Exploring Bangkok’s ‘Muslim Quarter’

Exploring Bangkok’s ‘Muslim Quarter’
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Halal street food is a common sight in the area.
Exploring Bangkok’s ‘Muslim Quarter’
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From halal culinary delights to pioneering Islamic art, the Bang Rak district is a breath of fresh air.
Exploring Bangkok’s ‘Muslim Quarter’
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A close up of the gift given to the Thai king.
Exploring Bangkok’s ‘Muslim Quarter’
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The peaceful interior of the Haroon Mosque.
Updated 23 October 2017

Exploring Bangkok’s ‘Muslim Quarter’

Exploring Bangkok’s ‘Muslim Quarter’

BANGKOK: “Only a few years ago there was no such thing as Thai-Islamic art and now a piece of it sits inside the royal palace,” beams Ismail Ywaiyavata, the 39-year-old vice chairman of the Institute of Islamic Art Thailand.
I am sat in a modest-sized room inside the Tuan Suwanasana Chularjmontri Foundation in the Bang Rak district of Bangkok.
All four walls display works of Thai-Islamic art, some lean on tables because of a lack of space. In one corner, a desk with a lamp and open laptop acts as Ywaiyavata’s office. Next to that, on an artist’s drawing board, bamboo quills lie scattered across pieces of calligraphy.
The building is also multi-functional, serving as a community hall and a school.
The Bang Rak district is noted for its upmarket hotels and old European-style architecture, but I am here because it is also where one of Bangkok’s largest concentration of Muslims live and Ywaiyavata, a popular member of this so-called “Muslim Quarter,” is heading up its most exciting new project.
“Thai people don’t know about Islamic art. We want to use it to promote the beauty of Islam. That is why we are developing our own modern interpretation of a Thai-Islamic art style,” he said.
Of medium build, Ywaiyavata’s round face has a typically light beard. He is wearing a round collared, navy blue top with stonewashed denim jeans. A fine art graduate, Ywaiyavata founded the institute in April 2016 alongside local lawyer, Abdul Samad, calligrapher, Ustad Suleiman and Islamic art graduate, Shareef Toleb. Within a few months, they were given the opportunity to seek royal approval.
Last December, they presented the king with a piece of their pioneering work.
“We wanted to show the king how our art style brings the two cultures together. The design we presented took the popular Thai lotus flower and applied the Islamic artistic principles of geometry and repetition to create a frame inside which we wrote his name in Arabic calligraphy.”
The exquisite piece has a circular frame of mesmeric lotus flowers that echo patterns seen all over Thailand, from architecture to clothing. In the middle, the king’s full name, Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, is artistically inscribed in Arabic calligraphy. Made by placing gold leaf onto the finest black Thai silk, the result is stunning and made quite the impression.
“The king asked me about the patterns and how we came up with the idea. He agreed it was a beautiful way to present Islamic culture in Thailand,” Ywaiyavata said.
However, Ywaiyavata’s institute is not just about calligraphy.
Two of the largest pieces on display are by award-winning female Thai artist, Thidarat Chantachua.
Using colored threading on black canvas, Chantachua’s semi-abstract, geometric patterns present an echo of arabesque architecture.
The institute has also begun work on the first-ever Qur’an to be decorated with the new Thai-Islamic design style.
When we head outside, Ywaiyavata shows me where the institute hopes to soon be permanently based — a pretty house, complete with pale blue wooden slats. Like many buildings in Bang Rak, it is more European than Thai.
Muslims in Bangkok
As we walk down the narrow back streets of the Muslim quarter, we pass doors with “bismillah” written above them. Turning a corner, the air becomes smoky and filled with the whiff of roasting meat. A hijab-wearing Thai woman stands grilling satay sticks on a food cart labelled “halal.”
The woman smiles warmly and returns our greetings. Above her, a green sign announces the Haroon Mosque, one of the oldest in Bangkok.
Mohammed Kanzi, a local postgraduate student of Islamic history and a volunteer at the institute, tells me the story behind the mosque.
“It was named after Haroon Bafadel, whose father was an Indonesian-Arab trader from south Borneo. He built a wooden mosque in the Javanese style on the banks of the Chao Phraya in 1837.”
Bafadel’s father, Musa, arrived long before Bangkok became the huge metropolis it is today. Back then, the mosque stood in a village called Tom Samrong, outside the capital.
“This is why the mosque’s first name was the Tom Samrong Mosque. Then, in 1899, the Thai government wanted the land to build a customs house and the mosque was rebuilt inland.”
The first rebuild was also wooden, but in 1934, a brick building was constructed in the style of the surrounding architecture. As a result, the Haroon Mosque looks more like a European townhouse than an oriental institute, complete with neo-classical floral motifs, mock romanesque pillars and wooden shutters.
“The only distinguishing Islamic feature was that crescent and star mold up there,” my guide said as he pointed toward the ceiling.
Ywaiyavata and I strain to see where our guide is pointing — high up on the apex roof’s brickwork, a gold-and-green crescent and star can just about be made out.
Origins of Thai-Islamic art
Once inside, the real reason I was brought here becomes apparent. At the front of the prayer hall, two ornate wooden structures stand in stark contrast to the mosque’s otherwise simple, plain interior.
“This unique mehrab and mimbar might also be called Islamic-Thai art style. The mehrab reminds us of the royal barges on our rivers and has Arabic and French influence. Meanwhile, the mimbar is a cross between a Muslim and traditional Thai throne,” Mohammed said.
The Muslim Quarter
The Haroon Mosque is one of many in Bang Rak. There is also the Ban Oou Mosque, Faizane Madina and the brilliantly-named Thai-Pakistan Friendship Mosque.
Thailand’s capital is home to the largest concentration of Muslims in the country and Bang Rak’s community wonderful reflects this diversity. Mohammed explained how many reached the shores of Thailand.
“We know Muslim traders were in contact with Thailand since the early times of Islam and this led to conversions and inter-marriage along the Malay peninsula, so many Muslims here have Malay and Middle Eastern ancestry. Others are Thai whose families converted sometime in history and then there are those from the Indian Sub-Continent that came here as sea merchants centuries ago.”
Mohammed’s own ethnic ancestry is Malay and Chinese, while Ywaiyavata traces his paternal roots to southern Thailand and his maternal roots back to Hadhramaut in Yemen.
The ethnic diversity is also reflected in the halal eateries of Bang Rak. Places serving Indian, Pakistani and Middle Eastern food rub shoulders with halal Thai eateries and Muslim grocery stores are more abundant here than in most other parts of Bangkok.
In a city famous for its hedonism, Bang Rak presents a refreshing haven for Muslim travelers headed to Thailand’s capital city.


Expert reveals details of astonishing archaeological find

Expert reveals details of astonishing archaeological find
Large quantities of items, including semi-precious stones, were found at the site and it is expected that the discoveries in the city will cover an area of more than 3 kilometers. (AFP)
Updated 12 April 2021

Expert reveals details of astonishing archaeological find

Expert reveals details of astonishing archaeological find
  • Large quantities of semi-precious stones were found and it is expected that the discoveries in the city will cover an area of more than 3 km

CAIRO: Zahi Hawass, the former Egyptian minister of antiquities, said that the discovery of a lost city in Luxor is the most important and greatest archaeological discovery for him.
Hawass believes that the extension of the city belongs to Tutankhamun, and said that the recent discovery shook the world.
The Egyptian archaeological mission, headed by Hawass, discovered the lost city under the sands of Luxor, called Ascension of Aton, which dates back to the reign of King Amenhotep III. The city continued to be used by Tutankhamun 3,000 years ago, and it may even pre-date pharaonic history and add to the archaeological discoveries that Egypt has discovered during recent years.
Hawass said during televised statements that many industrial places were discovered in the lost city, including places for the manufacture of clothes, linen and fishing rods, and 100 molds were discovered for the manufacture of amulets used in the palace.
Large quantities of semi-precious stones were also found and it is expected that the discoveries in the city will cover an area of more than 3 km.
“We found three main areas — one for management, one for workers to sleep (in) and a third for industry — as well as an area for dried meat,” Hawass said.

HIGHLIGHT

Expert believes that the extension of the city belongs to Tutankhamun, and says that the recent discovery shook the world.

He explained that it is the largest ancient city found so far, noting that the discovery was carried out by an Egyptian team.
Hawass said that Betsy Bryan, an archaeologist specializing in the golden age, had praised the discovery of the lost city, describing it as the second most important discovery after the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Hawass said that the process of restoring the city will begin next month. The pottery found in the city dates back 3,000 years, confirming that the discovered pots were used for storing meat.
He said that they had also discovered three kilos of dried meat as well as other significant finds.
“A cemetery dating back to the 26th dynasty, 500 BC, was discovered, and these graves are complete and untouched and are supported because they are made of mud bricks,” Hawass said.
He said that work to discover the lost city began in September 2020.
Hawass said that he had not expected to discover the city. Archaeologists believed that it had disappeared, so the discovery of the first house in the city had astonished scientists, he said.


Historic Hima Well reveals the journeys of Arabia’s ancient caravans

Historic Hima Well reveals the journeys of Arabia’s ancient caravans
The site is made out of a series of seven fresh water wells, which includes more than 200 sites containing rock inscriptions, graves and stone circles. (Supplied)
Updated 10 April 2021

Historic Hima Well reveals the journeys of Arabia’s ancient caravans

Historic Hima Well reveals the journeys of Arabia’s ancient caravans
  • Archaeological excavations carried out by SCTH discovered that the city of Najran is among the oldest inhabited places
  • The site contains numerous rock inscriptions and drawings that date back to before 3000 BC

MAKKAH: Hima Well, one of the most ancient and significant stops along the ancient trade routes of Arabia, untouched and unaltered, continues to fascinate researchers and archaeologists.

The site, about 140 km north of the city of Najran, is well preserved, and with its largely intact rock art depicting humans, animals, hunting tools, bows and spears and more, shows a picture of what was once an ancient route for caravans traveling from the southern regions of the Arabian Peninsula to its north.

Saleh Al-Muraih, a historical researcher specializing in the tourism and archaeology of Najran, told Arab News: “Hima Well is one of the most important historical sites in the Kingdom and contains numerous rock inscriptions and drawings that date back to before 3000 BC.”

“The site is made out of a series of seven fresh water wells covering an area of 30 km, which includes more than 200 sites containing rock inscriptions and drawings, graves, stone circles and historical wells,” he said.

Al-Muraih added: “Hima was the starting point for commercial caravans that gathered at the wells before taking one of two main roads. The firsts of these roads used to lead to Mesopotamia after passing through Al-Faw (also known as Qariah, an ancient city on the outskirts of the Empty Quarter), which is the archaeological site of the Kindah and Al-Yamama regions, known today as Najd. The second road used to lead to the Levant and Egypt after passing through the Hijaz region.”

FASTFACT

To date, 1,293 human drawings, 5,121 animal drawings, 3,616 Thamudic inscriptions, 2,775 Ancient South Arabian script inscriptions and three Nabataean inscriptions have been found in the region, while search and excavation operations are continuing in the Kingdom in general, and the region in particular, to uncover more monuments and historical cultural heritage.

Its dense rock art engravings are the legacy of the hundreds of caravans, departing from Al-Okhdood in the south, that passed by the well over the years. Ancient South Arabian script (Musnad), the South Arabian language or the Thamudic language can be found on these engravings alongside depictions of flora and fauna.

“The Saudi government took care of Hima Well, and there are fantastic fencing works taking place. This is coupled with continuous scientific research that has studied the site and we hope for the completion of the procedures that would see the addition of the site to UNESCO’s World Heritage List,” Al-Muraih said.

“There has been numerous land surveys and protection efforts exerted in the area. Fortunately, Hima does not have any violations or anything that could harm these monuments, while the people of the region are highly cultured when it comes to protecting these sites and therefore preserving these significant historical monuments,” he said.

As one of Najran’s 86 historical sites, Hima Well combines heritage and tourism in one area. Tour guides, a cooperative local community and cooperative government bodies are all on hand to speak about the historic significance of the well.

Dr. Salma Hawsawi, professor of ancient history at King Saud University, told Arab News: “The Kingdom has a great deal of archaeological sites and historical cities that have witnessed construction works over the course of thousands of years. They are truly worthy of preservation and development so that they can cope with the current requirements.”

She added: “Historical cities, regardless of their history and origins, are many. Among those worth mentioning is the southwestern city of Najran, which was mentioned by numerous classical historians such as Strabo, in his book ‘Geography,’ where he called it Negrana, as he talked about the Roman campaigns in the Arabian Peninsula in the years 24-25 BC, and Ptolemy, who referred to it as Negara Metropolis.”

“In his book, Yaqut Al-Hamawi, a Muslim historian, said that the city was named after the first person that inhabited it, Najran bin Zaydan bin Sabaa. What also confirms how old this city was is the mention of its name in the inscriptions of Sabaean rulers such as Karib’il, Samah Ali Yanuf and Yitha’amar Bayyin,” she said.

According to Dr. Hawsawi, the geographical importance of the Kingdom’s southwestern region stems from its location between Africa and Asia. This is coupled with the importance of the coastal region in terms of migration, and some settlements are found to date back from the first century BC to the Islamic era.

“Archaeological excavations carried out by SCTH discovered that the city of Najran is among the oldest inhabited places. It did so through archaeological evidence found at various sites belonging to different periods in history, starting with the ancient Stone Age to the Islamic era,” she said.

Hawsawi said: “Rock art and inscriptions are the elements that most distinguish the region’s monuments, as they provided us with a lot of information regarding clothes, accessories, weapons, stone stoves, rectangular and conical structures and tanks, especially around the Hima Well area.”

Most of the region’s rock drawings showcase camels, cows, goats and geese, along with some predatory animals such as lions and wolves, Dr. Hawsawi said. “Ostriches were given special attention in terms of their decoration and size, in addition to them being drawn in various positions, highlighting the significance of this animal.”

The drawings show horse battles, where knights used spears, and limited hunting scenes, where dogs were used to hunt goats, she said, noting that “there are drawings of humans that are larger than the normal size, while some of them had their heads covered. Men’s beards were shown clearly. Humans wore necklaces and collars, while some men wore anklets to produce sounds that suit the dance moves and music. Outfits were made out of short gowns that were wrapped around the middle. Other drawings showed people dancing with musical instruments that resemble the rebab.”

Dr. Hawsawi said: “Thamudic writings were found in the region in large quantities, followed by the Ancient South Arabian script and the Kufic script, which dates back to the Islamic era. The multiplicity of scripts found in the region sheds light on the succession of civilizations. In addition, Ancient South Arabian script inscriptions found engraved on top of Thamudic inscriptions highlights how old the Thamudic script really is.”

“Most of the inscriptions consist of names such as ‘Saad,’ ‘Awathat’ and ‘Rafadat,’ and of deities such as ‘Al’ and ‘Kahl,’ while inscriptions were usually found next to drawings of animals,” she said.

Dr. Hawsawi said that “among the long inscriptions is a 12-line one belonging to King ‘Dhu Nuwas,’ in which he described his victory over the Ethiopians in 512.”

To date, 1,293 human drawings, 5,121 animal drawings, 3,616 Thamudic inscriptions, 2,775 Ancient South Arabian script inscriptions and three Nabataean inscriptions have been found in the region, while search and excavation operations are continuing in the Kingdom in general, and the region in particular, to uncover more monuments and historical cultural heritage.


The Maldives: A pandemic travel haven

The Maldives: A pandemic travel haven
Updated 08 April 2021

The Maldives: A pandemic travel haven

The Maldives: A pandemic travel haven
  • Get your negative test and enjoy a pre-COVID vacation throwback at the Soneva Jani resort

DUBAI: Being greeted with a handshake shouldn’t be such a jarring experience. But stepping into the restaurant at the Soneva Jani resort in the Maldives’ Noonu Atoll, this is how you’ll be welcomed. And in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it feels, well, strange.

Strange but safe: Masks are cast aside. Open buffets exist. Hands are shaken. On this island, at least momentarily, the pandemic does not exist. 

The Maldives reopened to all international travellers on June 15, 2020, with the exception of the capital, Male, which remains largely off limits, due to COVID cases often emanating from there. 

The overwater villas at Soneva Jani are some of the largest in the world. (Supplied)

At the time of writing, the Maldives had recorded about 24,000 cases of COVID-19 and 66 deaths, from a population of roughly 531,000 people. It has administered around 233,000 doses of the coronavirus vaccine. The country also has strict regulations and guidelines in place for managing resorts and guesthouse facilities, should an outbreak take place — so be prepared to pay (in most cases) for two weeks of quarantine in your luxury overwater villa if you do test positive.

Due to this perception of being a safe travel destination during the pandemic, tourists have been flocking to the island archipelago. In March, about 110,000 tourists arrived at Velana International Airport, compared to 59,630 in March 2020 and 156,553 in March 2019. Currently, around 3,550 people are arriving every day. Staff at Soneva say the resort is perhaps even busier now than it was over the 2019/2020 festive period.

Clearly, it’s vital to them that the Maldives continues to be a safe destination — and that their resort, especially, stays COVID-free. So safety (theirs and yours) is paramount.

On this island, at least momentarily, the pandemic does not exist. (Supplied)

While Velana is thronging with arrivals from all corners of the globe and your seaplane to Soneva will likely be full, there’s no chanting crowd awaiting your arrival to offer refreshments and a change to mingle . Instead, you’re picked up by speedboat and whisked off to your villa in isolation, where you’ll need to stay for most of that day, since Soneva requires you to take another PCR test on arrival, separate from the one you’ve already taken to board your international flight. 

Fortunately, indoor quarantine here is luxurious. The overwater villas at Soneva Jani are some of the largest in the world. The island’s newest set of bungalows, its 27 ‘Chapter Two’ villas, are bigger than most Dubai apartments. There’s enough seating to comfortably host a football team, freshwater infinity pool, kitchen, retractable roof for stargazing, rooftop dining area and in some, a slide that will transport you from the villa’s rooftop to the azure waters below. Frankly, you’ll struggle to fit it all in during your 12-hour quarantine.

In-villa dining, courtesy of a team of cautious staff, is dropped off while you wile away your quarantine by the pool or in the ocean. (Supplied)

In-villa dining, courtesy of a team of cautious staff, is dropped off while you wile away your quarantine by the pool or in the ocean. 

Once your results are through (between six to 12 hours), life goes back to normal. As in, pre-COVID normal. Staff and guests alike are free to go about their days without masks. High-fiving and handshakes are common. Physical distancing isn’t imposed  — but is easy to achieve if you’d prefer to be extra-cautious.

Soneva Jani is based on a large island, and despite being home to 51 overwater villas and three island villas, most of which are full during our stay, it is blissfully quiet. The restaurants never seem to have more than a few other families or couples in at a time, and as most of the options are outdoors (Cinema Paradiso, the overwater, open-air theatre, being a very 2021 way to take in a movie), you’ll never feel cramped.

Soneva Jani has outdoor cinema. (Supplied)

Excursions on the island are just as pandemic-friendly. The boats that provide dolphin cruises or snorkelling trips are huge, and the water is the perfect place to social distance.

At Soneva, the pre-pandemic holiday still exists. For a few nights, at least, you won’t be rushing back to your room to retrieve a forgotten mask, or feel the need to stare down anyone who accidentally gets a little too close.

The resort’s extra PCR test is imposed for this reason. If you do test positive, your quarantine is free. If you don’t, then the anxiety of travel in 2021 is relieved. For that reason alone, if you’re in need of a holiday at a time when safety is key, Soneva is a great option.


Registration opens for Hammayah program in Saudi Arabia’s AlUla

Registration opens for Hammayah program in Saudi Arabia’s AlUla
Hammayah aims to encourage community partnership, enhance awareness of the exceptional cultural, historical and natural heritage. (SPA)
Updated 05 April 2021

Registration opens for Hammayah program in Saudi Arabia’s AlUla

Registration opens for Hammayah program in Saudi Arabia’s AlUla
  • Hammayah aims to encourage community partnership, enhance awareness of the exceptional cultural, historical and natural heritage in the AlUla and Khaybar governorates

ALULA: The Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) announced on Sunday that registration has opened for the second phase of the Hammayah program.
The training program includes a series of workshops and field trips for participants from the AlUla and Khaybar governorates.
Hammayah aims to encourage community partnership, enhance awareness of the exceptional cultural, historical and natural heritage in the AlUla and Khaybar governorates, and help the youth become ambassadors to play a pivotal role in preserving heritage for future generations.
The program also aims to empower the trainees to become custodians of AlUla’s distinctive character.
Those interested in taking part can apply through the program’s portal at hammayah.rcu.gov.sa/account/register before April 14. Applicants must be aged between 18 and 35 years old, have Saudi citizenship and reside in AlUla or Khaybar. Participants should also not be employed, or registered with social security or the civil service. 

Candidates will undergo a series of medical, security and personal assessments. After that, those who are accepted will be notified on April 30. The program will begin on May 5.

The previous edition of the Hammayah program attracted 2,500 people. They took part in 21 workshops and 46 distance training courses on heritage, history, archeology, rock art and agriculture under the supervision and guidance of experts.

Hammayah is part of efforts by the RCU to promote the region as a global destination for cultural, heritage, historical and nature tourism.

The program contributes to the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 by enabling the world to access Saudi heritage, which has played a pivotal role in human history.


Fossil discoveries in Egypt date back to age of dinosaurs

Fossil discoveries in Egypt date back to age of dinosaurs
The team carried out excavations and assessed the ancient environments in which the ancient animals lived. (AFP)
Updated 29 March 2021

Fossil discoveries in Egypt date back to age of dinosaurs

Fossil discoveries in Egypt date back to age of dinosaurs
  • The research team discovered the remains of an extinct giant fish, a sawfish beak, and a sawfish rostrum, in addition to large parts of a sea turtle

CAIRO: Egypt has announced new fossil discoveries dating back 70 million years, to the age of dinosaurs.
The President of New Valley University Abdel Aziz Tantawi said in a statement that a research team at the university’s Vertebrate Paleontology Center uncovered the first fossil discovery in the ancient Tethys Sea in the Dakhla Oasis in the New Valley governorate, southwest of Cairo.
The research team discovered the remains of an extinct giant fish, a sawfish beak, and a sawfish rostrum, in addition to large parts of a sea turtle and other parts of a large marine reptile, dating back more than 70 million years. The team also discovered some shark teeth.
Egypt’s Western Desert is one of the world’s most valuable natural treasures, unveiling the secrets of ancient life.
Tantawi said that the university will continue searching for excavations of old human settlements in the New Valley desert, which will be displayed in a natural history museum in the governorate.
Gebely Abuelkheir, professor of geology at the university, said that the discovery location was studied extensively with several scientific and exploratory trips in the Dakhla Oasis.
The team carried out excavations and assessed the ancient environments in which the ancient animals lived. They also studied the level of conservation and determined the extent of the success of the scientific team’s extractions.

BACKGROUND

The team carried out excavations and assessed the ancient environments in which the ancient animals lived.

Abuelkheir added that the important scientific discoveries in this region reflect the conditions and nature of ancient life on the African continent within the ancient Tethys Sea.
These discoveries are part of New Valley University’s research plan to study the ancient life of the Cretaceous period, which is still mostly unknown on the African continent.
The New Valley desert is one of the most important regions in Africa, it contains a large variety of ancient treasures from the Cretaceous period, especially the marine life that lived in the Tethys Sea.
Mohammed Kamel, a geophysicist at the department of geology at New Valley University and one of the members of the research team, confirmed that among the scientific discoveries was a sawfish beak, with a length of nearly 2 meters, confirming the enormity of marine life in that region.
He added that the marine turtle bones were the largest of their kind ever discovered in Africa, but that similar discoveries were previously made by the university’s Vertebrate Paleontology Center.