- Our friend Charne told us that whatever we do while we’re in Doha, we mustn’t miss the new Museum of Islamic Art that opened in 2008. The museum is a flagship project of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, the emir of Qatar, who has brought together Islamic artefacts from across three continents and dating back more than 1,000 years. Built on an artificial island off the Corniche, the building has become a Doha landmark, an architectural masterpiece floating on water. With its stark geometric exterior, it looks like a cubist impression of a veiled Muslim woman.
Inside, we are blown away by the spaces: light filters in through high roof lights, a broad staircase floats up through the central atrium and bay windows offer sweeping views of the Doha skyline across the bay. The museum’s architect I.M Pei – also known for his iconic Louvre Pyramid – designed the building when he was in his late 80s and travelled throughout the Islamic world to seek inspiration in Cairo, Tunisia and beyond.
As we wander awestruck through the central atrium space we meet Aisha, a young Qatari art historian who works at the museum. “I was just about to go and work on some of the pieces in the calligraphy rooms,” she tells us after we introduce ourselves. “You’re welcome to join. I’d love to show you some of our treasures.” As we walk through the spacious galleries Aisha tells us about her work. “What makes this museum special is that it brings together pieces from 8th-century Spain, 13th-century China and 20th-century Iran and that they are all very different, but at the same time inspired by the same ideal. It is really unique.”
In the second-floor calligraphy gallery, she shows us a series of Korans: ancient manuscripts written in gold leaf, tiny decorated pocket books and large printed tomes. “For me, this is what truly reflects the wealth of Islam,” Aisha says as she leads us further through the museum. We see delicate porcelain figurines, opulent gold statuettes decorated with rubies and emeralds, but also items from everyday life such as bowls, dinner sets and perfume bottles.
After more than an hour of browsing through the wealth of exhibits, Aisha says: “Let me show you something else.” She takes us out to the water garden, which has views over the Doha skyline. “This museum is a bridge from the past to the present,” Aisha says as she looks out over the modern city rising up in front of us. “It is a place where we can learn lessons from our rich history to use for a better future.”