towers surrounded by dense trees. It is said the property is a unique oasis of greenery, palm trees and animals.

The castle was built with local limestone with interior walls gypsum plastered, similar to the Barzan tower construction.

Reportedly, the eastern fortress tower houses a single upper room while the western tower has two rooms. Among the fourteen other rooms within the fortified house were a ladies’ majlis – unusual for the time – a granary, and a room for pressing dates (madbasa) from an adjacent palm grove.

Both Sheik Mohammed and his brother, Sheikh Abdullah, lived in the house.

Not exactly an archeological connoisseur’s dream, the Barzan Tower grounds were small and the structures basic, but they did provide a glimpse into the past of this unique Bedouin Arab culture.  And if the private fortress ever opens up for tours, I’ll be back.

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