A Dutch map from the mid-17th century mark’s Kuwait’s debut to the West. Originally called Al-qurain, by the middle of the following century the roughly 18,000 square kilometres at the head of the Persian Gulf had become an oligarchic merchant principality, its wealth based on the trade of frankincense, dates, gems, spices and fabrics, on pearling, and fishing. To counter Ottoman territorial ambitions in the area, the ruling Sabah family came to an agreement during the nineteenth century with Great Britain whereby Britain assumed responsibility for Kuwait’s security and foreign relations. Full independence from Britain came in 1961, and two years later, Kuwait became a member of the United Nations.
Around the capital there are a number of museums and collections for visitors to enjoy. The most prominent is the Kuwait National Museum, first open in 1957, which includes exhibits dedicated to the ancient past, development as an Islamic nation, and the dramatic effects on the country after the advent of the oil industry. More than 2000 items are on display, including an extensive library and archaeological treasures. Looted and burned during the Iraqi invasion, the museum has been re-opened to the public, although some of the exhibits are still missing. The Al-Sabah Collection of Islamic Art, acclaimed by international art historians as one of the most comprehensive collections of Islamic art in the world, can again be enjoyed in an annexe of the museum, and a replica of a magnificent 1930s-trading dhow has been constructed on site and is now open to visitors. The museum also includes a planetarium.
Collections on display at the Science and Natural History Museum include fossils, stuffed animals, skeletons, and dried flowers, and exhibits focus on health, petroleum, space travel, and electronics. The Tareq Rajab museum housing an extensive collection of textiles and costumes, ceramics, manuscripts, metalwork, silver folk jewellery; the Saif Al-Shamlan Museum its collection of rare antiques including a Turkish-made rifle of pure gold stamped by Sultan Abdul Hameed II in 1906; Dickson`s House, built in the 19th Century and later occupied by Colonel Dickson, the British Commissioner in Kuwait are all important places for visitors to gain insight into Kuwaiti history, life, and culture.
Places of interest
With its cosmopolitan population, Kuwait City has something for everyone. A wander along the sandy beaches introduces visitors to a variety of activities from the peaceful one of beachcombing to more active jet skiing. The souks are a warren of lanes filled with treasure – from the traditional trade staples of gold, incense and spices, to more modern areas filled with appliances and electronics. Diners will be spoiled for choice when faced with street food snacks from cities as diverse as Beirut and New Delhi, and fine-diners can chose between the cuisines of Italy, China, Iran, and France – among a host of others.
The best all-over view of Kuwait City, however, must surely be had from the revolving observation deck at the top of the tallest of the three Kuwait Towers. Accessed by a high-speed lift, the sphere makes one revolution every half hour, and is free as long as a lunch or dinner reservation is made for the Tower’s Restaurant. Its altitude, 187 metres, makes for unparalleled views of the area on a clear day, but patrons should note that zoom lenses are prohibited.
Many of the joys of Kuwait lie outside the confines of its capital. Failaka, an island 20 kilometres from the coast of Kuwait city is definitely worth a visit. With a history harking back to the Bronze Age, the site has remnants from many of the civilizations that traversed and occupied the region. The 4th Century BCE saw the arrival of the Greeks when Nearchus, an admiral of Alexander the Great established a garrison on the island, which endured for two hundred years. The island still harbours the ruins of dwelling, payment, fortifications and temples dedicated to Greek deities from this period. During the occupation and war in 1990 and 1991, the Iraqi military and the allied forces largely destroyed the island’s infrastructure and left the beaches littered with mines and unexploded ordnance. Although cleared of mines the island remains under military use and a visit requires a special pass. Nevertheless, it is becoming a popular holiday destination. Springtime is the best time to visit to enjoy the flowers and the local tourist industry centred around the sea and water sports.
Despite its apparent flat monotony the desert is actually a place of startling beauty, especially following the brief winter rains. Colours emerge on the previously dun landscape like paint splashed wildly by an unrestrained artist across an endless canvas. Heliotrope, gold, crimson, and white, the flowers bloom, seed, and quickly die again, their life spans compacted by the severity of the desert climate. One of the best places to observe Kuwait’s flora is to the west of Kuwait City, along the banks of tributaries to Wadi Batin.
Kuwait`s wildlife has proven to be far more resilient than many people expected to the ecological disasters including oil flooding and toxic fumes brought about by the war. Camels are found throughout the country, and several varieties of lizards, including the spiny tailed dhub and the desert monitor are fascinating to observe. There are also several varieties of snake including the deadly black desert cobra and several less harmless constrictors.
KUWAIT FOR BIRDWATCHERS
Due to its position on the major migration routes, Kuwait is an important stop-over for migratory birds, and the species count is an impressive 280 species.
The best time to bird-watch in Kuwait is at the peak of the spring migration, when the largest numbers of birds and species make their `refuelling stops`. October is also a good time, but the food is less abundant than following the winter rains. Jal az-Zor National Park, which includes part of the cliffs of Jal Az-Zor ridge and escarpment as well as a coastal area with sand dunes, salt marshes and mud flats attracts falcons, black vultures, eagles and the lesser kestrel, a globally threatened species whose numbers have been declining in recent years. Grey Herons, Avocets and large flocks of waders, pause in the shrimp-rich bay of Dahwat Kazima. The reedbed pools of Al Jahra Nature Reserve in Western Kuwait, the result of effluent flowing from Al-Jahra town, has been described as one of the great bird watching sites of the Middle East for its impressive list of visiting raptors during the spring and autumn migrations. Among the 220 species of resident and migratory birds catalogued are Buzzards, Spotted Eagles, Steppe Eagles, Imperial Eagle, Marsh Harriers, Lesser Kestrels and Black Vultures.
AL SADU, Bedouin Weavings of Kuwait
The Sadu House is far more than simply an exhibition of traditional Bedouin weaving. Founded as a means of preserving a rapidly disappearing way of life, Sadu House actively promotes the art and craft of Bedouin weaving. A nomadic people dependant on their flocks, the Bedouin made great use of sheep and goat hair. Shorn by the men of the clan following a short spring season, the wool was used in its natural colour or dyed – traditionally using locally available plants -- and spun before being woven on an easily dissembled loom. Skilled weavers were accorded high respect, and their work – the family tent and its dividing walls, camel bags, rugs, and hangings – was an integral part of Bedouin life. The last half-century has seen the rapid decline of the nomadic life style, and fearing for the loss of valuable cultural heritage, a group of concerned Kuwaitis launched the Al Sadu project in 1979 with the aims of reviving, preserving, and promoting the traditional craft. In1991the project became a cooperative society, and the weaver/shareholders can be seen weaving in the courtyard. Courses in traditional weaving are run from the centre which also serves as an outlet for the sale of traditional weavings and the somewhat more modern accessories such as wallets, purses, bags, and cushion covers.
The Al Sabah Collection of Islamic Art
One of the most magnificent private collections in the world, the Al-Sabah collection grew from nothing in 1975 to more than 20,000 pieces in 1990. Islamic Art fascinated Sheikh Nasser Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah since his boyhood experiences at school in one of Islam’s holiest cities, Jerusalem. Later travels took him to nearly all the major historical and artistic centres of Islam throughout the Middle East and Central Asia where he collected art treasures and artefacts with the aim of preserving them, promoting Islamic art at home and abroad, and exposing the public – both Kuwaiti and foreign -- to the aesthetic values of Islamic art and the genius of the Islamic civilisation.. Experts rank Al Sabahs` holdings the largest comprehensive collection in the Islamic world comparing favourably with collections in New York, London, Paris, Berlin, and St Petersburg, none of which have been amassed by a single collector in under a century. The collection includes jewellery, manuscripts – including miniatures of the Holy Koran, ceramics, metalwork, and countless other artefacts and instruments.
A dynamic destination
At the end of the 20th Century Kuwait, to much of the rest of the world, was a little known oil producing country in the Middle East. In August 1991, it roared to international attention when Iraqi tanks rolled across the border to claim previously disputed territory, and a coalition of Arab and Western states formed to reassert Kuwaiti independence. The war caused massive ecological and cultural damage, but following concerted efforts by the Kuwaiti and foreign governments, the country is back on its feet. Kuwait is a dynamic and diverse country: with clean beaches and warm waters, a mysterious and beautiful desert, and a range of shopping opportunities. It has plenty to offer tourists and business travellers alike.
Oil was first discovered there in 1938, and by 1945, drilling was taking place on a large scale, with commercial export of crude beginning in June 1946. Oil production and revenues grew rapidly, driving a dramatic expansion of the entire economy until within two decades Kuwait had become one of the world’s richest states on a per capita basis. The Oil Display Centre, a small museum run by the Kuwait Oil Company about 20 kilometres to the south of Kuwait City, is the best place to visit for a glimpse at the industry that today is the life-blood of the country’s economy, and is vital to so many people around the world.