ABU DHABI // Dr Ahmed Khoori has a passion for collecting. However, the items are not stamps or model cars or aeroplanes but ancient artefacts from the Gulf region, some as much as 5,000 years old.
Dr Khoori, 58, has been on a 50-year hunt for genuine archaeological items from the region.
From Abu Dhabi, he displays his finds in the living room and gardens of his villa. Walking into his home, a guest is immediately struck by a sense of Emirati and Gulf heritage. His passion for collecting started from the tender age of eight, when Abu Dhabi was still a vast desert and water was scarce.
"I used to meet these two Indian brothers at a nearby cafeteria," he said. "I would give them fresh water and they would treat me to a slice of cake and a cup of tea. During one of our meetings, they showed me these old Arabian coins they discovered through trade."
Fascinated, Dr Khoori was given more silver coins from the brothers and his love affair with archaeology began.
Yet as he approached his college years, he was sceptical about what he might possibly discover in such an empty, arid region. A conversation with one of his professors at Cambridge University, in the UK, quickly changed his mind.
"He told me, 'you are wrong'," Dr Khoori said. "'You have more than we have. You just need to look for it in the right places. It's all underground, you just have to dig it out'."
This advice led Dr Khoori to his continuing quest for Gulf heritage items.
"At that point I realised that we do have heritage, but we're not looking for it," he said. "So from that point, I made it my ambition to find these ancient artefacts that reflect our rich culture. With the help of my friends, I starting sourcing these precious artefacts."
Among his collections are ancient hand-made stone necklaces and clay pots from Mesopotamia that date to 3,000BC. He also has ancient silver coins dating to the time of Alexander the Great, Bedouin silver necklaces and hand-made rifles adorned with intricate silver designs. Collections of hand-carved wooden palace doors dominate his backyard.
Some of his collections, Dr Khoori said, are so rare they cannot be found in local or regional museums such as the Al Ain Museum and the Museum of Islamic Arts in Qatar.
One of his most prized collections is the elaborate headdresses women used to wear nearly a century ago. The headdresses are made of silver and have detailed designs.
Royalty often used to wear them as an expression of their status and wealth, Dr Khoori said.
"Several institutions and experts, both local and international, expressed interest in my collections and told me what I have is genuine; a price can't be put on it," he said.
Shamsa al Dhaheri, a curator with the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach) and the Al Ain National Museum, said the headdresses were very popular during the 1930s and 1940s.
"Women would wear them during weddings, but then they were phased out because they were very expensive, since they were made out of pure silver," she said.
Their value depended on a number of factors including weight, the quality of the silver and the intricacy of the designs, she said, adding such items were extremely rare and difficult to find.
Ms al Dhaheri said she was looking for this type of headdress for the Al Ain Museum. "I have similar ones but they are not the real thing. The ones we have are not made of silver."
There is no federal law that requires such findings to be reported, said Dr Walid Yasin, the manager of archaeology at Adach, although the agency recommends that archaeological items be reported.
"Generally, if something is archaeological, coming from beneath the ground, we advise that it's reported. However, if it's something ethnographical, such as household items or jewellery, it's up to the owner," Dr Yasin said. "Local laws vary between each emirate, but currently there is no official law in Abu Dhabi. There is a draft law pending approval regarding this matter."
With few places available in the UAE for collectors to display their items, they are often unsure what to do with their treasures.
With hundreds of ancient items in his possession, Dr Khoori said he currently had three options. The first is to work with the Saadiyat Island museums, including the Zayed National Museum and the Louvre, to display his discoveries.
"Another option would be to open my own museum," he said. "Whatever happens, these artefacts must stay in the country. At the end of the day, my concern is not money, but the great opportunity of using these findings to enrich our community and educate it about our culture and heritage."
Adventurous spirit led to great discoveries
ABU DHABI // Dr Ahmed Khoori discovers most of his treasures through contacts, friends and dealers. When he was younger, however, he had a passion for travelling and making discoveries on his own.
“Travelling is my hobby,” he said. “I used to travel to the Far East, to Egypt and subcontinents to collect and buy these items.”
There is one adventure, however, that Dr Khoori had while in his thirties that he will never forget – one that took him to the Golden Triangle, one of the biggest opium-producing areas in the world.
“I was looking for old pearl-diving accessories,” he said. “But when I asked people where to go, they took me somewhere else,” he said. “Let’s just say it was a very risky business.”
Dr Khoori said that, after spending time in the Golden Triangle, he eventually found people who helped him in his original quest. “I was very young back then and extremely adventurous,” he said. “Now it’s difficult because I have a family and other priorities.”
However, he still uses his connections to track down rare items. But this requires the trust and commitment of his companions, Dr Khoori said.
“I once heard there was a headdress in Oman made of pure silver that weighed 2.2 kilos,” he said. “I knew I must find it and I asked a friend to track it down for me. Every time I followed up with him, he would tell me he couldn’t find it. This continued for a few years and after the second year, I began to lose faith.”
In the end, however, Dr Khoori’s friend came good. “After the third year, we found it,” he said. “At that point I realised the great friendship I have with this person. It is something I will never forget.”