Headquarters and Antennas

The recent history of Kuwait through one of the oldest monuments in the country
Since 2015, the French Center for Archeology and Social Sciences has been housed near the Arabo-Persian Gulf in a 1950s house renovated and made available by the Kuwaiti State, a stone’s throw from the famous Kuwait Towers and facing the British Embassy. The residence is part of a heterogeneous architectural ensemble, the major piece of which is a Diwan built at the beginning of the 20th century and today uninhabitable because it is in an advanced state of deterioration (opposite, the headquarters of the CEFAS, the ruins of the Diwan and the al-Hamra tower, photograph M. Ayachi). The land, in constant transformation, is a patchwork of styles and eras. A maze of dusty walls, 1950s tiles, charred window jambs, obsolete electrical installations and abandoned kitchen utensils, surrounded by a few more recent villas, partly restored and partly in ruins, the Diwan Khaz’al questions because it is not open to visitors and nothing on the site informs about its past. It seems to have lived several existences and superimposes successive layers of occupation, but all ephemeral, which draw up a summary of Kuwaiti architectural history. Fewer years passed between the construction of the Diwan (circa 1916) and that of the three surrounding villas (1950s) than between the construction of the latter and the erection of the 412-metre tower al-Hamrah (2011). The buildings, in the first place the Diwan Khaz’al, are therefore witnesses in their splendor and their deterioration of the rapid modernization of the country, and of the history of Kuwait over the past century.
The Diwan of Sheikh Khaz'al (c.1915 - 1936)

At the origin of the Diwan is the friendship between two Arab sheikhs at the turn of the 19th century and the 20th century. Many personal and geopolitical reasons prompted Sheikh Mubarak al-Sabah (r.1896-1915) and Sheikh Khaz’al al-Ka’b (r.1897-1936) to come together. Both are chiefs of an Arab tribe; the first is the strong man of the Utubs, a tribe of Naj settled in Kuwait since the 17th century; the second leads the Banu Ka’b, an Arab tribe of Western Persia, and bears the title of Sheikh of Muhammarah (today Khorranshahr). Both are ambitious leaders who came to power at the same time after the assassination of their respective brothers. If they are neighbors, on both sides of the Shatt el-Arab, they are however not competitors, because their two territories are located on the outskirts of two different empires, the Ottoman Empire for one and the Empire qajar for the other. They also benefit from a position at the crossroads between four competing empires, Ottoman, Persian, British (in the Gulf), and to a lesser extent Russian. Both finally, in the context of the weakening of the Eastern empires and the rise of the British in the Gulf, embarked on the path of autonomy. Mubarak, often considered the founder of modern Kuwait (from him descend the two branches of al-Sabah which still rule the country today) was appointed in 1897 qaim maqam (deputy governor) of Kuwait by the Ottoman sultan, thanks to the intervention of the British; sixteen years later, Great Britain obtained from the Young Turks that Kuwait be recognized as a province in its own right, autonomous from that of Basrah. On the Iranian side, the British ally protects the rights of Sheikh Khaz’al with Tehran, which allows him to extend his principality in Persia, Abadan or Bahmansir, but also his influence on the other side of the Shatt el-Arab through an active land purchase policy. The economic benefits of the discovery of oil near Abadan, and the shares of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company offered by the British, contribute to its enrichment.

Sheikh Mubarak and Sheikh Khaz’al, c.1907-1909 (photograph A.N. Gouldsmith)

On the strength of this diplomatic and human friendship, Sheikh Mubarak al-Sabah donated land to Sheikh Khaz’al at the beginning of the 20th century. In the immediate vicinity of the waters of the Gulf and inside the third city wall, this flat and bare land adjoins the palace of Dasman, built in 1904 by Jaber
al-Mubarak al-Sabah (Sheikh of Kuwait at the death of his father, from 1915 to 1917). Khaz’al, who already owned several palaces in Khuzestan (Shadegan) or Basrah, decided to build a new one before Mubarak’s death in 1915 or the following year.
It is a family complex that is built, initially without enclosure. To the west, a large residence, or a small palace known since under the name of Qasr al-Ghanem, should make it possible to house some of the Sheikh’s thirty-three wives and their descendants, in a building that is now in ruins. Built around a courtyard and an opposition between interior living rooms and rooms open to the outside, it incorporates the main characteristics of 19th century Iranian architecture. To the east – the two buildings are now separated by a road – Sheikh Khaz’al had a two-storey diwan built (Diwan Khaz’al / Palace of Sheikh Abdullah al-Jabir al-Sabah) to accommodate and accommodate its guests.

The similarities with the Malek Palace in Bushehr on the Iranian Gulf Coast (the rectangular and massive plan, the corner turrets, even the materials used) suggest that the Sheikh was inspired by it, even that he brought the same architect to Kuwait. If the construction techniques, the use of coral stone, a local material, of earth as mortar and for coatings, and of mangrove beams, recall the traditional Kuwaiti habitat of the old city (including the Bayt al-Badr is today one of the last testimonies), the architecture of the Diwan is for the rest unique in Kuwait. First of all, by its size, because two-storey buildings were rare in the region at the beginning of the 20th century, even palaces. Then by its form, since the four turrets, connected by open verandas, assimilate the structure to a fort, which the building has never been. The exterior, despite carved wooden pillars and ornate windows, remains sober compared to the palace on which the Diwan depends. The interior decoration can only be understood from photographs from the 1960s (see below), which show the similarity between the rich wooden ceilings and those of the palace. The layout of the rooms on the two floors, not to mention a deep cellar between the two eastern towers, recalls the function of the place: on the first as on the second, a corridor crosses the Diwan lengthwise, from one door to the on the other, and serves on each side three square rooms of equal size, intended to accommodate the guests. The whole mixes Arab, Persian and Indian influences, but its earthen architecture explains its fragility and its continuous deterioration since the 1960s, when the mastery of traditional know-how was lost.

The Diwan just after its construction, circa 1916

The Sheikh Khaz’al did not benefit from the Qasr and the Diwan for long, since his power suddenly collapsed in the 1920s, unlike that of the Kuwaiti sheikhs who, much less rich than him, continued to be supported by the British. Sheikh Khaz’al must face the rise of Tehran and the consolidation of the Persian Empire under the aegis of General Reza Khan after his coup in 1921. The latter, even before his enthronement as Shah in 1925 and the change of dynasty, begins a process of unification which passes by the setting in step of the regional principalities. The Sheikh Khaz’al is in this respect a privileged target, commensurate with the danger he represents for the new power whose ideal is a single nation in a modernized State: the Sheikh claims Arab identity in the face of the assertion of Iranian identity, represents tribal power against the central state, and is finally at the head of a rich oil region. The Sheikh Khaz’al tries to resist by allying himself with the Bakhtiary tribes that he still faced a few years earlier, but their military forces are easily defeated at the end of a short war (1922-1924), considered as a rebellion by Reza Khan. After an act of forced contrition, the Iranian lands of the Sheikh are taken over by the new Shah who has his former rival removed. He was under house arrest in Tehran until his death, probably assassination, in 1936.

The palace of Abdullah al-Jaber al-Sabah (1936 - 1954)

The Sheikh Khaz’al’s family probably continued to occupy the Qasr and the Diwan during his captivity, but were forced to sell them when he died. The palace was sold to the al-Ghanam family, whose name it bears today, and who occupied it until the 1970s. The Diwan did not remain unoccupied either, since it was bought by Abdullah al-Jaber al-Sabah which gives it its current name. In the 1930s, the man was president of the Council of Education (the ancestor of the Ministry of Education). Grandson of Sheikh Abdullah bin Sabah al-Sabah (r.1866-1893), he does not descend from Mubarak and is therefore part of a branch removed from the succession, but not from circles of power. As for the Khaz’al al Ka’b family, it is falling apart; if the eldest sons and their family won Europe thanks to the fortune of their father, the youngest son, his daughters and their descendants, unable to reach Iran, remained in Kuwait where they now live in anonymity.

Aerial view of Dasman, around 1940

The destinies of Qasr and Diwan separated after 1936, even if they are today united in ruins. Around the Diwan, originally conceived as the annex element of a larger family complex, a new family complex is formed, tighter. A photograph dated from the end of the 1930s, or the beginning of the 1940s (above), gives an idea of ​​the environment of the Diwan (1). Away from a dense city center, but still within the widest city walls (2), it adjoins Dasman Palace (3) and the recently built British Embassy (4) between the Diwan and the sea ; the building is now delimited by a wall that did not exist when it was built, and is clearly distinguishable from the old main building, the al-Ghanim palace (5).
Abdullah al-Jaber al-Sabah’s family occupied the Diwan, which had become a palace, for about twenty years. If it touches little to the original building, except to install bathrooms, it transforms the land that surrounds it. The statesman, promoter of the rapid modernization of his country in the years following the discovery of oil in Kuwait (1937), had concrete villas built there. They are among the oldest private modern buildings in the country. In the immediate vicinity of the palace, on the south side, he had a luxurious single-storey residence built for his first wife, Muneerah; on the north side, he offers their eldest sons, Jaber, Sabah and Mubarak, three identical three-storey houses; annexes, reserved for maintenance and servants, complete the ensemble. These constructions, which are the work of an Egyptian architect, took place at the end of the 1940s or the beginning of the 1950s. No photograph of the initial state of these houses has been preserved.
Torrential rains severely damaged the Diwan in 1954 and forced Abdullah al-Sabah’s family to abandon it for safety; the old building, in any case, no longer corresponds to the modern standard claimed by members of the al-Sabah family. It is not even certain that the four modern pavilions had time to be occupied by the family. The Diwan, in any case, does not remain empty for very long.
A witness to Kuwaiti heritage at risk (since 1954)
After having been a diwan and then a palace, the building is entering the third phase of its existence that in which it bears witness to the Kuwaiti past. In 1957, and until 1976, it became the National Museum of Kuwait under the impetus of its owner, Sheikh Abdullah al-Jabir al-Sabah, attached as much to modernity as to the country’s past. The Diwan escaped the vast plan for the destruction of the old city which intervened in the 1950s, designed to harmonize urban planning with the image of a country considered at the time to be the most modern in the Gulf. The Diwan therefore becomes one of the last historic buildings in the country, and benefits from the growing enthusiasm for the past of a country which, after its independence (1961), is seeking a historical anchor. With the help of UNESCO, among others, the old diwan is transformed into a national museum, the first of its kind in the Gulf. A garden and a fountain are laid out within the palace grounds. The terraces that go around the building, from one turret to another, are closed, and the first floor, due to the structural fragility of the roof and the floors, is definitively condemned. The museum finds its public. As shown in the photographs of the museum taken in the 1960s by Tareq Sayid Rajab (see portfolio), the ground floor corridor has been converted into a gallery and provides access to six thematic rooms. Objects, capitals, figurines and pottery from the Bronze Age and the Hellenistic period, discovered during the very first excavations on the island of Faïlaka (Kuwait) find their place there. Rooms dedicated to Kuwaiti traditions complete the museum with a collection of 19th and 20th century objects and waxwork dummies in traditional costumes. Outside, a Bedouin tent welcomes tourists for a glass of tea or a cup of coffee, in the middle of an exceptional lush garden in Kuwait, but of which there is no trace left today. The Diwan Museum closed definitively in 1976. It reopened in 1986 further along the coast, with the same collections, in the new building specially constructed by Michel Écochard from the 1960s. The deterioration of the structures of the Diwan no longer allowed it to be inhabited, and it has been abandoned for forty years. Some traces of occupation suggest that rooms were temporarily inhabited by workers in the 1980s, like the al-Ghanim palace. The Diwan does not, however, deviate from the history of Kuwait. It was hit hard by the Iraqi invasion, which is likely responsible for the collapse of the first floor and almost all the walls on the ground floor. Traces of fire on the wooden structures confirm a brutal deterioration, even an explosion, perhaps from the first day of the Iraqi invasion (August 2, 1990) during the assault on the Dasman Palace.

Since 2008 and the acquisition of the land by the National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters (NCCAL), the palace, classified Heritage by the State, the Diwan, and the houses which surround it have reinforced their heritage function, which inscribes them in the continuity of the national museum. The Diwan, under the name of “Sheikh Abdullah al-Jabir Palace” is one of the four places deposited from 2014 by Kuwait on the UNESCO World Heritage List (along with the towers of Kuwait, close to the Diwan , the island of Boubyan and the remains of the island of Faïlaka).
The Diwan is no longer accessible to the public. An attempt at restoration, following short archaeological excavations, was unsuccessful and the rapid alteration of the earthen building continued. Since the archaeological surveys took place, what remained of the north facade, a main staircase and part of a turret have collapsed. The only restoration completed on the site, that of two of the three houses built for the eldest sons of Abdullah al-Jaber al-Sabah, which have been returned to their appearance in the 1950s. totally in ruins. Since 2015, the French Center for Archeology and Social Sciences has occupied the second of these residences and perpetuates the heritage function of the place.

The Diwan ruins in 2017 (photograph H. David-Cuny)