Once sparsely inhabited by nomadic Bedouin, Qatar is now home to more than 2.5 million people, with permanent tourism, art and architecture communities. Where once there were no large buildings, the Doha skyline today is a line of skyscrapers representing the most modern of aesthetics.
But despite its growth and prosperity, Qatar hasn’t let go of its traditions and culture, evident in all facets of Qatari life. Everywhere you turn, a blend of Bedouin traditions, soaring modern art, striking architecture, and sustainable ingenuity provides a rich cultural experience.
With the World Cup coming to the country in 2022, even football stadiums are getting into the act. The games will be held in arenas with striking modern designs, where lavish, yet traditional motifs abound and games are already being played. There’s even a football stadium made completely of shipping containers, that can be taken apart and reassembled after the match.
You will be stunned by the way the new has been integrated with the old so perfectly they become one – featuring both uber-modern buildings and historical sites, a rich contemporary art scene and iconic masterpieces.
National Museum of Qatar
The showcase of the country’s art and architecture scene is undoubtedly the spectacular National Museum of Qatar. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning French architect Jean Nouvel, the NMoQ symbolizes Qatar’s deep relationship with the desert, its flora and fauna and the country’s traditions. The façade of the NMoQ is inspired by the desert rose, an aggregate of minerals that emerges from the desert when the wind, sand and saltwater combine and take on a flower-like look. Each curved disc, angle and intersection of the building’s design is unique – a tangle of visual elements that evokes feelings of wonder.
Inside, the museum tells the story of Qatar and its people as three different ‘chapters’: Beginnings, Life in Qatar and Building the Nation. A walk through the museum follows a route through interactive exhibits, artwork, music and storytelling, and culminates at the old palace of Sheikh Abdullah Bin Jassim Al Thani. The museum is built around this restored palace, where Qatar’s third ruler governed from 1913 to 1949.
You’ll learn about desert life and the animals that thrive here, and get a sense of their significance in Qatar’s history. You’ll catch a glimpse of Qatar’s prehistoric background, and see artifacts from sites such as Al Jassasiya, Murwab and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Al Zubarah Fort and learn how they fit into the history of Qatar. Most of all you’ll discover the context behind the powerful forces driving Qatar into a new era.
Museum of Islamic Art
Nearby is another iconic Doha masterpiece, the Museum of Islamic Art, which epitomizes cultural traditions and Islamic beauty. The MIA was designed by famed architect I. M. Pei, known for creating the glass pyramid at the Louvre in Paris, and he was persuaded to come out of retirement for the project. Not wanting to use any of the sites proposed for the museum, Pei built the museum on a standalone island on the Corniche, so no one could ever encroach on its grandeur.
Pei’s design was inspired by an ablution fountain in the 9th-century Mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo. The MIA combines that structure’s traditional design with the opulence of later Islamic architecture. The interior exudes as much grandeur as the exterior, with subtle geometric patterns that have been part of Islamic art for centuries – it’s believed the patterns conjure a sense of unending repetition, which in turn represents the infinite nature of Allah.
The five floors of the museum house a collection of Islamic art that spans centuries. Each exhibit is specially curated to help visitors gain insight into the Islamic culture.
One of the best and most beautiful green spaces along the Doha waterfront is the Museum of Islamic Art Park, where you’ll find American artist Richard Serra’s monumental 7 sculpture. The artwork consists of seven steel plates soaring 78ft in the air – the tallest public art installation in Qatar – and is a celebration of the spiritual and scientific significance of the number seven in Islamic and Arab culture.
The number seven is the first number to be mentioned in the Holy Quran, and the second most repeated number after One. Tradition has Muslims circle around the Holy Kaaba in Mecca’s Al Masjid Al Haram mosque seven times, run seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwah and stone Satan seven times during the Hajj or Umrah. In addition, there are said to be seven layers to an atom, seven heavens, seven gates to hell, seven colors in the rainbow, seven days in a week, seven layers of the atmosphere and seven skies in the universe which are mentioned seven times in the Holy Quran. Hence, the number 7 is manifest almost everywhere you look, and immortalized in Richard Serra’s 7 sculpture.
Not far away is Folded Extracted Personified by British artist Liam Gillick. This fun art installation is made up of 10 different structures with irregular shapes and abstract images of some of the art you will find in the Museum of Islamic Art – poke your head through the holes in the structures and have your picture taken, like you would at an amusement park or circus. Each piece is different, yet each evokes a feeling of happiness and return to innocence.
MIA Park is adjacent to Qatar’s well-known Museum of Islamic Art, and is a lush green expanse made up of hills and surrounded by trees where you’ll often see families enjoying a day out. There are two main playgrounds side-by-side, one for older children and the other for younger children and toddlers. Bikes and animals aren’t allowed in the area, and barbecues, swimming, fishing and open fires are also prohibited.
Msheireb Downtown and the Doha skyline
Msheireb Downtown is one of Qatar’s newest destinations, billing itself as one of the world’s first sustainable downtown regeneration projects. Doha’s old downtown hub has been reimagined and engineered into a planned, contemporary architectural wonder that maintains some traditional elements while redefining urban luxury living. With different quarters dedicated to residential buildings, retail, heritage and business, this mega-development shows off the most forward-thinking technologies of our time.
As the country’s latest hangout place, you’ll find some lovely eclectic cafes and restaurants that are a must-try – like Trapani (Italian), EL&N (British), Liang (Chinese), Sora (Japanese), Nourlaya (Sri Lankan) and Saasna (Qatari).
Msheireb also is home to the Doha Design District, a showcase for local, regional and international designers.
Nearby is Msheireb Museums, made up of four traditional Qatari houses, each with a different story, where traditional living and culture have been preserved in a bid to show the world how Qatar grew from its humble beginnings to become a fast-growing economy.
The Bin Jelmood house is named after its former owner Mohammed Jelmood and provides an insight into slavery before Islam, how the advent of Islam in the region eventually abolished it and how, today, Qatar stands against exploitation and human trafficking. The 1920’s-era Radwani House gives an insightful glimpse into how family life in Qatar was connected and evolved over the decades, before and after the discovery of oil, and the arrival of electricity. Company House was once the office of Qatar’s first oil company and tells the story of the pioneer workers and their families that laid the foundation of Qatar’s petroleum industry and were responsible for Qatar’s rapid transformation and prosperity.
Finally, Mohammed Bin Jassim House was constructed by the son of Qatar’s founder Sheikh Mohammed Bin Jassim Al-Thani. Today, this house is a museum to Qatari history and Msheireb Downtown Doha’s commitment to sustainability. Journey through the story of the area, find out how the narrow sikka alleyways were transformed when houses were built on both sides, and how they converged onto a baraha (an open-air town square), paving the way for Qatar’s first hotel and its first bank.
While you’re exploring the area, don’t forget to look up. The buildings that adorn the Doha skyline tower over the city’s West Bay and are innovative in their architectural design. Look for Nouvel’s award-winning Doha Tower, which stands tall and bold, reflecting Islamic and traditional culture with its geometric-patterned facade. The Tornado Tower, built in 2008, is an awe-inspiring, futuristic, hourglass-shaped landmark that recalls a whirlwind and is designed to depict the progress of Qatar. The hexagon-shaped Palm Tower looks like a palm tree made of glass and signifies sturdiness and the ability to survive in harsh desert conditions. Close by is the Barzan Tower, the perfect fusion of Qatar’s traditional style and modern architecture. Near the ground it features concrete arches and traditional domes and shapes, but as the building rises, these forms give way to a contemporary vision in the form of modernist glass.
Katara Cultural Village
When it comes to architecture imbued with the culture of Qatar, you can’t miss the Katara Cultural Village, where each structure has been molded to evoke Qatar’s traditional heritage. The bird tower, with its mud façade, is reminiscent of the way buildings were constructed in the past, and it’s one of the most photographed landmarks in Katara. The epitome of early Qatari architecture, in the olden days it would have housed pigeons whose droppings were used as fertilizer.
Next to it is the spectacular Blue Mosque, decorated with purple, blue and golden Persian and Turkish tiles and inspired by Istanbul’s Dolmabahçe Palace and Blue Mosque, as well as other mosques from around the world. Non-Muslim visitors are welcome inside when it’s not prayer time, but videos and photography are not allowed. The same is true for the nearby Golden Mosque, which is smaller than the Blue Mosque but is no less spectacular. Its golden exterior shines and gleams in the sparkling sun.
Murals on several buildings in the district depict the traditions of Qatar, and when you walk through the alleyways – known in Arabic as “Al Fereej” – on the way to the Greek-inspired Amphitheatre, you’ll feel like you’re in an old Qatari marketplace.
The Pearl is a visual treat for architecture enthusiasts. An eclectic mix of high-rise luxury residential and retail towers house well-known international retail brands and restaurants. It was built on what was once a pearl-diving site and is designed to resemble a string of pearls, commemorating the area’s former industry. The marina, nicknamed the “Arabian Riviera,” is lined with luxury yachts giving a Mediterranean feel. Many restaurants and cafes overlook the marina, so enjoy a bite to eat before you leave Qatar’s most luxurious address.
The Qanat Quartier is another part of this elegant district. You’ll feel like you’re in Europe with its multi-colored buildings and canal at its center. This part of The Pearl is its most Instagrammable, and it’s dotted with restaurants and cafes that exude ambience. While you’re there, make some music on the piano stairs – a flight of steps marked like the keys on a keyboard, which light up and chime with the corresponding note when stepped on. It’s one of the unique features in this vibrant part of Doha and a favorite for children especially.
Education City Mosque, and Mathaf
Fall in love with the luxuriously designed Education City Mosque, with its traditional feel but contemporary style. The five calligraphed minarets signify the five pillars of Islam, and evoke a sense of peace. The contemporary design of the mosque depicts the relationship between Islam and modernity.
The mosque opens onto the Quranic Botanic Garden where you’ll find plants and trees mentioned in the Quran, and others native to Qatar. The garden was designed to signify the relationship between architecture and Islamic art and focuses on harmony, as well as maintaining and preserving plant diversity from around the world.
While you’re in the Education City area make sure to visit Mathaf, the Arab Museum of Modern Art. Its simple structure and maze-like layout features two floors and 10 themed galleries. Its exquisite collection of Arabian art has thought-provoking and visually appealing pieces that range from the 19th century to today. This gallery now has more than 9000 pieces, making it the world’s largest specialized collection of its kind.
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