Tag Archives: Middle East

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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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Similar but Different: A Nostalgic Morning Reflection

As I relax in my second floor, freshly-decorated-for-fall sitting room with an outdated home magazine and cooled off cup of coffee, my eyes are drawn across the small room to the screened patio and balcony; perfect size for my two tired lawn chairs and small side table that have sat vacant all summer and fall.

The late morning sun is sectioning off the space. Drifting in are the unmistakable smells of garlic and unknown spices that a resourceful cook somewhere in the area is adding, I suspect, to a pot of soup for someone’s lunch.

The weather is gorgeous. It’s still warm – 85 degrees in mid November – with dirty sand and fine particles of dust clogging my nostrils, but then, this is the Middle East, and this Midwesterner from the U.S. has had three years to adapt to the climate. After all, just three weeks ago it hovered around 100 degrees – and back home it is snowing today – so I consider myself lucky. It is what it is. I won’t complain.

An occasional bird’s song breaks the outside silence punctuated by a rumbling vehicle off in the distance.

Without warning, the many mosques in the neighborhood break out into sound – one of six daily calls to prayer. The male voices collide with one another via loudspeakers mounted high on minarets as they summon faithful Muslims to Zuhr, the noon prayer. Within three to four minutes, all is silent once again.

It’s peaceful and calming. Comfy within my nondescript beige-walled compound, my mind wanders while my senses explode. My sense of smell is updating the garlic scent to suggest chicken soup with this distinct spice liberally added.

In moments such as this, I wonder about – and miss – my comfortable house back home; an old Victorian in a small rural town. It, too, welcoming the late morning aromas from the restaurant on the corner preparing for its lunchtime patrons, the many chirping birds, cars across the river slowly winding their way into town as they cross the bridge, and the daily noon whistle – once alerting the farmers in the fields of lunch time – now a time-honored tradition sounding twice a day from the fire station two streets away.

The distance between here and there may be enormous, but in many respects, the daily routines are similar. Yes, there are differences – cultural, political, religious and social – but then ‘different’ is a good thing in my book.

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Kings & Pawns: Board Games From India to Spain


The life size chess figures really are life size. And they’re alive too!

The black and white human pieces stand at stoic attention and stare vacantly until the chess master calls a move, in which case, the appropriate chess piece walks to the respective square to make a strategic move in the popular board game.

Kings & Pawns: Board Games from India to Spain, a new exhibit now on display in Doha, Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art spotlights an interesting history lesson. Briefly, the exhibition explores the importance of chess, backgammon and other board games from an artistic and cultural perspective between the seventh and 20th centuries.

The display pieces – chess, dice, game boards – provide glimpses into the societies of those playing the games and creating the intricate game pieces as works of art.


Carved chess pieces of ivory, coral and alabaster dating between 8th and 15th centuries adjoins silk and cotton fabric game boards of the 15th century to inlaid chess and backgammon boards of wood, ivory, bone and metal. Complementing these are Iranian illustrated books showing chess being played in the Persian court. Royalty played with carved and inlaid chess pieces while the common man used more modest objects made of glass or ceramic.

According to experts, there are many legends as to the beginnings of chess and backgammon, although the exact origins are unknown. It is believed that chess first began in India while backgammon was first played in Persia. Although the first written accounts of chess date from the 7th century, it almost certainly was invented earlier. Chess became a part of the courtly education of Persian nobility after being introduced from India. After the Islamic conquest of Persia, the Muslim world took up the game. From the Middle East, chess spread directly to Russia. By the early 9th century, the game reached Western Europe where it developed extensively. By the late 15th century, chess had survived a series of prohibitions and Christian church sanctions to almost take the shape of the modern game, including competitive chess tournaments, which have added to the game’s popularity.


Chess has long been known as the Game of Kings and was popular in royal and aristocratic circles. It was not just a game for the elite however; the popularity of chess spread quickly through all levels of society.

Board Games
There are three broad categories of board games: race, war and siege games. Chess is a war game with pieces originally designed to represent the Indian army. The King rode into battle with his trusted political advisor by his side (today known as the Queen). They were protected by elite soldiers made up of the elephant corps (Bishops), the cavalry (Knights) and the charioteers (Rooks). In front of them walked the foot soldiers (Pawns).

Backgammon, believed to be even more popular than chess, is a race game in which players try to move all of their pieces to the end of the board, combining both luck and skill equally.

Two teams play the renowned race game, known as ‘pachisi’, each moving their pieces to the finish line as quickly as possible. The game originated in India and was a popular royal game in the 16th century.

The “game of wisdom” is a game still widely played by children across the world and is more commonly known today as Snakes and Ladders. The game originated in India and was first developed as a method of religious instruction.

Also on display as part of the MIA exhibition were various game boards, some made of silk and cotton dating to the 15th century, known as a chessboard carpet, while others consisted of wood box forms inlaid with ivory and bone. Backgammon boards, for example, feature a combination of interlocking triangles and hexagons, all geometric patterns that are a common feature of Islamic art.

It was an enlightening historical exploration where I learned about the interconnection of art, religion and social class of chess and other board games. And the human chess game in progress? The perfect “contemporary” link that cohesively wove it all together.



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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.

3 cones Amphitheatre2

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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Qatar CultureWelcome! Since December 2011 I have been

Qatar Culture

Welcome! Since December 2011 I have been residing in Doha, Qatar, a small peninsula bordering Saudi Arabia in the Arabian Gulf.

Having lived off and on in Bahrain for four years, I immediately discovered cultural differences between the two Islamic countries as soon as I disembarked from the plane. The differences are not necessarily worse or better; rather, they are different due to the more conservative nature of Qatari culture and religion.

Periodically, I plan to post articles related to scenic sites, archaeological sites and cultural happenings around Qatar that I experienced for the first time. Image

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May 15, 2013 · 10:20 am