Category Archives: Middle East and North Africa

Doha’s architectural gem

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Museum of Islamic Art

Museum of Islamic Art from Corniche

One of the most easily recognizable buildings in Doha is the Museum of Islamic Art. Stunningly white against the bright blue sky, the Museum protrudes into the waters of the Persian Gulf, right off the fashionable Corniche seaside boulevard. The Museum is a recently new addition to Doha’s fast-growing skyline, opened to the public in December 2008. The structure was designed by a Chinese American architect I.M. Pei who was inspired by the ablutions fountain of the 9th century Mosque of Ahmad Ibn Tulun, the oldest mosque in Cairo, Egypt. You can clearly see the parallels in the central dome surrounded by angular, layered ornamentation. Here is how I. M. Pei described his inspiration:

This was one of the most difficult jobs I ever undertook. If one could find the essence of Islamic architecture, might it not lie in the desert, severe and simple in its design, where sunlight brings forms to life? I believe I found what I was looking for in the Mosque of Ahmad Ibn Tulun in Cairo (876-879).

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Travel theme: Big

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Ailsa’s Where is My Backback? blog is fun to read and offers weekly photo challenges. I felt inspired by this week’s travel theme: big. So here we go…

El Jem, Tunisia
This is of the biggest Roman amphitheaters, truly an amazing sight in the Tunisian desert!

El Jem Read the rest of this entry

In search of Doha’s past

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DohaDoha, the capital of the tiny state of Qatar, is not exactly my kind of place. It may be an impressive human achievement of clawing an urban oasis from the clutches of unforgiving desert. Yet, shiny and brand new, Doha largely lacks the appeal of cities with long history and local character. Up until the early 20th century, Doha just like most other settlements on the Persian Gulf, was a small fishing and pearling town ravaged by economic depression after the introduction of the cultured pearls in the region in the 1930s. Its fortune reversed – just like Dubai’s – with the discovery of oil and later natural gas, and a steady stream of petrodollars that followed. In a rush to modernize, most of the remnants of Doha’s previous self were eradicated to make space for highways crowded with ubiquitous Nissan pick up trucks, expensive hotels, and futuristic-looking sky scrapers. Read the rest of this entry

Tunisie, je t’aime!

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Medieval streets of Sousse

Tunisia will always hold a special place in my heart for a simple reason: that’s where I went for my honeymoon. I got married in Poland and we were looking for a place that would be a great vacation spot (i.e. sea warmer than the Baltic), have historical and cultural depth to it (i.e. no Disneyland), and let us fly there in under 3 hours. Sousse – or Sūsa in Arabic – a gorgeous city 140 km south of Tunis met all the criteria.

Geography is a weird thing. In my mind North Africa is a different, exotic place. But Tunisia almost touches the tip of Sicily and, not surprisingly given this close proximity, its history is tightly intertwined with that of Europe. Tunisia was founded in the 11th century B.C. as a Phoenician port of Hadrumetum, then for centuries was a part of the Roman Empire, a Byzantine city of Justinianopolis, and finally in the 7th century A.D. conquered by the Arabs who gave the city its current character. Its medieval heart, medina, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with truly unique architecture and atmosphere. Narrow streets meander through spice-scented souks and countless shops, sumptuous aromas ooze out of hole-in-the-wall eateries, and street vendors call out their offers. To my great surprise they address me in Polish! I guess there have been so many Polish tourists in Tunisia in the last few years that it pays to learn how to haggle in the client’s language – and clearly I look the type. Read the rest of this entry

Dreams in the desert

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Burj Khalifa from Dubai Mall

Dubai is a city of dreams. Skyscrapers jutting out of the desert seem somehow improbable, unreal. Up until the 1960s, it was a dusty fishing village with faded history of prosperity as a pearl trade port that collapsed in the 1930s amidst the Great Depression (oh yeah, and cultured pearls were invented). That changed when oil was discovered in 1971 and Dubai became a hallmark of making the impossible happen – with lots of cash.

Can you build a sail-shaped structure surrounded by the ocean? Sure, as the iconic Burj Al Arab luxury hotel proves. How about the world’s largest shopping mall? Stop by the Dubai Mall with over 1,000 shops, aquarium, ice rink, 30-acre lake and the world’s largest dancing fountain. The tallest structure in the world? Burj Khalifa, 800+ meters tall skyscraper that opened last year will leave you rubbing your eyes in disbelief. Want to go skiing indoors when it’s 30C outside? No problem, Mall of the Emirates invites you to its 400 meter-long ski slope. Man-made island? Why not – check out the palm-shaped artificial archipelagos off Jumeirah Beach built on sand dredged from the bottom of the Persian Gulf. Read the rest of this entry