Nestled snugly within the caves of Al Qarah Mountain’s western face, Dougha Handmade Pottery Factory offers an enchanting bonus excursion for any visitors to Al Ahsa’s most famous geological landmark. Visitors will notice a striking display at the entrance, as rows of upturned pots spilling various shades of clay hint at the importance of pottery in the Islamic world.
Described in the Holy Quran as the substance from which humans were created, the ancient craft of molding clay remains deeply symbolic of the story of humankind. The act of mixing clay with creativity is believed to date back over 15,000 years, and the traditional methods of pottery on show here at Dougha remain closely tied to those used throughout millennia.
A family business
Walk through the factory’s turreted entrance and fortress-like doors, and the effect is to travel back in time. It’s here where, 150 years ago, a man named Dougha Al Gabash set up shop in one of Al Qarah many cavernous hideouts. The temperate surroundings not only kept him cool but also kept his mountain-sourced clay moist. This was the perfect place for the master potter to begin a craft that he would pass down to his sons, who in turn spread the tradition to their own children.
It is these grandsons who are now in charge at Dougha. The factory may have changed since their grandfather’s day, having expanded to include tourist-friendly lounge areas, restroom facilities and heritage displays. But the finished ceramics remain an in-house skill specific to this corner of Al Ahsa.
The open-air factory is free to enter, and the atmosphere is relaxed. Visitors are encouraged to roam through the palm-lined walkways and take in the sights. And while the ceramics remain the chief reason to visit, there are other items on display that come with a story. There’s the recreated well from where the potters would collect fresh water from Al Ahsa’s plentiful springs. The two-wheeled cart was used for transport before a new irrigation system and modern roads were built in 1967. Then there is the range of vibrant accessories made from date leaves, including bags, hats and also home décor products.
The pottery-making process
Unlike in the days of its founder — who is honored with photographs and portrait paintings on the wall — visitors to the factory are now frequent. The potters at Dougha are warm and welcoming, and only too happy to demonstrate their talents and provide living proof of the longevity of handmade craftwork.
They begin by throwing a roll of clay onto a foot-powered wheel, built into the rock floor to provide stability. It takes just minutes for their steady arms and fingers to transform malleable clumps of mud into a shape recognized in every home on the planet. Once at its optimal height and uniform width, the jar (or pot, vase, or bowl) is ready to be left under Al Ahsa’s sun. After drying out, the extreme heat of the nearby kiln, fired with dried palm fronds, bakes the clay to its final composition. Traditionally unpainted, there are nevertheless more colorful options to suit personal preferences.
Watching the dexterity, patience and calmness on show, it’s hard not to be entranced by the meditative nature of the process. Here at one of the oldest pottery centers in Saudi Arabia, you’ll find an antidote to the fast and frenetic modern-day methods of mass-production.
The ceramic results of their skilled endeavors are vast, varied and vivid. Stacked on shelves and hanging from the ceilings, you’ll find everything from huge underground cooking pots known as mandi, traditional water coolers (zeer) and mabkhara incense burners. Vessels range in size, with hundreds of suitcase-friendly smaller pots and vases on offer for as little as SAR10 (about US$2.67).
Take a turn
Should you wish to try your hand at pottery making, and truly appreciate the finely honed skills involved, then you’re welcome to take a seat at the wheel. Dougha Handmade Pottery Factory opens between 8am and 7pm and individual visitors can request a display from the potters on arrival, though large groups should arrange tours in advance.