05 August 2011

Museum of Islamic Art in Doha

  Stone screen

 The plan had been to spend Friday, our last free day in Doha. visiting the Museum of Islamic Art (Flash), but Ramadan interfered with that idea. Everything is closed during the day right now, the sweltering heat in August combined with the fasting making a ghost town out of Doha, which by all accounts isn’t a hip place at the best of times. I had been expecting a Dubai-esque city and had been disappointed. Our hotel was sumptuous and brilliantly positioned next to the renovated Souk Waqif, but since everywhere was closed all day I felt I was living in a gilded cage for the week.

  Carved water jug filters

 So instead of a long Friday ramble round a museum we took our only chance and visited on Thursday evening, when the museum was open from 8 till 11pm. I was wary, already let down my the fancy websites for Doha’s museum city that turned out to be a front for a group of unfinished projects. In Dubai cultural events organisers also had the tendency to hype a venue where the reality was somewhat less glittery than the brochure.

“Calligraphy is jewellery fashioned by the hand from the pure gold of the intellect.”

  Wooden screen from India 

 The walk to the museum was long and hot, along the busy road that followed the corniche. The palm-lined path up to the museum entrance was worryingly quiet and we were relieved that the lights were on inside the building. Walking into the mercifully cooled atrium, above us a dark dome, a staircase floating in a swirl around the central entrance. A carved copper light ring wreathed the empty air. Pale cream marble and shiny black granite formed geometric patterns on the ground - magnificent, spare and classy.

  The Atrium 

 We had no opportunity to dawdle as the cafe - despite assurance to the contrary - was closed. Just as well, since we needed all the time we had to get through the themed galleries on the first floor: Calligraphy, pattern, animals and people in Islamic art, and the connection of art and science. We never even made it to the second floor, where the displays were organised along a timeline covering the geography of Islam: Iran, Iraq, India, Syria, North Africa, Al-Andalus. The ring of display rooms circling the central stairway was infused with a dim and silent atmosphere. High walls covered in grooved greystone and coarse dark fabric swallowed light and sound, leaving large glass display cases to float serenely along the walls and in the centre of the rooms.
“All Islamic pattern is based on the idea that what we see is always and only part of a whole that extends to infinity.”
  Brass Astrolabe 

 Each invisibly-lit case housed just one or two exquisite items, perfectly displayed to enhance its unique craftsmanship: a stone carving so intricate and fragile that I mistook it for a wooden screen, tiny elaborate patterns disguising the stone’s heaviness; a pure white bowl marked with an off-centre line of black calligraphy, modern and abstract despite its 15th century origin; a seven metre long Hajj certificate depicting the holy places to be visited, with six witness signatures to prove the hajji’s travels; a silver soldier’s helmet seemingly designed by a workshop in Middle Earth, complete with an ivory oliphant, a hunting horn carved from an elephant’s tusk; a set of clay filters delicately carved despite being completely invisible until the water jar they are set into breaks; a line of elegant gold calligraphy, written on the skeleton of a dried leaf. In short, if you are in Doha, you must visit the Islamic Art Museum. More photos here.