Monday, January 19, 2009

Museum of Islamic Art

Recently I finally visited the new Museum of Islamic Art and was blown away by the architecture. I know I will spend time with the collections (and have begun to) but could do nothing but follow the architecture. The link in the Blog title leads to an excellent article in the NYT from December 12 that discusses I.M. Pei and the architecture of this museum.

I show a couple photos here and offer links to two slide shows - one of the museum itself and another of buildings I photographed last March in Oman, as a way of demonstrating what everyone has indicated, the remarkable homage to and reflection of Islamic architecture.

There is water everywhere - not only in the reflecting pools and fountains, but the watercourse leading up to the museum entrance seen above and, of course, Pei asked for an artificial island on which the museum could be erected and it was - protecting, he hopes, encroachment on the building in later times. In a desert, water is life.

The views of and around the museum show how incredibly Pei positioned the building in the city of Doha. Through arches one sees the skyline of Doha across the bay (including my favorite copper building with a silver ball - my apartment building, unseen, is within the mass of buildings visible). The pools with fountains on one side of the museum (entered only from inside the museum) are interestingly balanced by the still pools reflecting the arches and the city beyond on the other side. The wooden boats against the backdrop of the cityscape present the harbor of Doha and remind us how far it has come in such a short time.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Current Qatar

Qatar has been in the New York Times a lot very lately and below are some some recent interesting stories that demonstrate the many faces of Qatar and the Gulf. Before that, however, is reference to the January 14 editorial on the end George Bush's presidency in The Peninsula, one of Qatar's English language papers. (Links to the full articles are embedded in the titles.)

A tainted legacy

... But however hard he and his supporters might try, the final verdict on his presidency will be written by the public and historians, and it is this: the Bush presidency stands for failure at home and abroad. ...
Anything that could go wrong went disastrously wrong during Bush’s tenure, not because of a turn of events which overtook him, but because of his wrong judgment, lack of vision and arrogance. ... In 2000, Bush excoriated his predecessor for launching wars without an ‘exit strategy’ , but in 2009, he leaves his successor a war that has already lasted for years longer than America’s involvement in World War II, with no exit in sight. ...

...[but] most importantly, he would go down in history as the president who paved the way for the first African American to be elected as the president.

New York Times sampler

Few in U.S. See Jazeera's Coverage of Gaza War
The Qatar-based network Al Jazeera has virtually unlimited access in a war zone where many American journalists are denied entry.
Last June, Al Jazeera English produced a report from Gaza about a young couple who were preparing to marry during the relative calm of the cease-fire between Hamas and the Israeli government, a time when they could finally shop for furniture and, as the reporter put it, let themselves "dream that a happy life together is within reach."
Now that reporter, Ayman Mohyeldin, a former CNN producer, can be seen with a helmet and flak jacket answering questions from an anchor back in the studio in Doha, Qatar, describing the Israeli bombing and ground campaign in Gaza intended to stop Hamas missiles from being fired into Israel.

Doha, Qatar, A New Arts Capital
ON the night of Nov. 22, some of the brightest stars in the world of art and architecture converged on the grand opening of the Museum of Islamic Art, a ziggurat-like structure of white stone said to be the last cultural building by I.M. Pei, the 91-year-old architect.
It was the kind of red-carpet treatment that might have christened the Louvre pyramid in Paris or the Guggenheim in Bilbao. But it took place far off the art-world grid, in a corner of a globe known more for its religious fundamentalism than its embrace of cutting-edge art.
And that is precisely the challenge set by the Museum of Islamic Art (, which glistens along the waterfront corniche in Doha, Qatar — an oil-rich capital that juts into the Persian Gulf across from Iran. Housing one of the world's most encyclopedic collections of Islamic art, it is the cornerstone of a monumental effort by Qatar to transform itself into the arts hub of the Middle East.

Gulf Oil States Seeking a Lead in Clean Energy
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — With one of the highest per capita carbon footprints in the world, these oil-rich emirates would seem an unlikely place for a green revolution.

Gasoline sells for 45 cents a gallon. There is little public transportation and no recycling. Residents drive between air-conditioned apartments and air-conditioned malls, which are lighted 24/7.

Still, the region’s leaders know energy and money, having built their wealth on oil. They understand that oil is a finite resource, vulnerable to competition from new energy sources.

So even as President-elect Barack Obama talks about promoting green jobs as America’s route out of recession, gulf states, including the emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are making a concerted push to become the Silicon Valley of alternative energy.

They are aggressively pouring billions of dollars made in the oil fields into new green technologies. They are establishing billion-dollar clean-technology investment funds. And they are putting millions of dollars behind research projects at universities from California to Boston to London, and setting up green research parks at home.

“Abu Dhabi is an oil-exporting country, and we want to become an energy-exporting country, and to do that we need to excel at the newer forms of energy,” said Khaled Awad, a director of Masdar, a futuristic zero-carbon city and a research park that has an affiliation with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that is rising from the desert on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi.

These are long-term investments in an alternative energy future that neither falling oil prices nor the global downturn seems likely to reverse. Even as the local real estate market is foundering, leaders in politics, business and research from across the globe will flock to this distant kingdom for three days starting Monday for the second World Future Energy Summit, which just one year after its inception here has become something of a Davos gathering on renewable energy.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Jordan Christmas 2008

This Christmas Day I flew to Jordan to catch up with colleagues at Petra. The first evening we joined a planned expedition through the Siq to the Treasury, our way lit by candles. A short presentation of music and a brief recitation of some information with tea were the evening events. We then made our way back through the siq to the hotel. We toured the site for two days, each time passing through the 1 km siq and spent our third day, after an hour at Little Petra, at Wadi Ram, a 450,000 sq km desert known as a place frequented by T.E. Lawrence and in which the film Lawrence of Arabia was shot.

Some brief comments on each of these three sites with a handful of photos. The title of each section of the blog is a link to a larger collection of photos.

From a good piece by AtlasTours, that I recommend, we read of the many influences that are apparent in the architecture of Petra; Assyrian, Egyptian, Hellenistic and Roman. It is mostly the rock-cut tombs which remain today, though freestanding temples built of stone, the Qasr Al-Bint Temple and the Temple of the Winged Lions can also be seen. The map is from their website:

3 Al-Siq
4 The Treasury
5 Street of Facades
6 The Theater
15 Colonnaded Street
22 Petra Archeological Museum
24 Al-Deir (Monastery)

Wikipedia, as one would suspect, also provides a good précis of Petra and I excerpt a few points here. Consult the original for references.

Petra (from URU $e-eh-{la}[-li].KI in Akkadian, "petra-πέτρα", cleft in the rock in Greek; Arabic: البتراء, Al-Batrāʾ) is an archaeological site in the Arabah, Ma'an Governorate, Jordan, lying on the slope of Mount Hor[1] in a basin among the mountains which form the eastern flank of Arabah (Wadi Araba), the large valley running from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba. It is renowned for its rock-cut architecture. Petra is also one of the new wonders of the world [so named in 2007].

The site remained unknown to the Western world until 1812, when it was discovered by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. It was famously described as "a rose-red city half as old as time" in a Newdigate prize-winning sonnet by John William Burgon. UNESCO has described it as "one of the most precious cultural properties of man's cultural heritage." In 1985, Petra was designated a World Heritage Site. …

Rekem is an ancient name for Petra and appears in Dead Sea scrolls associated with Mount Seir. Additionally, Eusebius and Jerome assert that Rekem was the native name of Petra, supposedly on the authority of Josephus. Pliny the Elder and other writers identify Petra as the capital of the Nabataeans, Aramaic-speaking Semites, and the centre of their caravan trade. Enclosed by towering rocks and watered by a perennial stream, Petra not only possessed the advantages of a fortress, but controlled the main commercial routes which passed through it to Gaza in the west, to Bosra and Damascus in the north, to Aqaba and Leuce Come on the Red Sea, and across the desert to the Persian Gulf. The latitude is 30° 19' 43" N and the longitude is 35° 26' 31" E.

Excavations have demonstrated that it was the ability of the Nabataeans to control the water supply that led to the rise of the desert city, in effect creating an artificial oasis. The area is visited by flash floods and archaeological evidence demonstrates the Nabataeans controlled these floods by the use of dams, cisterns and water conduits. These innovations stored water for prolonged periods of drought, and enabled the city to prosper from its sale.

Although in ancient times Petra might have been approached from the south (via Saudi Arabia on a track leading around Jabal Haroun, Aaron's Mountain, on across the plain of Petra), or possibly from the high plateau to the north, most modern visitors approach the ancient site from the east.

The impressive eastern entrance leads steeply down through a dark, narrow gorge (in places only 3–4 metres wide) called the Siq ("the shaft"), a natural geological feature formed from a deep split in the sandstone rocks and serving as a waterway flowing into Wadi Musa. At the end of the narrow gorge stands Petra's most elaborate ruin, Al Khazneh ("the Treasury"), hewn into the sandstone cliff.

The site is enormous, with much up and down: sometimes simply to walk steps up to elaborately carved tombs or the steps to the much later temple, other times to scale up a steep broken path of steps carved into rock and worn smooth by millions of feet and to artfully sidestep the donkeys (and their droppings) that have transported some folks up the mountain to reach the monastery at the top of the world, or so the sign proclaims. Here there was much needed tea available. Along the daunting route were regularly spaced arrays of gifts to purchase.

Little Petra

Little Petra is in fact a smaller version of Petra, although not a replica. From AtlasTours we read that
The Siq Al-Barid [Little Petra] is located to the north of Petra, only a 10 minute drive away. A classical temple stands guard outside the miniature siq which would appear to have been an important suburb of the city of Petra, situated at the point where several ancient caravan routes met, linking Wadi Araba with Gaza, Egypt and the Mediterranean coast.

The narrow file, only some 350 m long, is crammed with tombs, temples, triclinia, houses, water channels and cisterns, in brief, a "Little Petra". Of particular note are the remains of painted frescoes on plaster dating from the 1st century AD, which are to be found in one of the biclinia.

All through Little Petra there are stairs leading up to exposure platforms and high places. We have been left with little to help us understand the use of these high exposure platforms, nor the reasons for, at the rear of Little Petra, the set of stairs leading up to the sky above. (If you click on the photo, you can enlarge and see clearly the steps carved in stone.)

Although my colleagues climbed to the top (and found yet another ‘gift shop’), I stopped part way up, since I was wearing looser shoes that day and the steps were very crumbly.

On the road to Wadi Ram we stopped to take some photos. Hidden in the mountains is Petra. Images of the area show ow forbidding the landscape is and yet how a rich life flourishes. Grazing sheep and goats, green growth sprinkling the hills is patches, and villages spreading across the hills. See a sampling of photos here.

Wadi Ram

From a 1966 article in Saudi Aramco World by Jan Van Os comes this extraordinary passage
There are places on earth so weird yet so beautiful, so forbidding yet so irresistible that in his efforts to describe them man runs out of commonplace similes, gives up on his earthbound metaphors and turns instead to the unknown. Such a place is Wadi Ram, a great valley in southern Jordan, a vast silent place, so wild, so strange that it came, eventually, to be called the "Valley of the Moon."

The Wadi Ram is actually a great fracture in the surface of the earth, the result, probably, of some titanic upheaval that cracked great slabs of granite and sandstone like so many shards of pottery and heaved them upward in the form of great cliffs. It runs northeast to southeast in what is roughly a direct line between the lower end of the Dead Sea and the upper end of the Gulf of Aqaba.

Most mountains from a distance are shapeless, drab and identical. Not those at Wadi Ram. There, drenched in pale purple, they rear up off the valley floor, instantly and vividly alive. As distance lessens, the purple gives way to the tawny hues of sandstone ridges that tower a thousand sheer feet in the air and are topped with dome's worn smooth by a constant wind. The skies are pale and colorless and the sand underfoot and the fragments of rock at the base of the cliffs are dry and crisp with age. All around is emptiness and silence, the silence, it seems, of a land that man has not yet set foot upon or, having done so, has trod with quiet caution.

The sound of a Land-Rover is suddenly loud and the size of it presumptuous amid spaces so immense they dwarf man and vehicle into insignificance.

Alas, over 40 years later, Wadi Ram swarms with campers, hikers and day tourists driven, as we were, across and around a small part of the site in a very old Toyota jeep that was hot wired to start.

The mountains fortunately have not changed , and you can find areas where silence reigns. It must be quite wonderful to camp there and experience the desert at night and in the early morning before the day tourists descend.