Doha, Qatar – In the blue green waters of the Arabian (Persian) Gulf lies a hard to miss building in its own island. Standing out with its geometric shapes and sandy color, the Museum of Islamic Art Qatar is truly one of Doha’s icons and a must-see even if you’re only on a short layover.
Next to Souq Waqif, it was one of Doha’s landmarks that I was excited to see and explore when I was a newbie expat in this Gulf country. Thanks to my friend, I got to visit a few days after arriving in Qatar.
Museum of Islamic Art Qatar: an architectural masterpiece
Designed by the renowned architect I.M. Pei, famous for his Louvre pyramid, there was something innately pleasing outside and inside the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) that satisfies my need for symmetry.
The Chinese-American architect was actually coaxed out of retirement to work on the four-year project. He was 91 at that time. How cool is that, eh?
Unveiled to the public in 2008, the stark silhouette of the museum makes it look like a fortress from a distance. It is said that Pei’s inspirations for the museum are historic fortresses and mosques around the Arab world.
Looking like cubes formed into a pyramid, the limestone structure’s sandy colors stand out amidst Doha’s skyscrapers and the waters surrounding it. There is even water in the inner courtyard, and along the stone stairs double lined with palm trees. Which also leads you to the fountain in front of the geometric building.
Impressed by the solid exteriors with minimal windows, my jaw dropped at the more dramatic internal geometry. The atrium was built in such a way that you have no other choice but to look up and marvel at the fusion of Modernist geometry and Islamic architecture.
The entrance is parallel to the high glass windows giving a framed view of Doha’s skyline. At the pinnacle is the metal clad geometric dome prevalent in Islamic architecture. While at the center of it all is the circular chandelier made of filigree metal. It looks like a halo supported by metal strings.
To get to the upper floors, one can take the elevators or the more dramatic white double staircase highlighted by the Islamic geometric pattern on the floor.
Museum of Islamic Art Qatar: permanent galleries
Two floors are dedicated to the permanent collections of the museum. The masterpieces displayed span three continents and represent religious and secular Islamic art from 7th to 19th century.
Visitors can see textiles, ceramics, enamel works, glass, manuscripts, books, metal works, carved wood works, carpets, and scientific inventions.
The items are displayed with ample space in between each artifact, making sure that each one is highlighted accordingly. Although some parts of the galleries can be quite dark at times, there is enough lighting so as to inspect every facet of each masterpiece. The glass cases seem to be non-reflective as well.
Museum of Islamic Art Qatar: Treasures of China
Aside from the permanent collections on display, the 4th floor is where the Temporary Exhibitions are displayed while the Special Exhibitions Gallery is on the first level. One such exhibition was the “Treasures of China” displayed in the museum’s Special Exhibitions Gallery from September 6, 2016, to January 7, 2017.
The highlight of this exhibition was one of special interest to me. As an avid lover of history, the famous Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin was one of the treasures of China that I used to see in documentaries. To see it in real life, in Doha of all places, was such a sweet surprise!
The Mausoleum of the First Emperor Qin is one of the greatest archaeological discoveries in the world. Together with the five clay soldiers (one of which is a horse), were more than a hundred other artifacts from the Neolithic age to the Qing dynasty of Ancient China. Some of the items displayed are pottery, bronze sculptures gold and silver jewels, and enamel work. Few of these are imperial court art from the Forbidden City. These are brought to Qatar as part of a cultural exchange program with China.
MIA Cafe and IDAM Restaurant
Facing the tall glass windows overlooking Doha’s skyline is the indoor cafe of the museum. The black and white theme is dominant in the furnishings, and the centerpiece is the black and gold fountain. Looking through the windows, visitors are rewarded with views of the city beyond the waters of the gulf.
The cafe offers a fusion of French and Arabic food based on the Healthy Food Initiative Programme.
At the 5th floor of the museum lies Chef Alain Ducasse’s first restaurant in the Middle East. Like MIA Cafe, IDAM serves French food with a touch of the influence of Middle East albeit haute cuisine.
Both MIA Cafe and IDAM are designed by French designer and architect, Philippe Starck.
Museum of Islamic Art Park
What makes the museum even more entertaining is the park adjacent to it. Dubbed as MIA Park, this green space overlooking the Persian Gulf and Doha skyline is a place where locals and expats frequently go to. The rows of palm trees lining the crescent shaped area offer a bit of shade from the heat of the sun.
For families, there are playgrounds for different age groups of kids. There’s even a bungee trampoline which is popular with the older kids. Bicycles are also available for rent.
During the winter season, it is not unusual to see families and friends enjoying a picnic in the grounds of MIA Park.
Near the end of the park is MIA Park Cafe which offers a great view of the skyline while lounging on artsy chairs. The cafe offers drinks as well as snack foods like crepe, waffles, shawarma, sandwich, etc.
During Friday mornings, it is not unusual to see lots of people dancing Zumba in this area.
7 by Richard Serra
At the harbor front of the C-shaped MIA Park extending into the gulf waters lies an 80-foot steel structure by American sculptor Richard Serra. Seven rusted steel plates that form a heptagon when viewers look up, which celebrates the importance of the number seven in Islam.
Inspired by a minaret in Afghanistan, this structure is Serra’s tallest work up to date.
The beams have openings where visitors can enter. At night, it is quite eerie especially since the inside is not lighted up.
Museum of Islamic Art Park Bazaar
An open air market every Fridays and Saturdays during the winter season is held at the park in front of the museum. Stalls operated by locals and expats sell handicraft, accessories, paintings, clothing, food, jewelry, photography, and artworks.
Museum of Islamic Art Qatar Info
How to get to MIA from Hamad International Airport
If you don’t have a rental car, you can take the taxi or Uber from the airport. It is around 15 minutes drive.
Museum Of Islamic Art Qatar Opening Times
- Sunday, Monday, Wednesday 10:30 am to 5:30 pm
- Thursday, Saturday 12 pm to 8 pm
- Friday 2 pm to 8 pm
- Tuesday – CLOSED
*Update Oct 2017: Starting October 2, opening times are: Sat to Thu 9 am – 7 pm; Fri 1:30 pm – 7 pm
Free Guided Tours – Every Thursday and Saturday at 2 pm. Duration: 40 mins. Language: English & Arabic
Dress code: Conservative
Other available facilities: reception/information booth, prayer room, cloakroom, gift shop, ATM, auditorium, library, and education center
Photography rules: no flash photography or tripods in the galleries
Free Chamber Concert every month by the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra at the Atrium
More information about Qatar Museums here.
MIA Cafe operating hours
- same as museum
IDAM operating hours
- closed on Monday, Tuesday, Friday
- Lunch: Wed, Thu, Sat, Sun 12:30 pm – 3 pm
- Dinner: Wed to Sun 7 pm – 10 pm
For reservation: +974 4422 4488 / IDAM@qm.org.qa
Operating hours: open 24 hours
Prohibited activities: Swimming, fishing, bbq, animals, open fires, dangerous activities, smoking in café seating areas, littering
Dress code: Conservative
*Update (Oct 2017): Cycle rentals will be operating again, daily from 4 PM to midnight. Bikes for both children and adults. Hourly rate: 30 QAR | Rental booth near the carousel | Closed on Tuesdays
MIA PARK BAZAAR
When: Every Friday and Saturday (usually winter time until before Ramadan)
Time: Fri 3 pm to 8 pm; Sat 12 noon to 8 pm
Venue: MIA Park
*UPDATE (Oct 2017): At the end of October 2017, MIA Park will host food trucks which are all run by local entrepreneurs!
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