Tag Archives: Qatar

Al Zubarah’s History: Feuds, Friends and Foes

“People returned to the town after the attack of 1811, but only very slowly. For many years there were only temporary camps of huts and tents. Eventually a new fortified village grew in the heart of the ruins, but this too came to a dramatic end.” (Al Zubarah Archaeological Site sign)

Situated 105 km (65 miles) from Doha, Qatar’s capital city, within a sun-scorched landscape lies the remains of the ancient, deserted town of Zubarah. At its peak (1760-1811), the pearling town was home to several thousand people and stretched almost a mile along the northern coast. It is Qatar’s largest archaeological site.

Pearl merchants Mohammed bin Khalifa and Ahmed bin Rizq left their native Kuwait in 1179, sailed down the Arabian Gulf along the Saudi border, skirting the small island of Bahrain, and anchored in Qatar where the two established the community. Other families and merchants soon followed. In fact, according to historical documentation, Al Zubarah’s population grew to approximately 6,000 consisting of a mix of local tribes as well as Gulf immigrants.

“With access to the rich pearl beds off the coast of Bahrain and strong tribal links to other merchant families, the town became one of six major trading ports in the region, bringing in great wealth and luxuries from as far away as China and Japan in the east, and Britain in the west,” explains a storyboard at the site.

Located in a climatically unsuitable locale, these were dangerous times. Tribal feuds and disputes between centers of power were common as well as the dangerous seas. Because of the discovery of rich pearl beds and the seas as a major seafaring route for trading ships, piracy and raids on pearling ships, trading vessels and settlements were all too common. It’s no wonder walls were quickly constructed to protect the town.

Standing at the entrance of UNESCO’s newly designated archaeological site, I wonder what it must have been like 200 years ago as I gaze about the sun-scorched landscape. Al Zubarah, like many other small communities, sprang up along the bay and flourished due to lucrative pearl fishing and international trade. Surprisingly, the town’s remains are largely intact with the entire street plan having been preserved for hundreds of years beneath the secluded desert sand.

Today, the desert sands conceal 500 ruined buildings, long walls and towers, two screening walls and the sister settlement of Qal’at Murair, where the town’s fresh water wells were located.

As I begin my short walking tour, strategically placed information boards explain that not only has the way of life of this town’s former inhabitants changed, so too has the architecture of the structures. The tour takes visitors behind the walls of the 18th century town, through a wealthy neighborhood and inside a large fortified building. Popular during Al Zubarah’s era, courtyard houses were low, mosques built of stone, and long but low defensive walls with watch towers encompassing the town.

The 1811 and 1878 Attacks
In 1811, the Sultan of Muscat’s army attacked the town and left it burning; virtually destroying the entire area. Shortly after the attack, the town was rebuilt, although at only one third of its original size; thus, beginning its second life so to speak, defined by a new, inner town wall.

Bedouin-hutArchaeology records indicate that people slowly returned and initially lived in palm frond huts, known as barasti, and tents over the ruins of the marketplace (souq). Eventually, the residents rebuilt the town constructing simple, stone-built houses on top of the ruins of the original. It is believed that a new wall and watchtower were built during this time.

Life remained challenging, particularly as area tribes clamored for more power and authority. Ultimately, in November 1878 members of the Bani Hajir tribe and Sheikh Al Bida’s tribe attacked Al Zubarah, which led to its destruction once and for all.traditional-majlas-tent

The local tribes, however, struggled to rebuild and resettle. A number of prevailing factors and events prevented this. The Ottoman Empire claimed the area – although they never physically set up a fort – along with a Bahraini tribe in 1895 that moved to the town. At the time, Bahrain was a British protectorate.

Reportedly, “the move made the British uneasy, and when a large fleet of armed dhows were spotted in the bay, the British took action firing on the assembled ships.” It was further reported that 44 of 200 boats were destroyed with many other vessels seized. The Bahraini Ali bin Ali tribe was ordered to evacuate the settlement within two weeks, which they did.

Al Zubarah was finally abandoned and forgotten, left to crumble under the scorching desert sun and sand.

palace-courtyard-reducedAl Zubarah Townsite Today
Fused into the stark desert panorama, partially uncovered are a palace, a raised walkway that allowed soldiers to patrol the wall, some homesteads and a mosque, all of which were discovered during excavations in the 1980s.

An L-shaped passageway led to the palace entrance – a main courtyard – which provided privacy. Archaeologists discovered a windowless room believed to be the kitchen that was filled wall to wall with deep, clay-lined cooking pits.

The home of a wealthy family that included nine large courtyards was also discovered. Ornate plaster floors and geometrically decorated wall patterns lend credence to the family’s wealth. Also unearthed in the home were date storerooms, various kitchens with ovens, and plaster lined basins believed to have been primitive bathrooms.palace-ruins-reduced

Surrounding the town site in each corner is a round tower that helped support the long walls. According to the storyboard at one of the tower sites, “excavation has revealed internal cross walls for added strength and may have been included to support cannons; a reminder of the dangerous times people lived in.” town-wall-reduced

Al Zubarah Fort
Nearby, but outside the town proper, stands the weather-beaten Al Zubarah Fort. Constructed in 1938, the small stone fort with its simple lines and four symmetric corner turrets overlooks a desolate, windswept landscape. Sprinkled nearby are abandoned villages cordoned off for current and future archaeological exploration.

FORT-WITH-CANNONZubarah Fort was commissioned by Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani as a Coast Guard station to guard against sea intruders. Transformed into a museum in the 1990s, it recently reopened after a major renovation. A hallmark of the fort is the old cannon located outside the front gate.

Research indicates that the fort walls were constructed by blending overlapping chunks of limestone with a mortar and pestle mixture specifically designed for grinding mud. The protective compressed mud roof provided shade and coolness for its military occupants.

The fort has three corners each with massive circular towers used for defense, while the fourth rectangular tower was more for aesthetics. The original eight ground floor rooms, typical of early Gulf fortifications, accommodated the solders with a connecting external wood staircase to reach the upper floors and roof. Today the rooms feature artifacts and storyboards as well as a small gift shop.inside-Zubarah-fort-reduced

The Well at Al Zubarah Fort
Fresh water in Qatar was – and continues to be – scarce. For desert dwellers, water is essential for survival. Therefore, men created wells by cutting through the hard limestone until they reached the water table. The water was subsequently stored in underground cisterns. Large water jars were fashioned of clay that held water to be used for everything from drinking and making coffee to watering crops and ensuring that the animals had water to drink.

At the water table level was fresh water, but if dug too deeply, it was salty and would require boiling prior to use. The well that has been discovered in the fort is at least one-half mile deep and could go deeper. Water was drawn up from the well via a bucket that would have been lowered by a long rope. There are other nearby wells outside of the fort, however they are salt water wells and its water unsafe to drink.Zubarah-Fort-well

The daylong excursion to Qatar’s northwestern portion of the country was interesting and time well spent. Although self-guided, it was interesting to explore and imagine what life was like for these villagers during its years of turbulence. I suspect learning more about the local tribes and their disagreements would make for a fascinating study, thus, providing a more meaningful framework for the archaeological ruins lying before me.

In the meantime, as close as I can come to relating to what life was like in this archaeological site at the moment is atop a camel. Gazing about as my old camel saunters around the fort, I am trying hard to imagine the hardship of life back in the days when desert-camels-from-fort-doornothing could or would be taken for granted.

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Celebrating Palestinian Heritage in Doha, Qatar

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Bathed in black, the jubilant men methodically made their way in my direction amid drumming, clapping and shouts of well wishes. As they came into view, the groom was quickly hoisted up onto the shoulders of two men in the wedding procession while the bride, the only woman, followed behind. Garbed in a white traditional gown with a red patterned bodice and wearing a matching red and white headscarf dotted with jewelry pieces dangling against her forehead, the Palestinian bride took her place in the spotlight alongside her husband-to-be. The audience in the overflowing room of now standing-only spectators was about to witness the enactment of a traditional Palestinian wedding. The dozen male performers, heads swathed in the commonly wrapped black and white checkered scarves securely tied in the back, enthusiastically danced reminiscent of a New York chorus line. It was an incredible experience.

The wedding enactment was just one of the highlights of the inaugural Palestinian Heritage Week recently held at Katara the Cultural Village in Doha, Qatar, and co-sponsored by Katara and the Qatar-Palestinian Friendship Association.Image

In addition to the live wedding enactment, the Ibdaa Palestinian Troupe, who were featured in the wedding, performed 30 minutes’ worth of lively and high energy folk dances. “This traditional folk dance extends for numerous years and features holding of hands to reflect the unity and solidarity of Palestinians,” explained the festival organizer.

Ibdaa, which means ‘to create something out of nothing’, is a grassroots initiative of Dheisheh Refugee Camp. Founded in 1995, Ibdaa reportedly serves more than 1500 children and young people annually through various programs, while providing job opportunities to more than 60 families in the Palestinian camp.

Ibdaa’s mission is to provide an environment for the camp’s children and young people to develop their ability, creativity and leadership skills through social, cultural and educational activities that are not readily available in the camp. It strives to empower the children and instill in them confidence and strength to face their difficult future, while educating the international community on the Palestinian refugee issue.

The Ibdaa troupe performs dance pieces that tell the history, struggle and aspiration of Palestinian refugees by intertwining debkeh traditional Palestinian dance, and theatrical choreography. This traditional folk dance has existed for many years and is recognized by the holding of hands to reflect the Palestinians’ unity and solidarity.

The Askalan Palestinian Band took to the stage next singing folk songs. Their music featured keyboards, vocalists, background singers and an electric oud. A male and female singer took turns belting out traditional songs with uncanny passion. Although everything was in Arabic, and I was at a loss to know the story and meaning behind the song’s lyrics, it was a very moving performance.

Handicrafts
As part of the weeklong event, an artisanal exhibition highlights homemade crafts, such as silver jewelry created from olive leaves (a symbol of peace), mother of pearl pieces including a large replica of “Dome of the Rock”, glass blown products, ceramic items and floor tiles, olive oil soap, time-honored embroidered clothing and tapestries, and crafts made from olive tree wood. Most of the embroidery work, including abayas, scarves, accessories and bags, features traditional Palestinian embroidery, known as tatriz, which is produced through a woman’s collective.

The eclectic fusion of blue, green, brown and turquoise colored glass products caught my attention. I quickly purchased two beautiful and delicately-appearing matching goblets. The twin wine glasses make a stunning conversation piece and are heavy and well made. Though non-dishwasher safe because of the glass content, they will withstand steady use and future moves.

The collective at Ibdaa Cultural Center in West Bank provides an alternative income source to the families. It also strives to preserve the ancient cultural heritage that has been passed down through generations of Palestinian mothers and daughters. Women from West Bank and Gaza have made all of the products displayed.Image

As part of Adel Fair Trade initiative, Palestinians are striving to build an economy under occupation. Adel is a pioneer national marketing program supporting products and cooperatives of marginalized families in terms of fair trade and fair price principles for both producers and consumers with the goal of improving their economic situation.

Some of the Palestinian-made products available to sample and for sale included olive oil, olive paste, makdous (stuffed baby eggplants mixed with nuts), atayeb, a dried tomato and olive mixture using all non-chemical ingredients, which we purchased, sheep cheese, red chili sauce, sweet pumpkin jam, natural honey, grape molasses and various whole wheat and couscous products along with an array of dried spices, and an impressive and mouth-watering selection of sweets, such as harissa and kanafeh. All of the Palestinian recipes are passed through generations, authentic and grown and produced using local raw materials free of unsafe and unhealthy chemical ingredients and preservatives. Information passed out claims the product’s standards match international and national standards.

Emad Abu Zuluf, chairman of the Palestinian-Qatari Friendship Association explained to the press that apart from strengthening relations between Palestine and Qatar, the association has been instrumental in becoming a bridge that has facilitated cultural communication by sharing and promoting its culture.

The music was upbeat, the audience multinational, and the evening highly entertaining and educational. Seeking out other nationalities and learning about their cultures is one of the great rewards of being an expat in a foreign country. It is a journey of constant discovery.

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Kings & Pawns: Board Games From India to Spain

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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.

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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.

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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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Discovering the Unfamiliar in Qatar and Beyond

Living in a foreign country and experiencing a new and, oftentimes, very different culture is not for every one. But for those of us who have accepted the challenge, each day offers up different perspectives, challenges and sometimes head-shaking disbelief. Come along and explore some of the commonplace sights and customs in Qatar – and the Middle East in general – that are unfamiliar to most Americans.

Water Stations
Bedouins traveling with their camels throughout the desert needed enough water to reach the next well. To refuse a traveler refreshment in such a place as the desolate desert is to let him die.Image

Nomadic traveling in the harsh desert climate necessitated the need for water. Bedouins have always been welcomed when stopping for water. That tradition continues today. The Arab Bedouin culture of hospitality is as strong today as it was in the past.

In many areas of Doha, especially the traditional Bedouin areas, water spigots are lined along the sidewalks for laborers and anyone else needing a refreshing cup of water. This is in addition to all mosques that have the water stations from which Muslims will wash their hands and feet before entering the mosque to pray. Because we live in a former Bedouin neighborhood, there are numerous water stations – at least one per block – on area streets.

Majlis Tents
An important aspect of the Arab culture is communication. During the Bedouin times, Arabs had dedicated tents where tribal men would meet daily to discuss community issues. Majlis is an Arabic word meaning “meeting”, which is why the tents are known as majlis tents. In modern times, this type of tent is still very common. For those who do not have one of these  semi-permanent structures erected on their property, a room at the front of the house – usually with a separate door – comprises a house majlis. In addition to meetings and current day get-togethers, particularly during the two major religious Eid celebrations, feasts and other celebrations are held in the majlis. In more affluent homes, there is a separate dedicated majlis for both men and women for these purposes.Image

The traditional “tent” majlis, which has windows and air conditioning, is constructed of heavy traditional black and brown fabric. There has been recent controversy about its safety as the fabric is extremely flammable.Image

The typical seating in a majlis are dark red/black cushions that sit low to the floor. In homes with majlises, usual furniture is found. All seating, however, is arranged along walls usually on all four sides of the room. Most men and boys will dress in traditional/national dress when attending a majlis, and especially if it is on Eid.

Wedding Tents
Another tent commonly seen across the Middle East is the wedding tent. These large white  tents with chairs stacked along the walls are the site of a male wedding celebration. The male wedding is typically held in an outdoor tent, either in traditional Bedouin style with an open front and traditional red covered cushions, or the modern elaborate tent which can include air conditioning units and other amenities.Image

The tent and its location depend on the preferences of the groom’s family. After ritual greetings between the groom, his family members, the bride’s male family members, and all of the male guests, there may be men who dance with swords or musical performances by an oud player on the traditional stringed instrument. Women are not allowed at this event. Most wedding celebrations are videotaped for the bride to watch at a later date. The bride’s celebration is held at a hotel.

“Guard Shacks”Image
Here in Qatar, it is a common sight to see what I call guard shacks that double as the “security guard’s” one-room home. These quarters are usually located on or near the street of a villa. Crime is rare in Qatar, so I’ve always been a bit confused as to the reason for these structures; nevertheless, they are seen everywhere.

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Laborer Accommodations
Unskilled laborers are mostly housed in quarters provided by their employer while the semi-skilled laborers seem to have accommodations that they still share with others, but not to the large extent that the unskilled laborers do. The large scale accommodations are called labor camps and until recently have housed men in barrack-style rooms with stacked bunkbeds. The UN and U.S. Human Rights groups have cracked down on these employers, both here and in other Gulf countries.

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Arabic Language
Fortunately, everyone speaks English here and I have not had any language barrier issues. The same was true for Bahrain. The nationals, however, seem to respect expats more if they speak some Arabic, even if it’s simply shukran (thank you). All signage is in both English and Arabic. The written Arabic language is very beautiful and can be in formal calligraphy as well as “standard” Arabic.

Because the official language is Arabic, all government correspondence and documents are in Arabic with NO English translation. Image

Billboards are usually in English and Arabic, although I’ve seen some in Arabic only. Over here the billboards are different than those we are used to in the States. They are fabric rather than paper and it can easily take a dozen men to hang the billboard.

A very interesting recent campaign underway is for residents to learn their address. There has never been residential mail delivery in Qatar simply because up until recently, there were no house numbers and people had no need to know this information. With the new awareness campaign, necessary so that first responders can locate a dwelling or business in the event of an emergency, everyone is being asked to memorize and learn their house address. Seems basic to us, but it is a very new concept over here. Billboards are everywhere.

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Transportation
Somehow I don’t think I will ever adjust to the sight of animal transport whether it is a camel, horse or sheep. In the U.S. we would never see animals transported in the back of a pickup truck, which is the only way I’ve seen them here. It seems so inhumane.Image

The Squatty Potty
Excuse me? Yes, the tradiional toilet for women is, for lack of a better term, a hole in the floor. All public restrooms have at least one of these, which are comically known as squatty potties. I was forced to use one once, and it was not a pleasant experience.Image

It’s difficult to not be judgmental sometimes, so I try to keep an open mind and enjoy this cultural immersion for what it is. Qatar is still considered an emerging country, as are most Middle East countries. Most of them have only been independent entities from the British since the 1970s.

 

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Doha Equestrian Festival Highlights Trick Riding and Purebred Arabian Horse Contest

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The outdoor arena – full to capacity – thundered with applause in the late winter eve’s darkness with the arrival of the star attraction galloping into the arena on horseback.

The backdrop was HH (His Highness) the Emir’s 23rd International Equestrian Sword Festival, held at the Doha, Qatar Equestrian Federation grounds, which provided all the thrills and entertainment equestrian lovers yearn for as part of its opening ceremony. Trick riding, fire jugglers, the Qatar Police Band, a traditional arda (sword) dance, and an entertaining laser performance thrilled the crowd. The main attraction, however, was world-renowned equestrian trainer and movie stuntman Mario Luraschi.

Luraschi and his horse dazzled the spectators, young and old, with such tricks as his horse sitting on command, popping out from a trunk, rearing up on his front legs, and demonstrating graceful prancing techniques.

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The Frenchman demonstrated the special skills required of movie stunt horses as well as what their riders must perfect for trick riding during filmmaking. The spirit and energy of the beautiful horses were also well showcased.

Billed as an elegant acrobatic performance, Luraschi’s goal was to highlight the close relationship between horse and rider, including cooperation and trust. He succeeded magnificently. According to his bio, for the past 30 years Luraschi has trained horses to perform stunts in more than 400 films in the U.S. and Europe. He credits his interest within the horse world to his “passion for the American Natives and the huge American land”.

Six professional stunt entertainers from Germany (three men and three women) – Luraschi’s accompanying team – enthralled the crowd with their daring trick riding while the emcee engaged the audience into vocal voting and applause for the men vs. women.

The young fire jugglers also did not disappoint, twirling and juggling blazing flames on sticks.

The Qatar Police Band performed Qatar’s National Anthem followed by a contingency of Qatari men in national dress who entertained the crowd with Qatar’s traditional arda dance. I’ve seen these before and they are always very entertaining.

The evening festivities climaxed with a brief laser show and a final salute to movie stuntman Luraschi. Unfortunately, the evening ended much too quickly despite extending for almost two hours.

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Day Two of the festival featured a purebred Arabian horse judging contest. The one-year-old fillies were on display for the public prior to the judging. They were assessed on stature and carriage, prancing and galloping skills, and, of course, natural beauty. A trainer explained that the purpose of applying liberal amounts of oil to a horse’s eyebrow area and nose added context, when I commented on the noticeably obvious heavy oil coverage.

Three nine-card race meetings were scheduled for the remaining weekdays (one each for Purebred Arabians and Thoroughbreds) culminating with the prestigious HH The Emir’s Sword race. The winning horse owners will pocket a 1 to 1.5 million QR ($137,310 to $275,000) per race.

Although we could not attend any daytime horse races during the work week, we seized the opportunity to walk over to the track for a close-up look. The track is impressive with both dirt and turf while the size of the window laden, softly curved Islamic-styled architecture of the stadium grandstand is equally appealing.

The inaugural event in 1991 was held as a Pure Arabian Horse Show, but has grown to include Thoroughbreds as well. It is the largest and richest purse festival in the Middle East attracting some of the best horses and jockeys from abroad.

Although horse betting is haram (unlawful) in Islamic countries, owners and jockeys race for monetary purses while spectators are more than satisfied with the fast-paced action on the track.

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A Tradition of Hospitality Still Exists Today in the Arab Culture

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Bedouins traveling with their camels throughout the desert needed enough water to reach the next well. To refuse a traveler refreshment in such a place as the desolate desert is to let him die; to threaten the openhandedness nomadic peoples must depend on to survive.

Nomadic traveling in the harsh desert climate necessitated the need for water. Bedouins have always been welcomed when stopping for water. That tradition continues today. The Arab Bedouin culture of hospitality is as strong today as it was in the past.

In many areas of Doha, especially the traditional Bedouin areas, water spigots are lined along the sidewalks for laborers and anyone else needing a refreshing cup of water. This is in addition to all mosques that have the water stations where Muslims will wash their hands and feet before entering the mosque to pray.Image

I’ve seen many water “stations” in various forms both in Bahrain and here in Qatar.

Because we live in a former Bedouin neighborhood, there are numerous stations – at least one per block – on area streets. So the other day, I decided to take a few photos of them.

I came across one that resembled old earthenware pottery, while the majority are “modern contraptions” mounted on a wall. Some are relatively primitive and in poor condition, while others more decorative and modern.

All of these are within a 10-block radius of our Doha compound. An interesting bit of culture. Enjoy!

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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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