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Preserving heritage: The art of finding a nation’s voice

18 June 2020
A wide shot of the Al Zubarah Fort built in traditional Arabian architecture. In the foreground there is a cannon and tents called bait al-shar (literally “house of hair”) that were commonly used by bedouins in the region.
Al Zubarah Fort, built in 1938, is a part of the Al Zubarah UNESCO World Heritage Site, a coastal town that dates back to 1760.

Much has been written about cultural heritage and the importance of preserving it. Cultural heritage is any indication of the presence of human beings within a place – from architecture and landscape, to clothing and traditions. It is a manifestation of what humans created at a certain point in time – it is who they were, what they stood for and how their journey is linked to our present.

Cultural heritage shapes values, beliefs and aspirations, it defines a nation’s identity and represents a record of its human achievement. When I look at Al Zubarah, I don’t just see a magnificent building or the remains of an old town – I see a grandmother braiding her granddaughter’s hair, a pearl diver bidding his family goodbye and leaders of the town discussing new trade routes. Each one of us will see a different memory.

An angled view of Al Zubrah Fort's interior. There is an inner courtyard surrounded by small rooms.
The Al Zubarah Fort is one of the three major features of the archeological site. The other two are the remains of a coastal town and the walled settlement of Qal’at Murair.

Cultural heritage is about keeping hold of distant but important memories. That’s why it is forever linked to the concept of preservation. For cultural heritage to exist, it must have been passed on by previous generations and preserved by the current one, so it can be handed to the next. And while museums are memory institutions (places that tell the stories of the past through objects and artwork), not all memories can be compartmentalized into a display case or a structured gallery. These memories are found outside the buildings we pass; in the way we dress and in the stories we tell our children.

One way for us to honor cultural heritage as individuals is to dig deeper and go beyond appreciating the obvious outer layers. When we look at a heritage item, perhaps an old dhow boat, we must ask ourselves – why is it here? Where has it been? What role did it play in shaping lives? It is vital to recall history and to use it to drive our knowledge and understanding of the world we now live in.

A drone shot of the Barzan Towers, watch towers built in the late 19th century.
The Barzan Towers found outside of Doha are watch towers built in the late 19th century.

This region has seen the journeys of many civilizations. From Iraq to Oman, the number of languages, governments, tribes, trades and cultures that have passed through and settled is vast. There are so many elements to our history, which has continuously changed for thousands of years. It is worth exploring the influence this change has had, and how it led to where we are today.

If you do not preserve cultural heritage, it will drift away with the passage of time. If you protect it – or at least parts of it – you will create a beautiful fusion of past, present and future that is simply unique.

The State of Qatar has long understood this. Preserving our past and using it to inspire our future is woven into the fabric of everything that we do and supported by the Qatar National Vision 2030. It is our way of telling our story and cementing our place in a world that is increasingly polarized.

 

A close-up of the Al Zubarah Fort's wall.
A close-up of Al Zubarah Fort's wall. Qatar Museums is currently working on protecting the earthen architecture from harsh desert and coastal conditions.

Over the last 15 years, Qatar Museums (QM) has made giant strides in preserving and promoting our cultural heritage – from investigating the Al Zubarah site, to helping inscribe it at the UNESCO, to discovering more than 6000 sites to conserving heritage structures across Qatar. However, it is not all about digging and rebuilding. We have also undertaken important work to record and document elements of our past, including creating the Qatar National Historic Environment Record (QNHER) and the Qatar Cultural Heritage Information Management System (QCHIMS) – tools which bring together data about history and heritage. Combined, these activities will ensure that our past will be remembered for generations to come. I invite you to take a look at some of the work we have done in the heritage section of our website.

I truly believe that the only way to turn human intellect into a sustainable field that gets passed down through generations is to take care of our culture. It is to find the source of our being and to form a connection with our past, human history and social identity. Otherwise, we risk losing an important part of who we are.

Abdullatif Al Jasmi is the Director of Cultural Heritage Protection at Qatar Museums. He is an avid traveler who is passionate about discovering new cultures and their histories. He cherishes the links that connect Qatar to its past, seeing them as a foundation for the country’s ambitious future.

This blog post is part of the #CherishQatar campaign which aims to promote Qatar’s cultural heritage. Stay tuned for our monthly contribution as we explore the different facets of our country’s rich past!

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