The tiny oil-rich peninsular Arab country of Qatar has much to offer beyond its lofty skyscrapers, lavish hotels and luxurious shopping malls.
Overlooking the Qatari capital’s imposing skyline sits a charming historical souq, mere metres from the entrance to Doha’s much-adored, palm-tree lined waterfront promenade.
Souq Waqif literally translates to ‘Standing Market’. It is situated on the site of a historic trading hub which dates back more than a century, to a time when local Bedouin and merchants used to gather – standing – to sell livestock, fish, pearls, spices and other wares.
With the massive development boom that saw the construction of numerous shopping centres and high-rise structures in Doha in the 1990s, the old traditional market fell into disrepair before a major fire destroyed much of it in 2003.But the historic site was renovated in 2006 and rebuilt in an authentic 19th century souq style, in keeping with the country’s traditional architectural heritage and identity. Modern structures were demolished and whitewashed mud-rendered buildings were restored and fitted with traditionally-built roofs of wood and bamboo, bound using clay and straw.
Souq Waqif has since become the social and cultural heart of the Gulf metropolis, and a shopping delight for locals and tourists alike. It is also certainly a great place to sharpen your haggling skills, considered part and parcel of the Arab souq experience.
An array of shops and antique stores line a network of interconnected cobbled alleys and passageways, adorned by exposed timber beams and lanterns.Every shop boasts a unique display of handicrafts, customary and modern clothing, jewellery, scented oils and perfumes. From the black and gold embellished bukhnoq, traditionally worn by girls in the region, to decorated swords and daggers and fascinating desert rose crystals, you are sure to find something interesting to grab.
Aromatic spices and traditional foods are also in plentiful supply around the market, presenting an enticing feast for the senses rich in both colour and flavour.
One section of the souq is dedicated to falconry, a sport that has deep roots in Qatari culture. Arabian horses are not an uncommon sight at the souq either, with stables housing them not far from the falcon market.
It is in the evenings that this quintessentially Arab-style traditional souq truly comes alive. A host of restaurants, cafes and shisha lounges serving cuisines from all over the world are often buzzing with visitors and families enjoying an evening out.
The maintenance and upkeep of the market is impressive. Its design and atmosphere seamlessly combines the present and the past, with public art installations bringing a contemporary touch to the traditional setting.
‘Le Pouce’, a bronze sculpture in the shape of a giant thumb by acclaimed French artist César Baldaccini, stands in an open-air courtyard in the souq which also serves as an open space for various festivals that are organised on site throughout the year.With a nearby metro station and a massive underground car park, Souq Waqif is easy to reach. It also lies in very close proximity to many of Doha’s top attractions and architectural landmarks.
Al-Fanar Islamic Cultural Centre, with its remarkable spiral minaret, can be seen looming over the distance. Doha’s state-of-the-art Museum of Islamic Art is also a short walk away, as is the Corniche and its renowned pearl monument that pays homage to Qatar’s primary pre-oil industry of pearling.