Category Archives: Arab

Three Major Dynasties: History Told Thread by Thread

Fragile pottery pieces, old master paintings, elaborate jewelry, ethnic clothing and ancient manuscripts spanning thousands of years and dynasties are mainstays of museums. But how often does one see antique carpets that have survived the times?

Imperial Threads: Motifs and Artisans from Turkey, Iran and India, an unique temporary exhibit at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, offers a new perspective to three major dynasties. The cultural exchange between these Islamic world empires led to the creation of some of the world’s most beautiful works of art.

carpets-as-diplomatic-giftsThe artistic collection and interwoven connection of these dynasties – Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal – are highlighted through their handmade rugs, motif tiles, manuscripts and ceramics primarily from the 16th to the 18th centuries. It was commonplace for these empires to exchange artistic and material treasures – and cultures – whether as diplomatic gifts or objects of warfare.

There are 25 historic carpets on display in three sections, divided by bridges, some of which have glass floors with the carpets beneath them for up close viewing, with each section focusing on a specific dynasty. The carpets – some well preserved while others show significant wear – serve as the centerpiece of the entire exhibition.

“We wanted this exhibition to look very special and different,” Dr. Mounia Chekhab-Abudaya, exhibit curator, told Doha’s Peninsula newspaper in an interview. “Each of the three sections has glass floor features because we wanted people to see how the carpets looked like in the palaces, not on the walls as they are usually seen in museums, but on the floor. We wanted visitors to have an idea how grand the palaces would look decorated with various objects and beautiful designs.”

Focusing on the Timurid period in Iran and Central Asia (1370-1507), the Imperial Threads exhibit detailed artistic practices that were shared amongst the three succeeding and neighboring dynasties.map-of-dynasties

The Timurids conquered portions of Iran and Central Asia in the 14th century bringing with them their semi-nomadic traditions. According to exhibit storyboards, the Timurids played an important role in sharing the trade and diplomatic development of the three empires. They also are credited with introducing new artistic styles and practices.

Ottoman Dynasty in Turkey
The Ottoman world took hold at the turn of the 14th century, but the arts scene didn’t begin to flourish until Sulayman the Magnificent’s reign (1520-1566).

As the dynasty expanded geographically and economically, according to a storyboard, this expansion “set the ground for cultural and artistic development that continued until the 19th century.”

When the Ottomans occupied Northern Persia, one of those cities was Tabriz, an important weaving center that provided direct influence on artistic carpet production that included the transfer of motifs and craftsmanship from Iran to Turkey. Tabriz rugs are woven by highly skilled craftsmen using only the finest material and are widely renowned and sought after in collections of Persian rugs.carpet-exhibit

This first section of the exhibit showcases carpets and other mediums characteristic of local tribal designs that were merged with outside Iranian influences.

The different motifs prominent in carpets and other objects on display include cloudband, medallion, animal, cintamani, saz, lotus flower, lattice and flower motifs. Cintamani and saz tile motifs became characteristic of Ottoman materials trending away from geometric designs toward the use of central medallions and the introduction of the saz motif as a principal pattern. These motifs appear in the various pieces produced by artists in the three empires revealing the connection between the neighboring dynasties.

The saz style combines a twisting serrated leaf with other motifs, which can be floral or saz-motif-tilefigural. Artist Shad Quli, head of Sulayman the Magnificent studio workshop, introduced this motif and became well known for his drawings that combined a stylized leaf with dragons.

The wavy ribbon-like cloudband motif forms the shape of a horseshoe. Originally derived from Chinese art, the cloudband is found on a variety of media from the Islamic world including the illuminated Quran and ceramic bowl, both on display. The Mongols introduced this motif in the 13th century.

wavy-horseshoe-motif

Safavid Dynasty in Iran
The Safavid Empire (1501-1736) showcases works from the royal manuscripts workshop, as well as artistic motifs. During this period, books and manuscripts witnessed profound development primarily due to royal court patron support. Textiles and carpets were also produced in great numbers. They played a major role in the sharing and transfer of artistic practices as traveling artists.

illuminated-Qurans

Manuscript illustrations often featured court scenes with palace interiors depicting great detail. “With the representation of colored pavilions, carpets and other fabrics, paintings demonstrated the use of objects manufactured at the royal court workshops in their original and historical contexts,” explains a storyboard. “The meticulous work and the rich patterns and colors used by the painter reveal the attention given to these textiles, and the patterns used to illustrate them may have been adapted from contemporary carpets or other objects with shared motifs.”

Black and turquoise-glazed hexagonal tiles with floral motifs from a Tabriz carpet from the 15th to 16th century were a popular style.

hezagon-floral-tiles

Between war, diplomatic relations and inevitable political changes, “previous objects were transferred across borders whether as diplomatic gifts or war booty, and artists pursued careers from one workshop to another,” reads another storyboard.

Diplomatic Gifts
Gifts were commonly offered to celebrate a new ruler’s ascent to the throne, the circumcision of a ruler’s son, or simply to promote strong diplomatic relations. Common gifts included textiles and manuscripts – always luxury objects – between the three dynasties. This cross-cultural gift interaction explains how styles spread between different courts and influenced neighboring dynasties’ artistic production.

Animal motifs, long time depiction in Islamic and pre-Islamic art, were common on ceramics, textiles, stone work and in manuscripts. In Islamic times, these motifs had a secular context, not religious, and were ornamental architectural elements of palaces or display objects for royal settings.

animal-motif-bottles

Combat scenes in particular, depicting strong animals such as lions attacking weaker prey, were commonly portrayed serving to remind the viewer of the valor and courage their ruler held over his enemy.

Due to the development of firearms during the period of these three great empires, they are commonly referred to as the “gunpowder empires”. Highly decorated weapons manufactured in the royal workshops demonstrate the pageantry function of such objects that would have been made for ceremonial use rather than for battle.

On display are a Turkish-made shield and axe from the late 16th to early 17th century. The cane shield is constructed of iron and copper alloy that is decorated with gold floral motifs, woven silk border, and geometric motifs on a yellow background.

shield-&-axe

Mughal Dynasty in India
The third section of the exhibit highlights the Mughal Dynasty (1526-1858). It was during this period that European prints were introduced to the Mughal libraries. Based on patterns from these books, Mughal artists began creating their own patterns. During this time, Islam was gaining popularity in India and Mughal artists created a new style based on European prints and Islamic subjects.

The Mughal Empire also features the culmination of artistic styles that integrate Safavid, Ottoman and local traditions.

Millefleurs-niche-carpetOne of the important artistic styles coming out of this time period was detailed floral designs that were prominent in carpets and jewelry. On display is a silk and pashmina pile carpet that features millefleurs, distinguished by their floral motifs and vivid colors. The carpet design clearly shows a flowering vase at the base and is an early 18th century product.

Nearby are stunning examples of a 19th century enamel and gold necklace incorporating a floral motif, a 17th century jar made of gold, silver, diamonds and mother of pearl, as well as an 18th century ruby and enamel perfume sprinkler.

19th-C-Indian-necklace

17th-c-jar18th-c-perfume-sprinkler

The lattice motif was made popular in the early to mid 16th century and was not only incorporated into carpets, but also on marble decorations for palaces. The interlaced criss-crossed pattern incorporates natural flowering plants and blossoms arranged in rows against a plain background.lattice-motif-pattern

Cuerdo seca tiles were also popularized in the 17th century. These types of tiles were used both to decorate palace or tomb walls, and show the use of realistic floral designs. Originally derived directly from its use in the Safavid Dynasty, the strong colors recall the miniature paintings of the same era.

Cuerdo-seco-tile

Geometric designs were popular in the 16th and early 17th century in India. Carved sandstone of white marble and red sandstone were used for carved, pieced stone screens known as jalis. These screens were used in Indian architecture prior to the Mughal period.

jali-screen-sandstone

Coming full turn and standing the test of time, these ancient motifs continue to be evident in carpets and other objects produced today. Liken it to the cultural exchange during these three major empires, if you will, and transferring that interaction today with the exhibition’s sharing knowledge of the arts.

green-sphere

As visitors enter and leave, an eye-catching spherical LED display projects colorful patterns in succession duplicating the motifs on exhibit.

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Four Historic Heritage Houses in Doha, Qatar

Msheireb was the original heart of downtown Doha, Qatar and the oldest part of the city, charting Doha’s first hotel, bank, pharmacy and cafes. Doha’s ongoing transition from a sleepy pearl-diving town to an emerging world city is now showcased in the newly opened Msheireb Museums.

The four restored heritage houses – Radwani House, Company House, Mohammed Bin Jassim House and the Bin Jelmood House – all clustered around traditional courtyards uniquely capture the massive changes Qatar underwent during the past century.

The Radwani House traces domestic living displaying traditional furniture and showing how a typical Qatari family lived in the 1920s and throughout the decades. Ali Akbar radwani-house-majlisRadwani bought the courtyard house, originally constructed in the 1920s, in 1936. The family abandoned the home in 1971 and it sat vacant and derelict until 2007.original-well

Between 2012 and 13, archaeology experts excavated the ground and discovered an old well and one of the walls of the original house. The family home is situated around an open-air rectangular space. A number of interesting artifacts uncovered are on display.

original-oil-pipes.jpgThe Company House, the former headquarters of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, is devoted to the history of Qatar’s petroleum industry. It features various tools and appliances from the early days of the oil industry in 1939, firsthand accounts of the grueling labor by pioneering workers, and six white life-sized plaster statues showing the different jobs these men performed during the mid 20th century.statues-in-courtyard.jpg

The Mohammed Bin Jassim House, built by the son of the founder of modern Qatar, is a work in progress located near the new modern Msheireb mosque. It currently displays Doha’s unique architectural heritage in the old Msheireb district and shows how it evolved over time. The displays balance the sophisticated requirements of 21st century living and the responsibility to preserve local heritage and culture, and provide a good overview of how the sudden oil wealth impacted everyday life in Qatar.

The arrival of cars, air conditioning and the first cement shipment – all in the early 1950s – transformed the old commercial area into an important business hub. In 1951 Doha had just 20,000 residents, quadrupling in size to 80,000 in 1975. This house also features firsthand interviews and stories with residents of the time who lived in the Msheireb district.

legal-abolition-1952The most interesting house, in my opinion, is the Bin Jelmood House, named for a renowned Qatari slave owner, which features the history of slavery in Qatar, an overview of historical slavery stemming from the Indian Ocean region, and contemporary slavery – human trafficking – around the world. The historical accounts and firsthand testimonials of Qatar slaves are powerful and relevant. Despite a shameful legacy, it was refreshing to see that Qatar did not sugarcoat slavery in this country. It was a very detailed and informative museum house that encourages discussion of historical slavery in the country, as well as modern day slavery worldwide.

slave-pricesAs stated at the renovated house entrance: “Bin Jelmood House exists to promote reflection and conversation on important truths about historical slavery in Qatar and the critical issue of contemporary slavery around the world.”

Detailed slavery history culminates with the Middle East ban on child camel racing jockeys in 2005. Twenty-first century slavery discussed human trafficking worldwide.

 

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Oman – A Country of Stunning Contrasts

Sea-of-Oman

As our flight began its descent into Muscat, I could not believe the views unfolding before me. Punctuated in all directions were craggy mountains and wind-worn watchtowers, with Muscat situated in a basin engulfed in mountains on three sides with a sliver of water on the fourth. Coming from Doha, Qatar and its flat desert terrain, Oman’s contrast was a pleasant surprise. I could hardly wait to begin my four-day exploration.

Country Facts
The Sultanate of Oman is the third largest country in the Arabian Peninsula. It is bordered by Saudi Arabia to the west, UAE in the northeast, Yemen in the southwest, the Strait of Hormuz in the north, and the Arabian Sea in the east.

Superior naval tactics and technology helped the Portuguese secure control of the coast from the local Omani tribe in 1507, thus bringing Oman under Portuguese control. They transformed Oman into a crucial commercial trading hub as part of their highly profitable West Indies spice trade. The wealth and success of this trade attracted the interest of other European powers, most notably the British and Dutch, yet it also spurred a local tribe to rise up and take control of its own destiny and resources.

Oman mapProminent until the mid-14th century, Oman slid into obscurity with the discovery of the new sea routes to India and became dubbed as “a land forgotten by time”.

Oman’s initial contacts with the British were part of a plan to undermine the commercial and political power of the Portuguese in the area, according to historians. In 1646, the Al-Ya’ribi clan made overtures to the British East India Company, which resulted in a treaty guaranteeing trading, religious and legal rights for British merchants operating in Oman. The object was clearly to weaken Portugal’s control of the area. And sure enough, in 1650, Imam Sultan Bin Saif rose up against the Portuguese and successfully expelled them from Muscat and Oman.

Shipping companies and businesses, nevertheless, were content to work in the relatively peaceful framework of the Omani empire of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Ships from the British Indian Navy would regularly call on the ports of Oman on their way to and from Europe or as part of anti-piracy or slavery drives. As European ships improved in technology, and as the British developed alternative naval facilities in Aden (Yemen) and at Suez, Oman’s importance declined. Curtailment of the African slave trade further compounded the situation.

This all changed with the discovery of oil in 1950. Two decades later, Oman had joined the ranks of the other modernizing and emerging Gulf country states.

His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said is Oman’s current ruler, ascending to the throne in 1970 at the age of 30, following a palace coup where he overthrew his father. The new sultan intended on ending his country’s isolation and using its oil revenue to modernize and develop Oman, which he has been credited with accomplishing.

There is no heir apparent or any clear legislation on who will succeed the Sultan, according to Wikipedia, since he is unmarried and has no children.

In 2010, Oman’s population was 2.69 million with 743,000 of those expatriates. Islam is the official religion and Arabic the official language. Everyone I came in contact with spoke excellent English.

When I visited the modern and large City Centre Mall, the first thing I noticed on the entrance door was a sign of the mall rules. Very prominent was rule number one, specifying that shoulders and knees should be covered. The second rule read: no kissing or overt displays of affection. Interestingly, I saw women in tank tops and both genders wearing shorts – not short shorts – and it was not uncommon to see couples holding hands as they strolled through the mall. Having lived in the Middle East for a number of years now, I knew that the mall rules sign was more of a suggestion than a hard-enforced law.

The capital Muscat is actually three small towns that over time grew into one. They are: Muscat – known as the “walled city” and site of the royal palaces; Matrah – originally a sleepy fishing village along the corniche and home to the Matrah Souq, allegedly the oldest souq in the Gulf; and Ruwi – the commercial and diplomatic center of Muscat, which is where our hotel was located.

His Majesty the Sultan decreed that no buildings in Muscat – or the entire country for that matter – could be higher than 10 stories to ensure that the magnificent mountain backdrop would never be overshadowed by man-made structures. So, rather than a modern city brimming with skyscrapers, Muscat’s skyline are its twin forts of Al Mirani and Al Jilali perched on either side of the Muscat Harbor. And it’s beautiful.

On our first full day in Muscat, we connected with Michael, a German journalist friend and former Muscat resident, who just happened to be visiting the week we arrived. He introduced us to the mini bus transport system for getting around town cheaply ($1) after explaining that the taxis were unregulated. We stood anywhere on the sidewalk we wished and hailed down the mini buses, Muscat’s most widely used public transport, which if not full to capacity, would stop for us. I was always the only woman on them. They sat 10 people uncomfortably with an additional two jump seats plus the driver. The vans seemed old and the interiors definitely had seen better days. Many of the seats were torn and the backs broken, although the air conditioning was adequate. By best estimates, the vast majority of passengers were lower middle-class workers who did not own cars and/or drive. Very few spoke to anyone – perhaps because they were buried in their cell phones – and the smell of body odor was ripe to say the least. One passenger, however, was a TV producer while another time we met a man who spoke 11 languages, so perhaps my generalization of economic strata is skewed. Passengers banged on the top of the bus ceiling as their indication to the driver to stop so that they might disembark. Quite the experience; but then I’m usually up for a good adventure.

Old Muscat
gate-to-old-MuscatOld Muscat is located along the Mutrah Corniche across from Port Sultan Qaboos, passing through the old city gate and continuing along the coast, home to numerous hotels and resorts, reportedly the most expensive in the country.

We stopped at the corniche, which was renovated within the past few years but continues to resemble what it looked like prior to the modern oil-era, and walked to the souq along the harbor sidewalk. Being familiar with many souqs from Bahrain, Turkey and Qatar, a souq is a souq. If you’ve never visited a souq, however, you absolutely must. They provide a glimpse into a way of life, which has remained largely unchanged through centuries, and an excellent means of capturing local culture. Silver jewelry, Bedouin handicrafts, food and spices, colorful fabrics, housewares and clothing are just some of the offerings from the souq stalls. If you were in the market for a pair or two of sandals, this was your sandal heaven! All souqs that I’ve gotten lost in are maze-like narrow alleyways, and the Mutrah Souq is no different. At the end of the corniche is Mutrah Fort towering above the back side of the souq.

And, as is the Arab custom, shoppers are greeted with smiles and offers of a cup of tea or the traditional gahwa (Arabic coffee). It is impolite to refuse.shop-up-mt-side

Frankincense
However, this souq sold an Omani specialty: frankincense. The incense hung heavy in the air like perfumed smog. I knew that you burn frankincense, but was surprised to learn you can also eat it. A shopkeeper offered us each a chunk of a whitish yellow hard lump of rock. He told us to chew it. It had little to no flavor or taste; however, once I began chewing, the frankincense stuck to my teeth and was a horrible mess to get off. It reminded me of when a dentist makes an impression of a tooth for a crown.

The region of Dhofar in the southern part of Oman is home to the Frankincense Trail. Dhofar has known frankincense since biblical times, and it is in this region that the famed frankincense trees flourish. Frankincense is a symbol of life for the Dhofari people. It is not merely a tree, but an embodiment of culture, history, sociology and geography. As you know, the biblical story of the three wise men coming to see the newborn Jesus brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Over the centuries, cities and civilizations have been based on frankincense trade. Researchers have discovered writings in the southern Arabic alphabet in some of these ancient cities telling the story of establishing the cities for the purpose of exporting frankincense to different parts of the Arabian Peninsula. Omani researchers and historians have documented that Alexander the Great imported huge quantities of incense from Arab lands; King Solomon burned frankincense around his throne as incense; when Emperor Nero’s wife died, he burned the equivalent of the entire southern Arabian Peninsula’s yield of frankincense in her honor; and, of course, that in biblical times continuing to today, incense is used at the Vatican in Rome during Mass. Frankincense is also a main ingredient in many Arabic perfumes I discovered.

Corniche Area
dhow-in-corniche-bayOnce a Portuguese stronghold, there is still evidence along the Corniche of its architectural influence in some of the original buildings and their balconies.

Out in the sea was the Sultan’s huge yacht, moored and guarded by the Omani coastguard and harbor police. Flanked on one side was a Portuguese watchtower and fort (Al Jalali) dating from the 1580s.

Al Jalali Fort and Al Mirani Fort are located on either side of the sultan’s palace. The forts were built as prisons in the jagged mountains during the Portuguese occupation and were converted into museums. Unfortunately, in 2012 the forts were closed to the public.

Qasr Al Alam Royal Palace, guarded by the twin forts, is the office of Sultan Qaboos. The uniquely colorful palace stands on the head of a natural deep water harbor. Visitors are not allowed to visit the palace, but are allowed to take photographs at the entrance. Within the palace complex are many government offices and buildings. The importance of security was not lost on me when I spotted a soldier walking along with his machine gun ready at his side.Qasr-Al-Alam-Royal-Palace

After we left the palace, we continued along the Corniche beach road until we reached Al Bustan Palace Hotel. The Al Bustan has received many international awards as one of the world’s best hotels. Further up the road I was told were more international five- and six-star hotels dotting the coastline with their exquisite sand beaches.

The Al Bustan was a stunning complex, and I could easily see this as a sanctuary for relaxation and rejuvenation of mind, body and soul, that is, if I could ever afford to stay here. Although photographs were not allowed inside other than in the 125-foot high lobby, suffice to say it was grandiose, dripping with Austrian crystal chandeliers and coated in rich marble and gold.

Outside, the private hotel beach rivaled any Caribbean beach, while the numerous pools and outdoor green spaces were sumptuous and impressive. The front entrance sported vistas of the nearby Hagar Mountains.

Our final stop of the day was a visit to the small Bait al Zubair Museum (house of Zubair). No photography was allowed within the private museum. Bait al Zubair opened in 1998 to the public and displays the Zubair family’s collection of Oman artifacts that span a number of centuries. It was very interesting and educational.

Two hours later, tired and hungry, we walked a few blocks until we came upon an Indian restaurant that could best be described as an unobtrusive hole in the wall. We were its only customers. Although obviously not a destination restaurant in which to indulge one’s taste buds, it was a welcome surprise – the chicken Biryani (rice) was delicious, the servings ridiculously huge, and the price a very reasonable $3. The place was relatively clean, particularly the plates and silverware, and the mismatched tables and chairs sturdy. Actually, I felt rather relieved that it was such an “updated” restaurant, as the custom in most Indian restaurants is to eat with your hands sans cutlery. It did have the obligatory sink hanging openly on a wall nearby to wash up before eating.

The Grand Mosque
Although we did not have time to tour the Grand Mosque, we did pass by it twice. In fact, one morning, the police had stopped all of the traffic in both directions on the highway so that the Sultan’s motorcade could bypass the freeway, using the underpass en route to the mosque for prayers. In the distance I could see the black motorcade with its police escort’s blue and red lights flashing. We sat at a standstill for almost 10 minutes.

The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque opened in 2001. “As a contemporary place of worship, it serves as a spiritual landmark for modern Oman, projecting the values and aspirations of the Omani people. As an edifice, it maintains a perfect balance between aesthetics, culture and deeply-rooted Islamic tradition, and at the same time, pays homage to the civilizations that have occupied Oman throughout the ages,” proclaimed a tourist brochure.

This mosque is the third largest mosque in the world and open to non-Muslim visitors. Its unique features include the Swarovski crystal chandelier, the second largest handmade Persian carpet in the world, and marble paneling throughout.

Omani Fortifications
coastal-fortEvery city has one – the stone, stucco and mud-brick circular watchtowers and forts dotting the country’s landscape. These strategically placed fortifications were crumbling into oblivion until the 1980s, when the Omani government began restoring them using traditional techniques and materials. More than 500 forts and castles have and/or will be conserved.

“Defensive elements such as towers, battlements, walled enclosures and gateways comprise the most distinctive aspect of Omani architecture,” according to renowned archeologist Paolo Costa. “Today, architectural features reminiscent of the old forts appear as artistic rather than utilitarian attributes in modern villas and commercial buildings.”

Oman’s forts are frequently assumed to have been built by the Portuguese, but in fact, the vast majority were constructed by Oman’s Ya’ariba and Al Bu Said dynasties. The Portuguese built only the two famous twin forts of Jalali and Mirani that guard Muscat Bay.

During the century and a half of Portuguese domination, Muscat was an important naval base, and the Portuguese forts were strictly confined to coastal Oman.

Omani forts are guarded by massive, ornately carved wooden portals with a small cut-out door allowing entrance one person at a time and then only by stooping. The ceilings are typically beamed with trunks of palm or candlewood supporting simple but elegant patterns of crisscrossed palm ribs and palm-frond mats, consistent with other Middle Eastern fort construction.

Over the centuries, the once familiar camel caravans through the mountains and deserts declined, and Oman’s most prized product, frankincense, was no longer worth its weight in gold.

A daylong excursion to the towns of Bahla and Nizwa were equally rewarding, particularly since the 2 ½ hour drive from Muscat was through the same Hajar Mountains and past lesser-known sights the camel caravans traveled centuries earlier. That trip is deserving of its own story.

A stop-off to the Amouge factory in Muscat was also worthwhile despite the high-end perfume not being made in Muscat as I had thought. It is made in Grasse, France, bottled and shipped to the Muscat Amouge facility where Omani workers label and box the bottles for shipment. But to learn about the ingredients, process and history of Amouge was interesting.

The Omani people are extremely friendly. On one occasion, we were walking in the hot afternoon sun when a car stopped and the driver offered to take us to the mall about 10 minutes away so that we could catch a mini bus. The few times we hailed taxis, always negotiating price before getting in, those drivers too were talkative with interesting stories and facts to share.

With the beauty of the landscape and the friendliness of the people, it is easy to understand why Oman is a popular destination. It might have only been a four-day trip, but its memories will last a lifetime.

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Bait Al Zubair – Muscat’s Heritage Through the Sands of Time

All countries have a custodial and moral responsibility to shape and protect their culture. And to keep alive the past’s history, culture and traditions about a people is a significant role – not only for the next generation, but also for visitors curious about a country’s heritage.

Bait Al Zubair (House of Al Zubair) is a private museum that opened to the public in 1998. Located in the former Sheikh Al Zubair bin Ali Zubair family house in Old Muscat, built in 1914, it displays the Zubair family’s private collection of Omani artifacts, including clothing, household items, artwork and maps, and swords and firearms, with detailed descriptions as to their origin and use.

No graceful architecture and no opulent furnishings, no sweeping views of elaborate staircases. Nevertheless, the individually-styled museum features century old, authentic Omani displays resonating from the past.

The explanations are excellent, and although the museum is small, it was well organized and very educational. The complex is broken into four individual buildings showcasing clothing and furniture along with weapons, early maps and prints of the Arabian Peninsula, typical Muscati furniture, a replicated Omani Bedouin home within a garden setting, a gift shop, and art gallery/coffee shop. The latter was under renovation the day we visited.

Set up as a self-guided experience, we spent two hours at Bait Al Zubair, and enjoyed every minute. The artifacts were impressive and with the explanations so detailed, time-honored traditions came to life.

Omani womens traditional dressOmani Clothing
Omani women have distinctive, colorful national dresses that vary widely from region to region. Women’s attire is often complex consisting of many layers. Clothing is frequently handmade and usually features intricate embroidery around the neck, wrists and ankles. An Omani girl would usually start to cover her hair at puberty, and if it is her tribal custom, she may also veil or mask her face.

Jewelry is very important to the Omani women. Jewelry designs are ornate and can feature Quranic and Arabic script, geometric patterns, and stylized floral decorations.

The dishdashe, the Omani national dress for men, is a simple white or ivory gown. Men wear matching pants underneath. The dishdashe has a single tassel at the neck that can be perfumed. On formal occasions, a kanjhar (the Omani dagger) would be worn on a belt around the waist with a bisht, usually a brown, cream or black translucent cloak etched with gold or silver trimmings. The man’s head would be covered with a turban called a msarr.

The shal, a long strip of fabric, is worn around the waist of the dishdashe with a kanjhar (dagger) tucked into it. The shal and the msarr (the turban worn by Omani men and usually made from embroidered cotton or wool) will always be the same design of material and come as a set. When the shal is worn, the bisht is usually not, at least not in the Muscat area.

Kummah is a simple cap for everyday use for males. It consists of two pieces of cloth sewn together, a circular top with a rectangular strip attached to form the sides. The cap is made of crisp white cotton that is embroidered in many different colors with unique, highly decorative designs. Traditionally, the women in the family would make them for their menfolk.Omani kummahs

Other male accessories include the Al Mhahil, Al Abzim and the midwakh/mushrab. The latter is a small silver pipe used by the Bedouin, and its style varies from region to region.

Mhahil are silver kohl containers that were used by men. Kohl was applied to the eyes to protect them from the sun. The containers were hung from belts or stored in the headdress. Baseball players in the U.S. put this black kohl under their eyes today to block the sun. The containers are bullet shaped with an application stick fastened to a chain on its lid. It is often highly decorated with floral or geometric designs, and worn exclusively by men.

Al abzim are belt buckles that can be divided into three major categories. Two types are worn on an embroidered belt, one of which opens in the center, and the other opens at the side. The third type is a small buckle that fastens the kanjhar, gun powdered horn strap or a sword belt. The mahfadh is a decorative silver cover for a pocket on the kanjhar or a bullet belt.

The Household
The home is a place of comfort and security and plays a very important part in Omani family life. The Omani people are renowned for their hospitality, which I observed firsthand. The legacy of a desert-dwelling culture where a friendly welcome and the offer of refreshment have always been the established custom still survives. Today, visitors to an Omani home will invariably be offered halwa, a gelatinous sweet meat greatly enjoyed in Oman. This is traditionally followed by kalwa (Arabic coffee flavored with cardamom).

Zubar dallah coffee potDallah is the coffee pot made from copper and brass. The Omani coffee pot design features a hinged lid attached to the handle and a curved spout. Some coffee pots were made out of silver and mostly used for decorative purposes. Coffee pots are still manufactured primarily in Nizwa, using the same traditional craftsmanship as before. Sahalah are Bedouin drinking vessels, which look to be made of copper. They would be hooked to the side of camel trappings.

Incense burners and rosewater sprinklers made of engraved and decorated silver are all items commonly used throughout Oman. After guests are served coffee, they are offered rosewater sprinkled over their hands. Incense burners are then taken around to the guests who can enjoy the scents that rise from the Frankincense oud.

Ornate incense burners called magmar are made from clay or silver. They can also be made of wood; however, the Bedouin type is clay. Hot coals are placed in it, which is then sprinkled with incense to produce the perfumed smoke.

What Americans know as a hope chest, Omanis call sandouq. These wooden chests with ornate tops decorated with carvings and brass, serve a multitude of purposes, and can be dated back to the 16th century. Different styles found reflect the Sultanate’s rich sea-faring heritage with influences from Persia, Asia and Africa. Chests in Oman are a very important part of the home and were generally given full of treasures as a bridal gift to girls getting married.

Swords and Firearms

Omani kanjharThe Kanjhar
Omanis are historically renowned for their prowess and swordsmanship, according to information at Bait al Zubair. From early descriptions, Oman men were traditionally armed with a sword and a dagger.

This dagger, known as a kanjhar in Oman, is curved and worn on an embroidered belt. The kanjhar is an essential part of male dress and symbolizes manhood, courage and tradition. The ornate silver and gold work on the kanjhar reflect techniques and craftsmanship passed down through families from father to son, and it is this that sets them apart from other regional daggers.

Omani sword styles have remained essentially the same for 600 years, where the sword was used as a weapon until the introduction of the rifle in the 19th century.

The saif is an Omani straight sword with intricately cast and engraved silver mounts. It is particularly rare. These swords would also have been disguised as a walking stick when it had the scabbard on, a use still common today. This type of Omani sword has a flamboyant early 17th century double-edged blade that is extremely sharp.

The gracefully curved blade Omani sword, with a Yemeni influence, is known as a kitarah. These swords usually have an ivory grip bound with silver or gold wire and decorations. The blade is usually made of Damascus watered steel with patterns that resemble ripples of water, and created on the blade by highly specialized forging and fabrication techniques.

Modern Rifles
The matchlock, known in Oman as the abu satiyalah, the user of the match, was first featured in Arabia in the 16th century. It was probably invented in many places quite independently in the 15th century as a natural progression from the hand cannon. By the 17th century, matchlocks were manufactured in Oman’s interior and were in great demand until the 1880s when they were replaced by the rifle.

With the introduction of the modern rifle late in the 19th century (1897-1898) in Oman, Muscat became established as the center for arms and ammunition traffic and trade in the region supplying the Gulf area including Persia and Afghanistan.

bullet beltThe mahzam, a bullet belt, held a variety of different sized cartridges for matchlocks or rifles. The belt for the matchlock held cartridges with enough powder for a single shot. These belts were often elaborately woven with silver thread and usually had small pouches on either side of the buckle for keeping small items safe.

In Oman, rifles were brought out in times of war and times of peace. They were also used for hunting. At weddings and Eid festivities, rifles are fired into the sky to add excitement to the celebrations.

As we finished in the main portion of the museum, we made our way to a second building housing artwork, Arabian Peninsula maps and early printmaking items. Typical furniture dating back 100 years was featured on the first floor, along with Sheikh Zubair’s office furniture, while subsequent floors displayed artwork and the maps, a renewed geography lesson for me.

Fine Arts
Prior to the 18th and 19th centuries AD, few people from the west had traveled to the Arabian Peninsula and east Africa due to adverse natural climatic, economic, religious and social conditions. It was, therefore, difficult for artists producing prints to draw from life, so they would have relied on previous artwork, and travelers’ and explorers’ accounts of a place or people. Artists that traveled to the places specifically to record them visually, originally sketched some of the artwork, while others are artist impressions that were then made into prints that would have been hand colored. There is also an extensive display of historic cameras.

Once hidden in dusty periodicals or travelers’ accounts recounting the Arabian Peninsula and east Africa, from 1670 AD until the end of the 19th century, these prints are important works of art from Europe originating predominantly from the United Kingdom, Germany and France. They can be considered among the first images of Oman and the region prior to photography, and feature historic pictures of the royal family and their court, gifts and palaces. Muscat and other locations in Oman, as well as people, costumes, camels and education are also featured artwork. These prints are important to the world because they impart geographic and cultural information about the Arabian Peninsula, and serve as valuable historical and artistic documents. Although they were reproduced many times when first made, they are now very rare. These prints provide data available in past times and those on display showing the Arabic Peninsula represent a period of about 200 years dating from the 17th – 19th centuries AD.

Printmaking was the essential medium for communication prior to photography, and is a method of making multiple works of art by transferring images, texts and colors, usually to paper on a printing press, through a variety of processes. The prints on display were mostly made of wood, copper and steel engraving in chromolithography.pritns of Oman coastline

There are many different methods of printmaking that have evolved over hundreds of years. Engraving is one of these earliest forms. For thousands of years this technique was used to embellish seals, jewelry and metalwork.

Outside and part of the museum grounds is a gorgeous garden that features a traditional barasti (palm frond) hut, a falaj (ancient water distribution system) and a small-scale replicated souq area. At the far end is a model scale city of Muscat in the old days.

painted-oryxColorfully painted oryx are lined up along the various buildings welcoming visitors to the museum.

This house that became a museum has a lot to say through its images and information from the canvas of life for visitors to learn and draw from, thus enriching and influencing its Muscati society in a positive way. If you go to Muscat, I highly recommend a visit to Bait Al Zubair.

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The Many Colors of Turkish Art & Culture

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Centuries old art forms and textiles. Traditional shadow puppetry and children’s games. Music, dance, Turkish coffee and ethnic food. It was a showcase of everything made in Turkey. And it was all displayed in grandeur at the inaugural Turkish Festival held at Katara the Cultural Village in Doha, Qatar this past April.

Turkey has an undisputable rich cultural heritage, particularly in music, dance, and various performing arts. Historical evidence points to the influences of several empires as the reason, in particular, the flamboyant Ottoman Empire’s legacy, but has European influences as well.

Turkish Art
Turkish art is a combination of various forms of Turkish culture. It broadly refers to paintings, architecture, literature and other fine art forms.

Silk painting represents the synthesis of Turkey’s eastern and western cultures. Inspired by Turkish motifs, silk painting embellishes wood, marble and traditional Turkish and Ottoman motifs on silk scarves by brush with trademark Turkish colors.

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Turkey is famous for its Iznik tiles, dating back some five centuries, the beautiful raw quartz found locally in Iznik. It takes about 40 days to make one tile, since they are all handmade. The process involves pounding the quartz into powder, then forming them into squares. The tiles are then heated, designed, contoured and, finally, colored. At first, blue and white were the prevailing colors in the pots and wall tiles in this category. During the 16th century, turquoise was introduced. The embossed red of the wall tiles in Istanbul’s Süleymaniye Mosque (1555) marks the peak of Ottoman tiles and ceramics, as red is very rare and difficult to colorize. Almost every Turkish mosque and palace prominently features tile works while many homes also showcase tile.

Paper marbling, an art of ornamentation, was an important branch of both art and business during the Ottoman reign, and remains popular today in Turkey. The ornamentation patterns result from specially prepared colored dyes floated on water and then carefully transferred onto paper or fabric. Methods include ink brushes and straws to fan the colors into patterns resembling smooth marble. Marbling was widely used in book covers and stationery.Image

Calligraphy, another visual art, utilizes a highly decorative and beautiful writing style. It was significant throughout the world and preceded typography and the printing press. Many exquisite examples were on display.

Eye dazzling jewelry and engraved handmade silver platters, taking two months from start to finish, were also showcased in the Turkish Grand Bazaar.

Similar to the Turkish culture that has become rich and influenced by several empires and their own set of practices, Turkish clothing also has a rich tradition of its own. Many interesting styles adorned a full wall.

Shadow puppetry was extensively highlighted along with an area designated for children to color puppets. Turkish children have grown up watching this unique type of puppetry, which according to display information indicates stories of Aladdin and other fairy tales. The puppets dance on sticks behind a wall of thin veil fabric. A screen and table is set up in the dark with enough light to cast shadows on the puppets. The audience can actually see the shadows, but cannot see the hand behind them.

Historically, the two lead characters of Turkey’s traditional adult shadow play puppetry are Karagoz, who symbolizes the illiterate but practical public, and Hacivat, a level-headed member of the educated class. The central theme of the plays is the contrasting interaction between the two directed toward an adult audience. Today, these humorous plays are more closely associated with Eid and are in a “toned down” form intended for children. It is unclear when the plays were first performed, but have been documented at least during the 14th to 15th centuries. What is known, however, is that the puppetry art form was being performed well before the advent of electricity.

Mehteran Band Music
We anxiously waited for the start of the musical portion of the festival that did not get underway until after 7 p.m. First up was the popular Mehteran. Just as they were getting settled onto the stage, the power tripped and all went dark. They began playing to a delighted crowd anyway.

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In Ottoman, mehteran means band. Ottoman military bands are thought to be the oldest variety of military marching band in the world. Modern day military marching bands got their start after being modeled by the mehteran bands sometime in the 16th century. Today, Mehteran band music is largely ceremonial and considered by most Turks as an example of heroism and a reminder of Turkey’s historical past.

The performance was very good, and the male band wore colorful traditional robes wrapped in colorful silks and high ribbed hats that were flared at the top. The group played interesting and unfamiliar instruments. The standard instruments used are the giant timpani, which is a large hemispherical brass or copper percussion instrument with a drumhead (the flat surface of a drum that has leather stretched over it); a small kettle drum, bass drum, cymbals, zurna, a reed-type wind instrument; a kind of trumpet and the cevgen, a type of stick bearing small concealed bells.

Turkish Dance and Music
Another important and inseparable part of the rich Turkish heritage is dance, which consists of several forms.

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The Folklore Dance Ensemble performed later in the evening, and unfortunately, we were unable to stay for it. (Photo is courtesy of the local newspaper.) Reportedly, this group performs in colorful authentic national dress based on their region in Turkey playing folk instruments with a goal to preserve folk culture in a pure form so generations may appreciate and become familiar with this tradition. A hallmark of Turkish dance performances is their variety and “immaculate choreography”. These dances feature a variety of tempos, such as very slow and then very fast.

Turkish music is divided into two major groups: classical and folk. Classical is actually the Ottoman music that is associated with the higher society that has developed through centuries. Military music is a form of classical music.

The Turkish World’s Music Ensemble concert was a third musical offering of the evening, which we also missed. These musicians played music from all seven districts of Turkey, and newspaper reviews reported that there were costume changes with every region and their moves and choreography showed almost no repetition.

Although it was disappointing that the two music ensembles didn’t start until very late in the evening, overall, the entire Turkish Festival was a wonderful time and the enthusiastic crowds in obvious agreement.

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Sharing Knowledge: Inspired by Tradition

From the intricately-carved white gypsum panels and traditional detailed lightscreens marrying side by side with softly curved vanilla arches, Katara harkens present-day visitors back to a yesteryear long, long ago marked by contrasts of old and new. Wandering the stone-clad walkways cooled by precisely-placed awnings above shielding the afternoon-setting February sun, it soon becomes apparent what Katara is all about. Culture, knowledge, and faith sprinkled with a heavy dose of traditions – all part of an extraordinary mission of imparting these precious gifts to the world; that is, one of generously sharing the power of modern-day knowledge.

Aptly named, Katara is actually one of the old names of Qatar dating back well into the 18th century. Fashioned after a traditional Qatari alleyway (al Fareeg), Katara’s grid incorporates the timeless features of Middle Eastern architecture inspired by centuries-old traditions. I duck into a quaint shop displaying original leather-bound Islamic art books, dwarfed by a heavy wooden styled wardrobe standing along the wall. Opposite are delicately carved pieces of art set off by colorful glass creations. It is both awesome and awe-inspiring at the same time.

The more than one million square meter (621 mile) complex prominently situated at the eastern coast of Doha, Qatar’s capital city, fronting an expansive esplanade and Al Yazwa public beach, just opened to the public in late December 2011. Katara’s architectural design vision as a top tourist attraction is already garnering rave reviews. Its randomly arranged buildings and facilities truly do replicate the feeling of an old traditional Qatari alley; dedication to detail never lacking right down to the copper looking drinking fountains. And true to original Middle Eastern alleyways, there is always a surprise waiting behind the next gentle turn or corner be it something as simple as a well-placed bench for a rest spell or a large, wooden door to cautiously open only to marvel at what one has just discovered. However, the one thing missing, I felt, were traditionally dressed Qatari guides eager to impart written information about Katara’s different venues, to verbally explain the overview of its mission, and to provide a detailed walking map of where everything was located so as to better understand what you are looking at. But since the cultural village has just so recently opened, perhaps that has yet to be implemented.

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With its impressively large outdoor amphitheater in the spotlight as the focal point (with planned concerts and performances scheduled for the upcoming spring and summer), smaller buildings housing drama theaters, a media center, various cultural and art societies, art exhibition halls, and an opera house offset it. Interwoven like palm fronds are scattered shops, a handcraft souq and restaurants/cafes featuring international cuisine. Katara is truly Qatar’s newest focal point.

The weekend day I visited, the “alleys” were mostly quiet allowing for ample time to wander aimlessly and explore without feeling rushed. It was a pleasant afternoon minus the hubbub of activity normally expected during the week and when performances and exhibitions are slated. Even the throngs of people enjoying the warm afternoon sunrays along the beachfront, as they sauntered up and down the walk that hugged the sandy beach, were temporarily inconspicuous to the rest of the world.

According to Katara’s public relations staff, “[there are] a group of buildings designed to host the various cultural, literary and art societies functioning in Qatar under one roof, with the main objective being to facilitate access of interested visitors and to provoke their potentials and to enhance the spirit of fair competition among them.”

In addition to the colorful palette of the onsite mosque greeting visitors as they enter, this cultural hub of knowledge also features three impressive dovecotes (pigeon towers) towering next to the mosque in traditional style – of which staff routinely feed the pigeons to encourage their stay. A modern looking Falcon Museum, located on the northeastern fringes of the grounds, that actually is a replicated red shroud customarily concealing this mighty bird of prey’s head, is also very unique. You can’t miss any of these three groupings due to their towering size, resplendent color and/or texture, and distinct individualism regardless of traditional styling.

Present-day visitors will find this 18th century village likeness with its decorative richness and imaginative symbolism not only equally impressive and welcoming, but also a reflection of what Katara’s mission embodies. This impressive complex most definitely has something to say.

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The Arab Dance of the Swords

Dance of Swords 1

Crowds of adults and youngsters gather in earnest as strong drum beats signal the start of the traditional Arab ritual.

I’m sandwiched among the audience at the exclusive Pearl-Qatar in Doha, Qatar awaiting this highly publicized event that will initiate tomorrow’s slate of National Day festivities.

Dusk settled in hours ago. Alongside the calm harbor where expensive, prized yachts sway silently in their mooring’s, a sparkling star-lit sky paints the scene under which an ancient, authentic dance is about to delight an audience of varied nationalities.

The crowd falls silent as the drums burst forth with strong, choreographed beats. The dance begins with a tall man chanting a poem. The final single line of poetry is then repeated in the native Arabic tongue by thirteen or so traditionally dressed men and one boy forming a straight line, facing another distant line of men; the drummers dividing the two lines. The line of poetry is repeated again and again as drums beat lowly in the background. Soon men and young boys from one line wield their mighty swords and at first begin a one-by-one, slow processional dance parading around the drummers making their way to the second line of waiting men opposite. It is not long before the line of sword-yielding Arabs has intermingled and they are dancing around the drummers in unison.

This ceremonial ritual is part of all Middle Eastern Gulf countries’ national and official celebrations as a modern-day re-pledging of allegiance to the authorities.

There are subtle differences between the Ardha according to regions, I am told. Some poets recite poetry based on their personal wisdom-reflecting experiences, while others praise a certain individual or tribe with their poems. The last line of poetry, however, is repeated by all while the participants proudly display their swords in their right hands as they dance.

‘Ardha’, derived from ‘I’tirad’, an Arabic word meaning ‘intercrossing of swords’, has been ritualized for centuries. Often associated with war, the drums of Ardha declared an upcoming battle. Swords were brandished and poetry recited – the two defining characteristics of the Ardha – prior to Arab warriors meeting their enemies in battle.

The ritual reinforces a warrior’s fearlessness of fighting and stirs up the necessary adrenaline and enthusiasm amongst soldiers and leaders. The Ardha pre-dates Islam, which indicates this ancient Arab tradition is a cultural practice unrelated to the religion.

Boys as young as four years old, dressed in the traditional thobe (robe) and sporting the red-patterned kathra on their small heads, securely held in place by the black agal with its trailing sash cord, don’t carry real swords at their age. One youngster, standing tall next to his father, I presume, was intent on mimicking everything the adult did. It was perhaps his first Ardha performance, and proved very entertaining as he tried to remain focused and in harmony with the others. I suspect in the not-too-distant future, he will have succeeded admirably.

Short intermissions occurred following the 10-15 minute sword dance before yet another dance began. Different poems were recited – chanting likened to a traditional Latin mass or maybe Gregorian chanting – and the sword dancing continued for hours. People came and went, camera flashes constantly pierced through the dark, and applause was mighty and heartfelt after each rendition. My first Ardha. I somewhat unexpectedly discovered this to be a richly enlightening and highly enjoyable experience of an always-intriguing Arab culture.

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