A visit to UCL Qatar

I am spending a few days in Doha in order to teach two sessions on Rob Carter’s new MA course in Pre-Islamic Archaeology at UCL Qatar. Rob had suggested this to me when we went on a trip to the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq last May and I am of course always happy to talk about the Assyrian Empire, especially when this involves travelling to exotic locations. Today was my first visit ever to the shiny new campus at Doha’s Education City and I am suffering from acute space-envy: UCL Qatar’s facilities there are quite a contrast to the History Department’s quarters. But at least come spring, we will again have use of Gordon Square which offers some consolation: even in mid-March, the sun is so strong here in Doha that taking a break outside would seem crazy. And the Euston Road seems almost idyllic compared to Doha traffic chaos.
My MA class back at UCL is fairly mixed with students hailing from Denmark, Finland, Israel and Kuwait but the majority is still British. Here at UCL Qatar it is the opposite and I am teaching a Qatari, a Serb, two Syrians and just one Brit. So instead of the Roman and the British Empire, the comparisons focused much more on the Umayyad Caliphate and the Ottoman Empire when we discussed the Near Eastern empires of the first millennium BC today.
Fig. 1: UCL Qatar
Rather unexpectedly, encounters with the Ottomans shaped my whole day. Before going to UCL Qatar, I had spent the morning in the spectacular Museum of Islamic Art (or Orientalist Museum), designed by I.M. Pei who is probably best known for the Louvre glass pyramid. The museum sits on its own little island off Doha harbour and houses a great collection of artefacts from all corners of the Muslim world. But the current special exhibition which I caught on its very last day presents twelve gouache paintings that are normally exhibited in the small Ottoman Museum in Perchtholdsdorf near Vienna. I had seen them there before, almost twenty years ago during my days as a student at Vienna University. What a surprise to encounter them in Doha, of all places!
Fig. 2: Museum of Islamic Art
These small paintings are part of a group of pictures created in 1628/29 by Franz Hörmann and Hans Gemminger. These two painters accompanied the Austrian diplomatic delegation which emperor Ferdinand II dispatched to Istanbul in order to renew the peace treaty with the Ottoman Empire after Murad IV had become sultan. Taking along artists to document such missions was a well-established tradition but Johann Ludwig von Kuefstein, who headed the delegation, clearly thought of everything when putting together the hundred-head strong team for the charm offensive to Istanbul: he even brought a dentist. Back in Vienna, the gouaches served as the models for a series of oil paintings, that were then displayed in the Türkensaal (“Hall of the Turks”) of Kuefstein’s ancestral seat Greillenstein.
Four of these paintings were bought by the Doha Museum of Islamic Art after they recently emerged in very bad condition from the basement of a French chateau; no-one seems to know exactly how they got there in the first place but I am happy to blame the Napoleonic Wars as a thousand French soldiers were garrisoned in Greillenstein in 1809. The special exhibition celebrates the successful renovation of these paintings (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Orientalist-Museum/411283618962201). Judging from the documentary shown at the exhibition, the Dutch restoration team performed miracles: even the canvas of the paintings had to be replaced. I have every intention to visit Greillenstein (http://www.greillenstein.at) next time I am back in Austria in order to see the other paintings of the series – a fairly unlikely outcome of a trip to Qatar.
Fig. 3: Special exhibition
Professor Karen Radner

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