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The Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture What is This? Provides in-depth historical and cultural information on over a thousand years of Islamic art and architecture


State of [Arab. Dawlat al-Kuwayt].

Middle Eastern country at the northwestern end of the Persian Gulf. The capital, Kuwait City, was traditionally a caravan crossroads town and a port for fishing and pearling. The country has been governed since 1756 by the al-Sabah dynasty. In a treaty of 1899 Britain became responsible for foreign relations, but this treaty was terminated in 1961 and national sovereignty declared. The population of c. 3,100,000 (2006 estimate) is largely Sunni Muslim, with a Shi῾a minority numbering about 20% of the total. The main source of revenue in the country is oil, which was discovered in 1938, and there is a large foreign expatriate workforce.

The earliest record of a settlement in Kuwait City dates to c.1670. The settlement expanded and in the late 18th century was a prosperous trading center between the Middle East and India. By 1859 it was the most important port in the northern part of the Persian Gulf, with a population estimated at c. 20,000, supported by trade, fishing and pearl-diving. In the early 20th century Kuwait City contained c. 25,000 people, and there were a further 10,000 Kuwaiti Bedouin in the desert. Around this time the shortage of water was a serious problem, and by the late 1920s fresh water was imported from Basra in Iraq. In the 1930s a Saudi blockade on trade with Kuwait, competition from cultured pearls and the water shortage led to a severe depression. Oil prospecting began in 1934, and with the production of oil from 1946, Kuwait developed rapidly. By 1950 the population of Kuwait had risen to c. 150,000, of whom more than half were immigrant workers employed in the oil industry and other occupations.

Many traditional houses were demolished with the development of the country. Among those that remain, some were acquired and restored by the State, such as Bayt al-Nisf (c.1827–37) and Bayt al-Badr (c.1837–47) in Kuwait City. Traditional Kuwaiti houses are characterized by blank plaster walls on the outside and one or more courtyards within. The walls are made of either mud or baked brick and range from 1 to 1.5 m thick. Bayt al-Badr, a typical house for an affluent family, is built of mud-brick and rubble from sea-rocks and has five courtyards: a reception court for men, a private court, a kitchen court, a business court and an animal court. Each courtyard has rooms arranged around it and is paved either with square lime-bricks or tiles imported from Iraq. The reception court for men and the living court have arcaded loggias. Openings high up in the walls of important rooms provide light and ventilation. The front of the house facing the sea has a row of masonry benches running along its full length. In 1937 a new section, built in the spirit of the old, was added to the house.

Other types of traditional houses include the colonial verandah house with Spanish and Portuguese influences, the Ottoman house with a long timber gallery, elaborate trefoil arches along the façade and lattice screens and shutters, and the two-story Persian house with thick walls built around a single courtyard (e.g. Bayt al-Ghanim, 1916). By contrast, the private houses built since the 1950s often express the personal taste of their owner. They include various Western styles ranging from the American colonial and Baroque to the Post-modern. The Western idea of a house surrounded by a garden has become prominent partly as a result of land regulations.

In 1952 the British firm of Minoprio & Spencely submitted a master-plan for Kuwait City that resulted in the demolition of most of the old town and the city wall, with the exception of the gates. In the late 1950s Saba George Shiber, a naturalized American Palestinian who was adviser to Kuwait’s Ministry of Public Works, froze the 1952 master-plan and saved the old market (sūq) from being demolished. By the 1960s there was a movement towards conserving certain areas such as the traditional houses along the seafront. A second master-plan by the British consultants Buchanan & Partners in 1968 put forward further recommendations for development, followed by a third master-plan by Shankland & Cox in 1976. The implementation of these programs in the 1970s and 1980s led to parts of the city being built and demolished several times.

The buildings of architectural interest constructed since the 1960s include the headquarters of the Ministry of Information (1961) by Jacques Satour, the Central Bank (1969) by Arne Jacobsen (1902–71) and the Airport (1981) by Kenzō Tange (1913–2005). An international competition for the Parliament Building, completed in 1985, was won by Jørn Utzon (b. 1918). New mosques have also been built, such as the State Mosque (1976–84) by the Iraqi firm of Mohamed Makiya, located opposite the Seif Palace (1960, extension 1982). The water towers (1977) in Kuwait, designed by the Swedish firm of VBB, headed by the architect Sune Lindström (1906–89), became famous after winning the Aga khan award for architecture in 1980.

Beginning in 1936, Kuwait was the first country in the Gulf region to implement a modern school system and the first to grant scholarships in the arts. Consequently, the modern art movement in Kuwait is the oldest among those in the Arabian peninsula. The first artist in the Gulf region to set a trend in painting local subjects was Mojab Dossari (1921–56). Trained in Egypt, he was the first artist in the Arabian peninsula to be sent abroad on an art scholarship. Most Kuwaiti art is figural, depicting local landscapes and still lifes, but Surrealism also claims a strong following. The leading exponent is the sculptor and painter Sami Muhammad (b. 1943), who trained at the College of Art Education, Helwan University, Cairo, and in the USA.

In 1960 the Free Atelier (al-Marsam al-ḥur) was created in Kuwait under the supervision of the Department of Education. This center provided art classes and furnished studios and materials but in its early years it accepted only male students. In 1961 state support was given to full-time artists in the form of a monthly salary for two or more years, which enabled them to dedicate themselves fully to their work. In 1968 the Society of Formative Artists was set up in Kuwait City as a non-profit body holding exhibitions for its members. In 1972 the Free Atelier became the responsibility of the Ministry of Information, which was transformed into the governing authority for all artistic and cultural affairs. The Atelier was transferred to a new location in a traditional house owned by Jaber Jassim al-Ghanim, which consisted of two exhibition halls, a library, several studios and workshops for painting and printmaking, facilities for bronze casting and a kiln for ceramics. Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates followed the example of Kuwait and opened their own Free Ateliers. In 1974 the National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters was founded to support all forms of cultural activity, establishing in its headquarters a permanent venue for international exhibitions in Kuwait.

The first National Museum opened in 1957 in the two-story palace of Shaykh Abdullah al-Jaber al-Sabah. It displayed an ethnographic collection donated by and purchased from local Kuwaitis. In 1958 an archaeological collection was added. In 1976 the two collections were moved to the Bayt al-Badr. In 1981 the new Kuwait National Museum, designed by Michel Ecochard (1905–85), was completed. During the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in 1990–91, the museum was ransacked and destroyed along with the Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyya (opened 1983), which housed a comprehensive collection of Islamic art belonging to Shaykh Nasser Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah. This collection, directed by his wife Shaykha Hussah Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah, comprises textiles, artifacts and manuscripts spanning all periods of Islamic civilization. The Kuwait National Museum displayed an ethnographic collection and archaeological artifacts dating back to the 3rd and 2nd millennia BCE that were formerly in the Bayt al-Badr, as well as works by contemporary Kuwaiti painters and sculptors. Bayt al-Badr, meanwhile, was conserved as an example of traditional architecture, becoming Bayt al-Sadu, a center for the revival of traditional weaving, furnishings and clothing, employing Bedouin women to continue the almost obsolete craft. A further museum is the private collection of Tareq al-Sayyid Rajab and his wife Jehan, which opened in 1983 with a display of Palestinian costumes and jewelry, Korans and Arab furniture. In 2007 the Tareq Rajab Museum of Islamic Calligraphy was opened. On Faylaka Island there is an ethnographic museum located in a traditional Kuwaiti house.


  • S. G. Shiber: Recent Arab City Growth (Kuwait, 1967)
  • R. Lewcock: Traditional Architecture in Kuwait and the Northern Gulf (London, 1978)
  • S. Gardiner: Kuwait: The Making of a City (Harlow, 1983)
  • M. Jenkins, ed.: Islamic Art in the Kuwait National Museum: The al-Sabah Collection (London, 1983)
  • Contemporary Art in Kuwait, Kuwait International Investment CO.S.A.K. (Kuwait, 1983)
  • The Evolving Culture of Kuwait, Royal Scot. Mus. (Edinburgh, 1985)
  • “Kuwait: A Special Supplement on the Arts,” A. & Islam. World, iii/1 (1985), pp. 41–79
  • Al-Marsam al-ḥur [The Free Atelier], Ministry of Information (Kuwait, 1986)
  • W. Ali, ed.: Contemporary Art from the Islamic World (London, 1989), pp. 46–8, 67–8, 145–9
  • J. Rajab: Palestinian Costume (London and New York, 1989)
  • K. Makiya: Post-Islamic Classicism: A Visual Essay on the Architecture of Mohamed Makiya (London, 1990)
  • Islamic Art and Patronage: Treasures from Kuwait (exh. cat., ed. E. Atıl; Washington, DC, Trust Mus. Exh., 1990–91)
  • H. Al Sabah: “An Eventful Journey Home for Kuwait’s Islamic Treasures,” E. A. Rep., iii/5 (1991–2), pp. 14–16
  • J. S. Rajab: Failaka Island, the Ikaros of the Arabian Gulf (Kuwait, 1999)
  • G. Fehérvári: Ceramics of the Islamic World in the Tareq Rajab Museum (London, 2000)
  • S. Carboni: Glass from Islamic Lands (New York, 2001)
  • M. Keene and S. Kaoukji: Treasury of the World: Jewelled Arts of India in the Age of the Mughals (London, 2001)
  • O. Watson: Ceramics from Islamic Lands (London, 2004)
  • T. S. Rajab: Glimpses from the Recent Past, Kuwait 1960–1965 (Kuwait, n.d.)
  • R. Anderson and J. al-Bader: “Recent Kuwaiti Architecture: Regionalism vs. Globalization,” J. Archit. & Planning Res., xxiii/2 (2006), pp. 134–46
  • B. Michalak-Pikulska: “Symbolism in the Work of the Kuwaiti Artist Thuraya al-Baqsami,” Sifting Sands, Reading Signs: Studies in Honour of Professor Géza Fehérvári, ed. P. L. Baker and B. Brend (London, 2006), pp. 33–6
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