In the Media

The Doha chronicles
Wael Khedr
/ Categories: In the Media

The Doha chronicles

 It all began with a pearl. More than ten years ago British archaeologist Dr Robert Carter was investigating a Neolithic site in Kuwait when he came across a single, tiny pierced pearl.

At 7,000 years old, it was among the oldest ever discovered. That set him thinking about the origins of pearling fishing in the Arabian Gulf. He found himself intrigued, not just by the epic story of pearl fishing but by the pearling ports themselves.

When were they founded, and what happened to them when the trade in Gulf pearls crashed some 80 years ago? When the almost miraculous discovery of oil brought about an entirely new lifestyle, the rush to build and expand meant that the old pearling settlements disappeared under a sea of concrete and a network of new roads.

Doha was no exception. In a recent presentation to members of the Qatar Natural History Group, Carter, now a senior lecturer in archaeology at the Qatar campus of University College London (UCL Qatar), explained how he and his colleagues, supported by the Qatar National Research Fund, have set out to explore the foundations and the historic growth of Doha in a research project known as The Origins of Doha.

The pearling ports along the western coastline of the Arabian Gulf mainly developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when demand for Gulf pearls from India, Europe and the United States created a huge industry in the region.

By the end of the nineteenth century, most able-bodied men in the Gulf were involved in pearling; it dominated the way of life of all the coastal inhabitants.

Doha rapidly expanded in the nineteenth century, explained Carter, from three little fishing villages, Bida, Jasra (‘Little Doha’) and Doha, strung along the wide Doha bay, into one urban sprawl.

A description in 1801 refers to a fortified northern and southern hillock with defensive towers. Named as Bida on early British naval maps, it seems that originally this village, the home of the Al Suwaidi tribe, was the more important, but in the second half of the nineteenth century the name of Doha, founded by the BuAinAin, came to refer to the whole settlement. ‘By 1860,’ said Carter, ‘it’s estimated that around 5000 people were living in Doha.’

People arrived from all over the Middle East, attracted by the money to be made from pearls. The urban layout was similar to those of other contemporary Gulf cities. Densely packed, high-walled houses with narrow lanes between them cast welcome shade, essential in a region with searing summer temperatures. These coastal towns were divided into districts (fareej) surrounded by a wall, with a central market area bordering the sea.

Houses with no external windows and rooms opening onto a central courtyard ensured privacy. Until the advent of air-conditioning, there was no reason to change an urban planning system that worked well in the Gulf climate for centuries, and was still in use in Doha until the 1950s.

The recent history of Doha can be summed up in three words — boom, bust and then boom again. The golden age of pearling reached a peak between the 1890s and the 1910s. Then, in the 1920s, the industry hit lean years, caused partly by overfishing but also by changing taste in western fashion, global economic recession and the development in Japan of the cultured pearl.

‘From years of rapid expansion,’ said Carter, ‘Doha began to shrink. The centre was maintained, but houses on the outskirts fell into decay as many people abandoned the city. Aerial photos taken in the 1940s show areas of ruins. Less than ten years later, when oil exports began, the city began to expand again and has continued to do so ever since.’

The Origins of Doha Project aims to explore the foundation and historic growth of the city, and its transformation to a modern city. It also studies the daily lives of the people.

“We plan to trace the physical extent and urban configuration of Bida and Doha, using historic maps, aerial photos and archaeological excavations,” said Carter. “In addition, we are compiling a comprehensive historical record of the settlement from both European and Arabic sources, and conducting interviews with elderly people who can remember the most recent changes taking place. This last is very important, because families that have lived in Doha for two or more generations can provide much valuable data.” 

Archaeological excavations began in 2012, in the downtown area of Msheireb, now under massive reconstruction. The remains of part of an early twentieth century house known as the Al Radwani House were uncovered.

It featured gypsum plastered walls, a central well in the courtyard and an enormous sunken bath, perhaps, dating from the time when piped water was first introduced. Archaeological material built up in the floors, which were raised several times. Botanical samples now being analysed at UCL Qatar will yield evidence of diet and everyday life.

Also being studied at UCL are the fragments of ceramics, ranging from incense burners to fine transfer-printed ceramics from Europe and glazed Chinese export ware. Glass bottles and shards are among the miscellaneous finds, along with Omanis coins dating to the 1890s. Divers’ weights have been discovered, and an unusual hexagonal brass weight, once used by a tawwash (pearl merchant) for weighing pearls.

The Origins of Doha Project is working closely with Msheireb Downtown Doha, a 31-hectare site now under development which will transform the architectural heart of the city. This season’s excavations have just come to an end, and in future the Origins project hopes to extend its work to investigate more of the historic centre of Doha.


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