Uncovering Doha's Heritage Sites
Doha is a thriving, modern metropolis. The busy city is full of state-of-the-art, mind-blowing architecture, cloud-skimming skyscrapers, swish hotels, contemporary museums, a myriad of restaurants and cafes, and a host of vibrant green spaces and public artworks. It has an ultra-modern Metro system, brand-new five-lane highways, electric tram systems, marinas filled with yachts of every size, and watery bays busy with boats, jet skis and paddle boarders. It's a buzzing, stylish city full of people from all over the world, with a vast array of things to see and do. However, as modern as Doha is, there are still vestiges of the city's lively past all over the capital.
Doha was founded in the early 1800s and declared the country's capital when Qatar became independent over 150 years later, in 1971. Prior to its 'capital' status, Doha was an offshoot of Al Bidda, a neighbouring borough and the principal city and port on the east coast of Qatar during the 19th century. However, in the mid-1800s, the ruling family (the Al-Thani's) relocated to Doha, establishing the area's importance. Then, as the 20th century rolled around, the pearling trade in Doha grew, as did the number of inhabitants. Doha soon became more influential than Al Bidda. And, by the mid-1900s, with the discovery of oil and modernisation, Al Bidda had been swallowed by Doha.
The importance of Al Bidda, and then Doha, to trade and commerce during the 19th and early 20th centuries meant that the area was fortified with numerous forts and defensive structures. It also meant that it was the focal point of much of the country's skirmishes as the surrounding Gulf countries and the Ottomans fought for regional dominance, and the British fought for safe passage for goods travelling to the Far East. Indeed, Doha and Al Bidda were sacked and raised several times, overrun by pirates, and ruled by numerous leaders during the 1800s. Peace and the development of Qatar as a modern, international nation only began in the early to mid-1900s.
Doha's colourful history has left its mark on the city, one that the Qatari government has been keen to preserve for future generations. As a result, the capital has a multitude of heritage sites, from palaces, forts and government buildings to traditional marketplaces.
So, if you have an interest in history and would like to take a trip back in time, surrounded by the bright lights of the big city, check out the following attractions:
The following highlights some of Doha's best heritage sites:
Al Koot Fort
Al Koot Fort is a remnant of the Ottoman occupation of Qatar. The fort, located adjacent to Doha's traditional Arabian market, Souq Waqif, was built in the late 19th century by the Ottomans to serve as a police station and then a jail. When the Ottomans finally left Qatar at the beginning of the 20th century, the reigning Sheikh, Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani, repurposed the building as a military fortress to protect the souq.
The fort is built in the traditional style on a rectangular base with circular towers in three corners, a square tower in the last corner, and an open courtyard in the middle. Stairs lead from the yard up to the ramparts and towers. Numerous rooms underneath the ramparts, previously prison cells and barracks, can be entered from the courtyard, which has an open-air mosque in the centre.
The fort was renovated in the 1970s and has since become a museum showcasing historic photographs, paintings and products detailing traditional life in Doha. The museum is not often open to the public. However, if combined with a visit to Souq Waqif or the heritage museums of Msheireb, the fort is definitely worth visiting to admire the architecture.
Getting There and Away
Al Koot Fort is located in the heart of Doha, just off of the Corniche and adjacent to Souq Waqif on Jassim bin Mohammed Street. There is plenty of parking in the souq car park, but visitors can also arrive and depart via the Metro - the nearest station is the Souq Waqif Metro Station on the Gold Line.
Image: Fitria Ramli
While Souq Waqif is a new market constructed in the early 2000s, the venue was built to emulate the original Arabian bazaar on the same site. The original market, whose roots can be traced back to the 17th century, was once a meeting point for trade between Bedouins and local settlers. Since its construction, Souq Waqif has become one of the most popular places in the city for locals and guests to visit to experience Middle Eastern heritage and culture.
The market is a maze of alleyways, lined on either side by low-style traditional buildings, built using limestone and clay and housing shops selling an array of wares, from bright-coloured clothing and fabric to antiques, trinkets and traditional Persian handicrafts. Hidden amongst the alleyways, you can also find a Gold Souq, a spice market, a Falcon Souq, Oud shops, art galleries, a theatre and small cafes where Qatari gentlemen play Dama, a traditional Qatari board game. Along the main open-air strip through the souq, where the streets are wider, a myriad of cafes and restaurants, souvenir shops and boutique hotels can be found. And on the edges of the market, you can find camel and horse stables, a play park for children, shops selling local dates and honey, and an underground Novo cinema decked out in traditional Qatari style. There is also a central square for cultural events and activities - which often involve traditional singing, dancing and music.
You could easily spend hours at the souq, exploring the small passageways and shops and taking photographs of the beautiful architecture, public art installations, colourful fabrics and wares, and the melee of people. And there are plenty of places to sit and watch the world go by - benches line the main strip, and outdoor seating from cafes and restaurants spills out onto the streets and the square.
Getting There and Away
The souq, which sits adjacent to the Amiri Diwan on Abdullah Bin Jassim Street, is easily accessible by car or Metro. There is plenty of parking in the souq car park. The nearest Metro Station is the Souq Waqif Metro Station on the Gold Line
The souq is usually open Saturday to Thursday, 8 am – 12:30 pm, Friday, 3 – 10 pm and 3 – 10 pm.
The Old Palace
Image: Hasan Zaidi/Shutterstock.com
The Old Palace was constructed in the early 20th century to serve as the residence of Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani, a Governor of Qatar under Ottoman control. When the Ottoman finally left the country in 1915, the Sheikh moved his seat of government and residences to a now-vacant fort, the Qal'at al-Askar. The Qal'at al-Askar is known today as the Amiri Diwan. The Old Palace was eventually abandoned in the 1950s until it was converted into the Qatar National Museum in the mid-70s. However, as part of Doha's modernisation plans, a new museum was commissioned on the same site in 2010, including the restoration works for the Old Palace.
The Old Palace, renovated, as far as possible, using original materials and plans, is now located in the middle of the brand new state-of-the-art National Museum of Qatar. The museum, which opened in 2019, is designed to resemble a desert rose, a crystalline structure that forms in the desert. Its ultra-modern interlocking disks surround the old building, and the museum exhibits cleverly lead visitors through its galleries to the Palace courtyard. Originally built in the 1900s, this quiet and traditional structure now sits amid a modern building in a modern city, which is the essence of the museum's story - the tale of the country's past, present and future.
The palace consists of its original residences for the Sheikhs and their families, living quarters for guards, caretakers and gatehouse occupants, as well as two mejlises and a walled courtyard. The buildings are fitted out as they would have been centuries ago and give visitors an insight into the traditional lifestyles of the country's rulers.
Getting There and Away
The Old Palace can be accessed via the museum, which is located on Museum Park Street at the southern end of Doha's Corniche. There is plenty of parking on-site, though visitors can easily use the Metro via the National Museum Metro Station on the Gold Line.
The Nitty Gritty
The museum is open Saturday through Thursday, 9 am - 7 pm, and Friday, 1:30 pm - 7 pm. Entry to the museum is free for residents of Qatar and GCC countries, One Pass holders and children under 16 years. For non-residents, the entry fee is QAR 50 or QAR 25 for non-resident students.
Al Wajba Fort
Al Wajba Fort is located just outside Doha in Ar Rayyan and is one of the oldest surviving forts in Qatar. The fort, built to withstand armed attack, has solid outer walls constructed from limestone and clay, with four watchtowers (two circular and two square) in each corner of the fort's rectangular plan. The defences, built in the late 1800s, could accommodate a defensive force in up to twenty rooms located on the ground floor and in the upper reaches of each tower.
The fort remains an important heritage site in Qatar and has been restored several times. In its heyday, it was a residence of Sheikhs and one of the major sites associated with the battle of Al Wajbah. The battle, fought in 1893, was a pivotal moment in Qatari history as it eventually led to the country's independence. The rightful leader of Qatar, Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammed bin Thani, led his forces in a winning battle against the occupying Ottomans - the fort was crucial to the resistance, holding off the Ottoman forces under attack.
The fort is currently closed to the public, but if combined with a visit to the heritage museum of Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani, it is worth visiting to soak up the atmosphere.
Getting There and Away
Al Wajba Fort is easily accessible via car, heading west out of Doha on Al Rayyan Road. At the Education City Golf Club junction, visitors should leave Al Rayyan Road to the left, then right onto Al Annabi Street and Al Niser Street. The fort, which is 15 km from the city centre, lies just past Doha College and takes around 20 minutes to reach.
Image: Philip Lange/Shutterstock.com
Barzan Towers are 19th-century watchtowers located at Doha's northern border in Umm Salal Mohammed. The two towers, constructed from coral, limestone, mud and a gypsum-based plaster, with walls over a metre thick, stand at a height of 14 m. The western tower was reportedly built first, in the early 1900s, as part of an existing fortified defence made in the 1800s. The fortifications were erected to protect the local water source - a valuable commodity in the desert!
The western tower, considered unique to the Gulf region, is three floors high and has a distinctive 'T' shape, with reinforced corner buttresses. The eastern tower, equally as tall but an addition to the site in the 1950s, is similar to the western tower but has a rectangular shape distinct in Qatar. Due to the unusual height - the towers are taller than normal regional fortifications - it is also thought that astronomical observations were made from the towers to track the moon and determine the lunar calendar.
The tower site, restored in 2014, incorporates the two towers, a mosque and a reception room for guests in a garden full of native flora. Visitors can climb to the top of the watchtowers and admire the bird's eye views of northern Doha.
Getting There and Away
Barzan Towers are located approximately 22 km north of Doha's centre on Barzan Street adjacent to Al Shamal Road. The site is easily accessible by car or taxi. Visitors should head north via the Doha Expressway to Al Shamal Road, leaving the highway to the left just after Doha Festival City and IKEA. The towers are signposted.
The Nitty Gritty
The towers are open to guests on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday, 9 am - 5 pm, and Friday, 12:30 - 5 pm. Entrance is free.
If you are able to travel further than Doha's city limits, Qatar has a host of other heritage sites to uncover. For more information, check out our Exploring Qatar's Archaeological Heritage on the Coast article.
Main image: Farisalali/Shutterstock.com
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