Qatar’s reserves of oil and gas have made it one of the richest countries in the world, and now it is upping its cultural cachet as well. A year ago the country opened the internationally acclaimed Museum of Islamic Art on a manmade island close to the harbor in Doha, the capital. This is the first of several museum projects planned by the ruling Al-Thani family, whose aim is to transform this once sleepy pearl-fishing village into a leading international cultural center. Another one of the Al-Thanis’ projects, the Qatar Foundation’s Education City, features architecturally avant-garde outposts of international universities and schools—Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, Northwestern—all intended to provide top education to Qataris and children of the vast expatriate community.
The museum itself, the latest work by architect I. M. Pei, is made of off-white French limestone from Burgundy that changes hue according to the light and the time of day. Two wings separated by a courtyard of elegant arches represent the two sides of the project: culture and education. The landmark building balances modern architecture with traditional Islamic forms, drawing particular inspiration from the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo. The museum showcases an internationally significant collection of works displayed on two levels: one arranged thematically (divided into sections for pattern, calligraphy, science, and so forth); the other, chronologically, taking viewers on a journey through the various Islamic dynasties, with sumptuous galleries dedicated to Syria and Egypt, the Mughals in India, and, finally, the Ottomans. The collection includes many treasures that alone are worth the trip to Qatar, among them a splendid manuscript of the Hindu epic the Ramayana, commissioned by the Mughal emperor Akbar for his mother; a chessboard carpet reputed to have belonged to Central Asian warrior Timur (known in the West as Tamerlane); and some of the oldest known pages of the Qur’an, written a few dozen years after the death of the Prophet Mohamed. The museum is developing local and global audiences through strategic cultural partnerships. In November, for instance, the inaugural Doha TriBeCa Film Festival, a collaboration with the New York original, will mount a parallel presentation in Doha, featuring 40 films and special events.
The museum is located just off Doha’s Corniche, a crescent-shaped four-mile arc of seaside road that starts near the airport and finishes downtown. This is the place where all Qataris walk and refresh themselves in the sea air. At its northerly end is the Four Seasons Hotel Doha, a lavish hotel and spa whose Library Bar is a refuge for cocktail lovers. At the southerly end, a bit inland, is the Ritz-Carlton Sharq Village and Spa, laid out as a traditional Qatari village with mud-built houses surrounding courtyards and gardens. Each building contains several rooms around an inner court and fountains, re-creating the manner in which local homes are designed to help residents withstand the desert heat. Although high on charm and with a sensitively designed Six Senses Spa, the proximity of the hotel to the airport might grate on one’s nerves, as overhead planes are a regular feature. Besides the Four Seasons and Sharq Village hotels, alternatives are La Cigale, with its extraordinary gourmet food shop, and the Ramada Plaza Doha, which contains Chingari, one of the most famous Indian restaurants in the Middle East.
The palm grove midway along the Corniche is known as Rumeila (or Al-Bidda) Park, and it houses a working model of a traditional Qatari village. There weavers, goldsmiths, carpenters, and shipwrights take pride in describing bygone customs and manners, and a tawash, or pearl fisherman, explains the trade on which the local economy was once based. It is still possible to buy natural Gulf pearls at jewelry shops on Al Sadd Street, but the best place to get them is the Al Fardan Center, which carries one of the world’s largest reserves of natural pearls.
For dinner along the Corniche, the Al Mourjan is the choice. It serves Middle Eastern specialties and provides a chance to smoke a shisha, the traditional water pipe enjoyed throughout the region. Al Bandar, meanwhile, is one of a number of local restaurants and cafés in the atmospheric Souk Waqif, Doha’s old market. It sits a few blocks inland from the Corniche and has been sympathetically reconstructed to give a late-19th-century flavor, with vernacular woodwork and mud-plastered walls. The souk bustles with textile shops selling traditional clothes, incense and fragrances, and local crafts. As in Dubai, there are also specialized markets for gold, textiles, and food. Perhaps the most intriguing is the Bird Souk, where shops remind visitors of the chivalric culture of falcon hunting, a noble sport important to the region. It’s best visited from Thursday through Sunday, when it has evening hours.
All this activity makes the Corniche area quite busy. To ease congestion, a new part of Doha called West Bay has recently been developed. As part of the project, Doha is working off the Dubai model, creating an artificial island complex of its own, the Pearl-Qatar, and billing it as an ideal living community, complete with canals, a marina, and luxury hotels. For quite some time, one could see billboards all over the city proclaiming “Venice is now in Qatar.”
Guide to Doha
Four Seasons Hotel Doha Rooms, from $467. Corniche Rd., West Bay; 974-4/948-888; fourseasons.com
La Cigale Rooms, from $220. 60 Suhaim Bin Hamad St., 974-4/288-888; lacigalehotel.com
Ramada Plaza Doha Rooms, from $190. Salwa Rd.; 974-4/281-428; ramadaplazadoha.com
Ritz-Carlton Sharq Village and Spa Rooms, from $385. Ras Abou Abboud; 974-4/256-666; sharqvillage.com
Al Bandar Dinner, $20. Souk Waqif; 974-4/311-818; albandarrestaurant.com
Al Mourjan Dinner, $75. Balhambar Bldg., Corniche Rd.; 974-4/483-4423; almourjanrest.com
Al Fardan Center Grand Hamad St.; 974-4/408-408; alfardan.com.qa
Doha TriBeCa Film Festival October 29–November 1, 2009; dohatribecafilm.com
Museum of Islamic Art Corniche Rd.; 947-4/224-444; mia.org.qa
Rumeila (Al-Bidda) Park Corniche Rd.
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