Tag Archives: islamic art


In 2009 I wrote about a visit to Doha.  The Museum of Islamic Art had just opened.  It’s a jewel of a museum and they feature a lot of antique jewelry. I am back in Doha for my 6th annual visit.  Some things have changed. The license plates on cars now display Western numerals rather than Arabic numbers.  The finished skyscrapers now outnumber the cranes in some parts of the city, but the building boom is still ongoing.  This is still a place of unbelievable contrasts.

Hodge podge of styles: (from L>R) local traditional, modern (Sheraton pyramid) and base of an ugly tower with a metal laced exterior which we call the ‘corndog’ building because it looks like a corndog!

Hodge podge of styles: (from L>R) local traditional, modern (Sheraton pyramid) and base of an ugly tower with a metal laced exterior (see below; Burj tower), which I call the ‘corndog’ building because it looks like a corndog!

First there is the architecture.  I think this is a city with some of the most unsightly and strangest skyscrapers I have ever seen.  But, also, with one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, the Museum of Islamic Art designed by IM Pei.

Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

It is truly mesmerizing.  The Museum was meant to look like a veiled woman who’s ‘eyes’ are keeping watch over the city.

Perhaps the most striking contrast is in the wealth distribution.  Qatar is considered one of the richest countries on the globe. Qatar has a resident population of 1.7 Mio according to the 2010 census.  However only 1/5 are Qatari nationals.  The rest are ‘guest workers’, a euphemistic term.  They get a resident permit when they enter the country, being invited by their sponsor, the business that employs them.  Most have a single exit visa.  Their sponsor (or employer) dictates when they exit the country and often they confiscate the employees passport.  If fired, you are simply brought to the airport by your employer, end of story.  Some guest workers are luckier and have multiple exit visas usually valid for one year.  Some guest workers (but not all) also get a Health card, which gives them access to government subsidized health care.  They may also acquire a liquor license but they have to be non-Muslim, a resident of Doha and earn over QR 4,000 per month.  Most recently, those with liquor licenses can now also purchase pork products!

Guest workers or expats come in different types.   Top echelon expats are technical advisors, engineers, consultants, scientists and doctors.  They are well paid.  Their employer covers the rent and the school tuition for their kids.  These people can make money here and save money, but they can never become citizens or start their own business.  So most of them ultimately plan to move back home. More commonly expats do all the menial jobs.  They come from all the countries around the Indian ocean.  I try to speak to them.  They are maids, hotel employees, cooks, cab drivers or personal drivers, and droves of construction workers.  Their salaries are meager compared with western nations.  My driver from Nepal makes 1,000 rial per month (US$ 275), that is 30 rial per day (US$ 7/day).  Construction workers may make even less (700 rial/month), and a housemaid, depending on her employer, (700-2000 rial/month).  Never the less, these salaries are a step up from what they could earn at home if they found a job.  They are often able to send some money home and even support their families.  One house keeper put her daughter through school, at home in the Philippines, with $250/semester while making about $400/month here in Qatar.

Construction workers or... 'guest workers'

Construction workers or… ‘guest workers’

My driver has lodging provided by his company: 14 men in 7 bunk beds in one room.  Three are from Nepal and the rest are from Sri Lanka and India.  Three are Hindu, the rest are Muslim.  Life is not cheap in Doha and their salary is just sufficient for some food.  He and his co-workers from Nepal are eager to return to their home country even if that means less money and possibly no work at all.  It is interesting to draw this comparison: my driver makes 30 rial per day and my hotel room costs 1,100 rial per night!  Is this human exploitation?  It sounds like a medieval society. But am I not taking part in this?  I come as a teacher and I share my knowledge in the hope that it will better the human condition, but ultimately I also come here because I am paid!

By contrast, the new found oil and gas wealth of Qatar, deemed the richest country in the world for 2012, has also been used to do some amazing things.  Related to my line of work, the Qatar Foundation invited several western universities to establish a campus in Doha.  This started in the 1990s and now there are at least 7 campuses in Doha representing an unrivaled center for education in the Arab world.  They include the campuses of Northwestern University (communications, journalism, liberal arts), Carnegie Mellon (business administration, computer science), Virginia Commenwealth Univ. (design, arts, fashion), Georgetown Univ. (foreign service, politics), Texas A&M (engineering), Weill Cornell Medical College (medicine)  and University College of London (museum curation, archeology).  The vision and origin of the Qatar Foundation comes from the Emir himself and particulary his wife, Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser.  It’s mission is to further education, science and research, and community development.

So much for contrasts.  Back to jewelry.

Chinese fisherman

Chinese fisherman

I took a long walk just yesterday from the hotel to the museum along the Corniche.   I met a few fishermen.  One man from China had caught 10 fish.  The gulf is actually rich in fish and Doha has a very old history of fishing trade.

Palm tree on the Corniche, Museum in the distant background

Palm tree on the Corniche, Museum in the distant background

From afar you can see the Museum of Islamic Art built on a man made peninsula.  From close up the contrast of old fishing boats (dhow harbor) and the modern art museum are striking!  There is an extensive review of shipping and ship construction in the gulf at catnaps.org – where there is plenty on  Islamic design and traditional boats.

Boats in Dhow harbor, museum in the background

Boats in Dhow harbor, museum in the background

Highly recommended reading!

The entrance to the museum is a long drive way lined with palm trees, with water flowing down a central trough made of black marble. It is a stunning approach.

Here are some pictures I took at the museum.  These are items that belonged to royalty of course.

Necklace make of red spinel, pearls and diamonds set in gold bezels.

Necklace make of red spinel, pearls and diamonds set in gold bezels.

A bazuband to be worn on the front of a princess, made of large diamonds set in gold with a spinel drop in front.

A bazuband to be worn on the front of a princess, made of large diamonds set in gold with a spinel drop in front.

The original owner of much of the jewelry in the museum was Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal. He is depicted here on a cameo in sardonyx stone on a bloodstone mount (ca. 1630).

The original owner of much of the jewelry in the museum was Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal. He is depicted here on a cameo in sardonyx stone on a bloodstone mount (ca. 1630).

On my way home, evening views of Dhow harbor with ancient boats and modern high rises in the background.

Dhow harbor with ancient boats and modern high rises

Dhow harbor with ancient boats and modern high rises

And as I approached the north end of the Corniche I walked right past the ‘corndog’ building again, past a black glass building that reflects the neighboring ‘monster’ buildings, and past the Qatar World Trade Center…    Not sure what to think of this city.

Corndog building

Corndog building (lights up at night) also goes by other less flattering names, but is really named Burj tower.

Reflections of neighboring buildings in black glass

Reflections of neighboring buildings in black glass

Qatar World Trade Center

Qatar World Trade Center with crown!


OK! This is only in part about jewelry… I am writing from Doha in Qatar. I am here on business for my 3rd annual trip.

But this time I got to visit the newly opened Museum of Islamic Art. It is a majestic structure on the Corniche (bay) of Doha built by IM Pei, arguably the most noted present day architect of museums, having designed the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, the pyramid structure of the Louvre in Paris, and the Miho Museum in Japan. Seen from certain angles the museum in Doha looks like a veiled woman. There are many breathtaking vistas of Doha from the Museum. The Museum of Islamic Art covers a lot: 7th to 19th century art and artifacts including textiles, metalwork, scientific and astronomic instruments, architectural design, carpets, paintings, lots of calligraphy, glass and ivory objects, and jewelry! The latter is why I went in the first place, of course. The museum is a “must see”.

The objects on exhibit are very carefully chosen and well displayed. Here are some of the highlights I found:

A monster necklace belonging to the Indian 17th century Mughal emperors Jahangir and Shah Jahan sporting one inch pink spinels (some of which are engraved with the emperors names), diamonds, pearls and gold.

Emeralds and huge diamonds on this necklace.

A haldili of Shah Jahan. This is a calligraphic jade pendant worn to cure the wearer of heart palpitations. The emperor wore this to help him recover from grief after the death of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal in 1631.

Unbelievable paired gold filigree bracelets, worn on both wrists during the Fatimid period in Egypt/Syria from the 11th century. Similar ones are depicted here.

And, my favorite, the Jeweled Falcon, also from Shah Jahan, and dated 1640. This 10 inch bird is completely covered with gold, enamel, inlaid rubies, diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and onyx!

Shah Jahan’s pet Falcon

This museum is well worth a visit, even a detour, to Doha if you are in this area of the world.

On my way home, I decided to walk. It was 5:30 PM and the hotel was on the other side of the Corniche. I guessed, maybe 4 miles away and about 1 hour at a brisk pace? There was lightening in the distance and the sky looked ominous. Would I get drenched? The Corniche is bordered by park grounds, and this is where people spend their time off, along the water. It is a great walk to observe people.

Doha is such a clash of cultures, I thought. There is the traditional, the veiled women in a black abaya and/or hijab, men in white thobes with a white or red checkered ghutra covering the head, mosques everywhere in the background. And there are the young people who wear jeans and tee shirts with English words on them. One such shirt read: “Everybody wants to be just like me!” I smiled at the young man and he smiled back. One young woman was sitting on a bench, completely veiled in black abaya, but she was wearing hot pink high-healed shoes!

On the water there were young men on jets skis going at top speed perilously close to the rocky shore, or doing flips in the air and crashing in to the water to the applause from the walkway! Then there were joggers, perhaps a dozen: all men, except for one woman in a sports bra. This is just like Central Park, in New York, I thought. These joggers were likely not Qataris. I think they were what are called “guest workers” or “ex-pats”. For every Qatari, there are about 5 or 6 guest workers in this country. Many have menial jobs maintaining the hotels or building the high rises under construction everywhere. They come from the different countries lining the Indian ocean. There has been concern about how they are treated, for example in neighboring Dubai. Others are from Europe or the United States. There are major international companies with a large presence in Qatar, such as the French oil and gas company Total. I had previously met some French people working in Doha for Total.

I passed the Emirs’ palace, a government building. Then there is a 36 foot clam shell with a pearl in it, a well know landmark sculpture in town. I passed Balhambra, a local restaurant on the water, and the large statue of Orry the Oryx, a Qatari version of a Disney character it seemed to me.

I passed enormous billboards for QNB (Qatar National Bank) offering mortgage loans to young Qatari couples! Behind the billboards, one high-rise under construction after the other. I tried to remember the name of the construction companies: Al Jaber was one of them. I passed a new high rise called Al Bidda: a twisted triangular structure, not much to my liking.

Finally, I passed through a lovely large meadow with a playground, swings, sand, lots of kids chasing balls, or one another. In the shadows of the park there was even a couple being affectionate, but as I approached they shrank away from one another. Then a long row of flowering white Rhododendron plants leading up to the pyramid structure of the Sheraton hotel.

That is all for now. Take care. David

The Souk in Doha