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Danish-led excavation in Qatar

For nearly 100 years, the fabled Qatari city of Al Zubara has lain hidden beneath a thick layer of sand. Now it will be uncovered. The University of Copenhagen has been commissioned to undertake the archaeological excavation, the largest project of its kind ever awarded to a Danish humanities faculty

By Anna Mogensen

Photo: Excavation
Photo: Copenhagen University

The key to Qatar’s past lies hidden beneath a thick carpet of red desert sand. 700 years ago, the city of Al Zubara was the sheikdom’s trade centre and cultural epicentre. Today it is only the contours of the town that can be seen as soft undulations in the sand.

Located on the Arab Gulf, Al Zubara was an enterprising trading town. Ships called into port there from the Far East and Europe, laden with porcelain and exotic goods. Merchants busily bought and sold, and goods were loaded onto camel caravans which took them to the desert states in the Gulf.

But almost 100 years ago, Al Zubara was abandoned. No one knows why, and since then the desert sands have been allowed to drift in over the harbour and the houses, and bury an important piece of cultural history. But now Al Zubara and its Islamic past will be dug up from the desert.

The Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies at the University of Copenhagen has been commissioned to undertake the appealing task of heading the important archaeological excavations over the next 10 years. The university has employed thirty archaeologists from around the world as well as an army of practical helpers, who will be engaged in excavating the hidden harbour town.

Photo: Excavation
Photo: Copenhagen University

Basic research is the driving force

To the University of Copenhagen, the multimillion contract that has been entered with the Qatar Museum Authority is naturally a financial plus on its account. But to the international team of archaeologists, the opportunity to conduct basic research is worth far more than money.

“It is a politically defined task, and the political purpose is to gain access to the story [of Al Zubara] in order to describe, legitimise and position itself in the present. But as researchers we have no political agenda. We are exclusively driven by a profound interest in basic research,” explains Ingolf Thuesen, head of the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies at the University of Copenhagen, and the man who finalised the giant contract with the Qatar Museum Authority.

During the 10 year contract period, the Danish-led excavation will map the historical communities in the area around northern Qatar during the last 1000-1500 years. The eventual aim is to make Al Zubara an archaeological park with a view to it becoming listed as a UNESCO World Culture Heritage Site.

Photo: Excavation
Photo: Copenhagen University

Focus on Islamic archaeology

The head of the research is in no doubt as to what qualifies the University of Copenhagen for the prestigious international project – Danish expertise in Islamic archaeology.

The University of Copenhagen became one of the world leaders in this field somewhat by chance. The Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies has long recognised the equal importance of following in the footsteps of both Muhammad and Jesus. But for many years, research nevertheless focused more on biblical times. If Islamic culture appeared on the agenda, it was the history of art – fine decorations and mosaics – that received attention and not the traces of everyday life that the archaeologists unearthed.

“In the department we have built a sub-discipline in archaeology which comprises the Islamic periods in the Middle East – from the earliest Islam essentially up to the present day. It is a discipline which is found in very few places. There has been a tendency to push the top layers away to get directly down to biblical history, but as researchers we have an interest in the layers that lie on top of the biblical period”, explains Ingolf Thuesen.

In the mid 1990s, the University of Copenhagen gained support from the David’s Foundation to establish a professorship in Islamic archaeology.

“We applied to the David’s Foundation to fund a professorship to build up a scientific discipline. If we had not received the money I do not think that we would have become a leader in this field. The money went to a professorship in Islamic art and archaeology – archaeology as number two, when it couldn’t be avoided,” smiles Ingolf Thuesen, and adds:

“If we are going to achieve full understanding of what we are formed of, we need to include both recent and distant history. We are now giving greater priority to recent history.”

Exclamation point

Long tradition for Danish research

The Danish explorer Carsten Niebuhr (1733-1815) and the archaeologist P.V. Glob (1911-85) have both helped to build Danish goodwill in the Arab countries, on which a good slice of the contract with the University of Copenhagen rests.

Carsten Niebuhr made his expedition ?The Arabian Journey” in 1761-67 in the Middle East, Africa and India. He is recognised for empathising with the everyday lives of different nations, with an equal share of scientific interest and ordinary human curiosity. He was thus one of the very few explorers who set forth unburdened by a colonialist view of strangers, and he made a positive impression in the region by becoming part of the societies he encountered and doing as the locals did.

Professor P.V. Glob created a solid foundation for the Danish tradition in Islamic archaeology. In the 1950s, he headed archaeological excavations primarily in Bahrain with trips to Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. As with Niebuhr, it was also crucial to Glob to be open to every research opportunity without for example viewing biblical antiquity preferentially in relation to the Islamic past.

Knowledge bridges cultures

The forthcoming excavation at Al Zubara is not just an interesting research project for the University of Copenhagen and a marker for cultural heritage and identity for the Qataris. Al Zubara will be a concrete example of how knowledge leads to fruitful dialogue, opines Ingolf Thuesen.

“As an academic I think knowledge is the answer to most things. The more we know about others, the more easily we can understand them. But it is an almost impossible educational task, so the way forward is through projects where we collaborate on creating something,” he says and, regarding the collaboration with the Qataris, adds:

“It is not about agreeing on what the right creed is or to smooth things over at dialogue meetings, but about building a bridge to each other through specific tasks.”

Exclamation point

Everyone comes from Al Zubara

During the next decade, the archaeologists will not only brush the sand off Al Zubara’s history and cultural heritage. A collective point of origin will emerge from the sand, since almost all Qataris can trace their ancestors back to Al Zubara.

After several years of forward-looking development activities and modern state building, Qatar is now, like many other emirate states, turning to its historical past to search for its cultural origin and identity.

“It is really a major archaeological venture, both for Qatar and the entire Gulf Region,” said Faisal Abdullah Al Naimi, head of the archaeological department at the Qatar Museum Authority to Danish newspaper Politiken, when the contract for the excavation work was announced at the end of November 2009. “Here in Qatar we all feel that we come from Al Zubara, although the city no longer exists. We have great respect for the Danish archaeologists. They came here 50 years ago, they worked without comfort or proper accommodation,” he said.

Faisal Abdullah Al Naimi was born and grew up in the area and belongs to the Naimi tribe, one of the two tribes who live in Qatar.

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