Qatar has its first UNESCO Heritage Site on the list. That’s bigger news that the World Cup don’t you know? To find out why, we talk to Dr Thomas Leisten from Qatar Museums Authority.
In terms of cultural recognition, Qatar has just been knighted, as the northern fishing village of Al Zubarah has been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List because of its unique universal value. ‘I think that in the long run people will have to understand that this is actually almost as important, if not more important, than the World Cup,’ Dr Thomas Liesten, the chief officer of archaeology and heritage, conservation and education at the Qatar Museums Authority, tells us.
‘This means that Qatar plays in the same league as those who play in the Pyramids of Giza league or the Grand Canyon,’ he says. ‘That is great for a small country… it’s a nod that you’re doing things right.’
Al Zubarah is a historic coastal town approximately 100 kilometres northwest of Doha that was abandoned in the early 20th century. Founded in the mid-18th century, Al Zubarah developed to be a centre of pearling and international trade. Nowadays, it’s best known for its fort but the entire site actually covers an area of 60 hectares that also features the remains of houses, mosques, large fortified buildings and a market.
The process of getting it inscribed, which includes much documentation and excavation, took archaeologists from the Copenhagen University, supported by the QMA, around two and a half years of working around the clock. That’s the fastest inscription time of any site on record, as it usually takes a handful of scholars anywhere up to ten years or more, Dr Thomas tells us. ‘It’s very painstaking and you have to be very precise,’ he says. It was an important process for Qatar to go through but now that it has been achieved, says Dr Thomas, the hard work has only just begun.
‘With the inscription there comes a lot of responsibility,’ he explains. ‘The standards that are being applied to the Coliseum in Rome for instance do apply to Zubarah as a site and as a cultural landscape… These things need to be preserved under all circumstances.’
The team at QMA, led by Dr Thomas, now has an ambitious management plan that includes building removable facilities for a larger number of visitors to the site. ‘We need to find ways of opening sites in a considerate way,’ he explains.
While Al Zubarah is a major consideration for him and his team, Dr Thomas says it is more of a ‘catalytic element to raise awareness for the rest of the cultural heritage in Qatar’. General surveys of the entire country have been going on for the past five years and they already have over 5,000 Qatari heritage sites in their database that go back almost 10,000 years.
‘Other countries in this area have too late pulled the brake so to speak,’ says Dr Thomas. ‘Now they’ve ended up with not much left and here we are five minutes before midnight already… If we had done [surveys] ten years ago we would have 10,000 heritage sites in our database now. The rest is simply just gone.’
Luckily, Dr Thomas and his colleagues’ department also serves a regulatory function as they give the go ahead to developers based on the grounds of whether there is a heritage site where they want to build. This has been in the law since 1982 but for many years was not enforced. Now Dr Thomas is certainly paying attention.
‘If I built a museum and put objects in there I can wait until the collection matures,’ he says. ‘In my case, my collection is out there. Every day the objects I can show become less through degradation, through wind and weather or through the bulldozer.’
This goes for the ocean too, as there are also ambitious plans in place to learn about DNA from flora, fauna and human remains in the sediments.
For now, however, Al Zubarah is the cultural focus. ‘I think this must be the springboard to teach young Qataris, particularly, about the value of their heritage,’ Dr Thomas says. ‘While the older generation for instance still knows quite well how it was before oil, before air conditioning, before the boom so to speak… This connection to the past has somehow been lost.’
Dr Thomas also sees it as a chance to raise awareness among all people that the country actually has a rich and deep history. ‘This is history in 3D – not showcases behind glass boxes,’ he says. ‘I think while museums are extremely important educational tools, experiencing history through the wind, the weather, the environment of old crumbling buildings or newly excavated buildings that tell the story of the riches that were reaped by the national trade, which made Qatar in the 18th century a global hub as it is today, might be a lesson worth learning.’
World Heritage Sites in the Gulf
• Qal’at al-Bahrain – ancient har bour and capital of Dilmun
• Pearling – 17 sites in Muharraq city, three offshore oyster beds, part of the seashore and the Qal’at Bu Mahir fortress
• Bahla Fort
• Archaeological sites of Bat, Al- Khutm and Al-Ayn
• Land of Frankincense
• Aflaj irrigation systems of Oman
• Al-Hijr archaeological site (Madâin Sâlih)
• At-Turaif district in ad-Dir’iyah
United Arab Emirates
• Numerous cultural sites of Al Ain (Hafit, Hili, Bidaa Bint Saud and Oases areas)