Kuwait’s Hidden Jewels

By Maryann Horne


There are many diamonds floating about Kuwait if you know where to look. But like the most precious gems, those which really are the most magnificent are often the less talked about, not needing a constant spotlight to shine.

In the land of retail outlets, the oasis offered by the Tareq Rajeb museums are a welcome distraction. But there are so much more. The collections are mind boggling and seriously compete with any collection of Islamic Art across the world.

The museum of Antiquities and the museum of Islamic Calligraphy, are both in Jabriya and housed in separate houses. Unlike many museums, they are family collections and tell the fascinating story of the life-long passion of Tareq and Jehan Rajab, two of Kuwait’s cultural lights. It is impossible to take all there is to see in one visit and hence they continue to enchant long-time expats and occasional visitors alike.

If you are usually bored by museums, don’t put the Rajab collection in the same box. Think of it more as a family collection and taking a curious stroll through someone’s living room. In fact, the museums are housed in the Rajab family home and they were the only museums not to be destroyed or pillaged during the 1990 invasion.

Dr Tareq Rajab was Kuwait’s first director of Antiquities in the 1980s. From the Dilmun civilisation ruins in Failaka to architectural preservation, the father of three has made it his mission to enlighten Kuwaitis and International visitors alike about the splendours of Islamic art. The Antiquities museum is a tribute to his and his wife’s life-long passion for Islamic art and desire to preserve and promote understanding of Islamic art, culture and heritage.

The Antiquities museum is a treasure trove in itself. From the morse code to costumes and jewellery, it houses thousands of objects from a time gone, beautifully curated and exhibited in rooms decorated with orate wooden decorations. As you walk down the stairs, take a moment to pause where a wall was built in haste on the first day of the occupation to trick Iraqi soldiers away from the museum treasures.

The more intriguing and lesser visited museum however is the Calligraphy museum.

In a region where Islamic art first saw its golden age, it houses a personal collection of some of the most extraordinary pieces, many of which warrant exhibitions on their own value.  The collection charts the art’s evolution through the ages and geography of this world. 

It was first started by Dr Rajab in the 1960s, long before Arab states in the region had access to the wealth or specialist knowledge to put them on the serious collectors map. In other words, it would be impossible to acquire a collection of this magnitude today and its splendour resides in both its diversity as well as the incredible stories carried by each of the pieces.

The museum traces the development of the Arabic script from the advent of Islam onwards. Arabic was the chosen language for the words of the Holy Koran and Arabic writing developed rapidly after it was written in the simple script known at the time.

Thanks to the combined efforts and genius of calligraphers all over the Muslim world, several styles were developed which made the Arabic script on the most diverse and flexible. The introduction of nouns also made the script readable in countries such as Indonesia and as far as China. 

The museum of course offers examples of antique Korans, and pieces displaying the different fonts. But it exhibits much more. It brings the art to life by exhibiting its more decorative form, on coloured ceramics, metal work, glass, textiles, tomb stones and architectural facades.

The centre piece of the collection, hanging in the main hall, is an original full piece tapistery.  It dates back to Ottoman times and the reign of Sultan Mahmoud’s in 1840. It was made in Cairo, carried to Mecca before being hung on the Qabba.

Other pieces include a near complete collection of gold coins minted during the reign of the Umayyad Caliph And al Malik Bin Marwan in 77 AH (696 AD). A piece alone of this collection is worth millions today.

Another piece was a Koran from the Abased period that was spared during the Mongol invasion around the time of 1583 when Baghdad fell. The story goes that the calligrapher and the Koran were perched on the minaret and high above the descending hordes when they rampaged through the capital. 

There are also texts dating back to the 8th century and time when the Abased Empire sent an embassy to China in what is today modern day Xi’an. The basement actually houses a whole room dedicated to Islamic calligraphy from Xi’an.

The Museum is also a fabulous place to find rare books on Islamic Art, Kuwait and Failaka, including some which are already out of print.


Tareq Rajab Museum of Islamic Calligraphy

Jabriya Block 12, Street 1, Dar Jehan (facing the New English School)

Visiting hours, Morning 9-12, Afternoon 4-7, Friday 9-12. Tel. 2531.7358