QATAR : An Enchanting Fusion of Tradition and Modernity
This seafaring nation was famous for pearl diving, fishing and trading. Buckle up for an eye-opening adventure as ASIAN Geographic uncovers the multidimensional beauty of Qatar.
This seafaring nation was famous for pearl diving, fishing and trading. Buckle up for an eye-opening adventure as ASIAN Geographic uncovers the multidimensional beauty of Qatar
In this age of Internet memes, anything distinctive and memorable can be repeated ad nauseum until it turns into a stereotype or common joke. Just as some people think of Singapore as one huge shopping mall made up mostly of the Marina Bay Sands, mere mention of Middle Eastern countries such as Qatar often conjure up visions of hot, dry deserts and camels. It couldn’t be further from the truth. Located in Western Asia on the northeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, the State of Qatar is situated on the Qatar Peninsula, which extends out from the Arabian Peninsula approximately 160 kilometres north into the Arabian Gulf with its border with Saudi Arabia serving as its only land link to the Arabian Peninsula. Unlike its more landlocked cousins on the Arabian Peninsula, Qatar is a nation of sea-faring people who counted on fishing, pearlhunting and trade for sustenance before
the discovery of oil transformed the country into the nation with the highest per-capita income in the world. In fact, the sea is depicted in the Qatar emblem with traditional Qatari boats called dhows appearing in it as well. Like Singapore, Qatar is a thriving metropolis that infuses the modernity of 21st-century Western architecture with its own cultural traditions, from the intricate Islamic non-figurative art found in its buildings to traditional garments, spices and shisha lounges still found in vibrant markets rich in Bedouin culture.
“Qatar is a thriving metropolis that infuses the modernity of 21st-century Western architecture with its own cultural traditions”
1. Souq Waqif
Exploring street markets and bazaars is one of the best ways to get to know more about a country’s culture. One of the most authentic Arabian markets in the Gulf, Souq Waqif (Arabic: Sūq Wāqif, “the standing market”) offers visitors one of the best ways to experience shopping in Qatar. Home to dozens of restaurants and shisha lounges, Souq Waqif is the place to head to if you want to buy traditional garments, spices, handicrafts, souvenirs, have a good meal or just relax in a shisha lounge. Located in Doha, the capital of Qatar, this vibrant market (or souq, as it’s known locally) is situated near the city’s waterfront and is almost 100 years old. At the height of its existence, foreign traders and nomadic Bedouins from miles away in the desert would travel to Doha to buy and sell items such as fish, goats and wool. However, as time passed and Doha developed, the souq fell into disrepair and was overtaken by shopping malls and newer shopping options. In 2016, Souq Waqif was lovingly restored to its traditional architectural style with funding from Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifah al Thani and his wife Sheikha Moza bint Nasser. The designers demolished modern buildings while insulating the remaining ones from extreme desert heat with traditional methods using locally sourced wood and bamboo from Asia. By restoring old buildings like the Bismillah Hotel, the Souq has been restored to its former glory.
Five Things to Look Out For at Souq Waqif
Spices were as valuable as gold in antiquity as traders from all across Asia and Europe travelled by sea or along the Silk Road to get their hands on spices. Here at the souq, you can find spices such as thyme, coriander, mint, turmeric, chilli, cumin and many more wafting aromatically through the air.
2) Textile/Traditional Garments/ Carpets From scarves and tailor-made robes, to beautifully embroidered cloaks and traditional agals that Qatari men wear to keep their headgear (karffiyeh) in place, there’s no shortage of clothes, traditional garments, textiles and carpets you can buy. Haggling is a must and be sure to have cash as most shops don’t accept credit cards.
3) Gold All that glitters is gold. Whether it’s diamonds, pearls, gold or other precious stones you’re interested in, there is a maze of local shops in the Gold Souq, just off the main area of Souq Waqif, specialising in local and imported jewellery. All gold jewellery sold in Qatar has a government stamp ensuring its purity. Most items are priced by weight and the price of gold that day.
4) Food/Kunafeh Get a traditional crepe from one of the skilful lady street vendors. Available in sweet or savoury varieties, it’s a great snack on the go. If you’re interested in a two-level restaurant offering the tastiest Arabic delicacies from Syria and the Levant, head to Damasca One (Mon–Thu, Sat 9am–1am, Fri 1–11pm). Those who love Iranian food can eat under beautiful chandeliers at Shebestan Palace (Sat–Thu noon–midnight,
Fri 1pm–1am) and lovers of the tajine
should head to the many roof terraces to try the delectable Moroccan cuisine. A must-eat is the kunafeh – a delectable Turkish dessert made of tiny baked strands of vermicelli (from phyllo or semolina flour) like a large pancakesized dragon beard candy, or putu mayam, with pistachios layered on top, cheese in between and glorious honey soaked through the crispy noodle pastry. We recommend Al Aker (9am– 12am every day) for one of the best kunafeh around.
5) Buy Souvenirs at Bargain Prices What’s a vacation without some bargain hunting for cheap souvenirs? From intricate handicrafts, leather items and beautiful lamps to classic souvenirs such as Arab dallah (coffee pots), there’s lots on offer at Souq Waqif.
“Haggling is a must and be sure to have cash as most shops don’t accept credit cards.”
2. Cultural Village of Katara
One of the “must-see” attractions in Qatar, the Cultural Village of Katara was constructed to serve as the beacon of Qatar’s art and culture scene. The largest and most multidimensional cultural project in Qatar, the Katara Cultural Village has meandering passages, waterways and spaces for artists, filmmakers and photographers. Located between Doha’s central West Bay Area and The Pearl, Qatar’s artificial island spanning four square kilometres, the Katara transports visitors to the golden age of Qatar’s past from the moment you enter its grounds. From the beautiful plants and lawn, and the intricate doors and window frames on its short buildings to the Greek-inspired open-air amphitheatre with distinctively traditional Arabian features, the Katara Cultural Village transports you to a calmer state of mind. Totally free of charge, Katara has dozens of galleries and venues hosting the creative works of local and international artists, including an opera house, art studios, drama theatres and a cinema for film screenings. It also hosts several trademark events every year including an annual European Jazz Festival, the Traditional Dhow Festival in November showcasing Qatar’s
rich maritime heritage and folkloric performance as well. The village is named after “Catara”, the first and most ancient name designated for the Qatar Peninsula in geographic and historical maps found in 150 AD. The Qatar government’s decision to revive the use of Qatar’s olden name is to “uphold its connection to its ancient heritage and to honour Qatar’s distinguished position since the dawn of history”. Besides the Valley and Children’s Mall, the 1.5-kilometre Katara Beach also offers a wide variety of water sports including water skiing, wakeboarding, kneeboarding, parasailing, boat rides, canoeing, fishing and kayaking. There are also dhow rides from 5pm to 10pm daily at the beach. Visitors need to pay to access the beaches. However, Beach 4 is free for families from Thursday to Saturday.
3. Sand Dune Bashing at Khor Al Adaid
One of the perks of going to a country with a desert is the ability to go dune bashing. Speeding up and down sand dunes in a sports utility vehicle is probably the most exciting and unique experience you can have in Qatar. Known as the “Inland Sea”, Khor Al Adaid is a major natural attraction located near the border with Saudi Arabia. A UNESCO-recognised natural reserve with its own ecosystem, Khor Al Adaid is essentially a creek flanked by silvery crescents of sand (or “barchan” in Arabic), and as such, it is one of the few places in the world where the sea encroaches deep into the heart of the desert. You can spend a night in a tent here, or just go for a half day or full day of dune bashing in a dune buggy or on a quad bike, or try your hand at sandboarding.
“The architectural design of the Museum of Islamic Art draws much influence from ancient Islamic architecture.”
4. Museum of Islamic Art Considered the most important cultural landmark in Qatar, the Museum of Islamic Art showcases Islamic art from three continents over a period of 1,400 years. Designed by iconic Pritzker Prize-winning architect, the late I.M. Pei, the architectural design of the Musuem of Islamic Art draws much influence from ancient Islamic architecture, notably the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo. The museum was built on a reclaimed island as Pei suggested that it be built on a standalone island so that no new buildings would obstruct it. Located just off the Doha Corniche, the waterfront promenade along Doha Bay, the museum was built to preserve Qatar’s deep heritage as it continues to evolve as an urban regional metropolis at the forefront of global trends. An unparalleled glimpse into Qatar’s history and culture, the museum boasts an impressive collection of ceramics, glass, metalwork, manuscripts and textiles dating back to the seventh century. Housing both permanent and temporary galleries, the museum also offers activities for young adults such as Behind-The-Scenes tours, Thursday Late Tours and workshops for creating your own artworks and even a Majlis Book Club (available in Arabic and English) discussing books about Islamic Art, Museums or Arabic History.
5. National Museum of Qatar
Housed in a new architectural masterpiece by Jean Nouvel, the National Museum of Qatar (NMoQ) tells the story of Qatar through a 1.5 kilometre circuit featuring 11 permanent galleries. The galleries take visitors from the formation of the Qatar Peninula millions of years ago to the nation’s exciting and diverse present through a special combination of architectural space, music, poetry, oral histories, evocative aromas, archaeological and heritage objects, commissioned artworks, monumentally-scaled art films, and more.
More than 52,000 square metres in size, the NMoQ showcases the restored historic Palace of Sheike Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani (18801957), son of the founder of modern Qatar, as its centrepiece.
The building’s design was inspired by the “desert rose”, a flower-like formation that occurs naturally in the Gulf region when minerals crystallise in the crumbly soil just below the surface of a shallow salt basin. The desert rose became the model for the museum’s complex structure of large interlocking disks of different diameters and curvatures which surround the historic palace like a necklace. The cantilevered disks, which provide natural shade, are among the elements of the design that have enabled NMoQ to become the first museum to receive both LEED Gold certification and a four-star sustainability rating from the Global Sustainability Assessment System.
6. Zubarah Fort
If you love Raiders of the Lost Ark, you have to visit Zubarah Fort and Al Zubarah town. Recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, the walled coastal town of Al Zubarah was a pearling and trading centre in the late 18th and early 19th century. Mostly destroyed in 1811, it was abandoned in the mid-20th century and was gradually buried by sandstorms. Today, Al Zubarah town has been turned into an archaeological site. It is one of the largest and best preserved examples of a 18th–19th century merchant town in the Arabian Gulf. The town is also home to Zubarah Fort, which was originally built in 1938 by Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani as a coast guard station. Located on the northwestern coast of the Qatar Peninsula in the Madinat ash Shamal municipality, about 100 kilometres from Doha, Zubarah Fort, which was named after the town, has been transformed into a museum to display findings in the nearby Al Zubarah archaeological area.
Flanked by massive one-metre thick walls on each side with large circular towers on three of its four corners, the eight soldiers’ quarters on the ground floor of the fort now house an exhibition of exquisite pottery and archaeological findings from
Al Zubarah town.
With the remains of the town comprising palaces, mosques, streets, courtyard houses, fishermen’s huts and more, Zubarah Fort and Al Zubarah town offer visitors an amazing glimpse into the early development of Qatar and provide once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunities. ag
November to early April when it’s cooler. The cooler temperatures allow for sightseeing and outdoor activities across the country and is considered peak season in Qatar. Avoid June to September when temperatures are very hot with minimum rainfall. Note that the working week in Qatar is from Sunday to Thursday with Friday and Saturday being weekly holidays.
There are daily flights connecting Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong to Qatar directly via the award-winning Qatar Airways. Qatar Airways covers more than 140 destinations worldwide including the Middle East, Europe, Africa, Asia, Australasia and North and South America. Hamad International Airport is located just south of Doha. Taxi transfer time to the city centre is about 30 minutes.
MAIN Souq Waqif is one of the most authentic Arabian markets
BOTTOM Richard Serra’s sculpture “East-West/ West-East” – a set of four standing steel plates – in Zekreet
ABOVE At the Gold Souq within Souq Waqif, there are numerous shops selling imported and local jewellery
LEFT Visitors can take dhow rides from 5pm to 10pm at Katara Beach
MAIN The Museum of Islamic Art is built on a reclaimed island
BELOW The National Museum of Qatar is comprised of 11 galleries