UCL brings Doha’s living heritage under the spotlight
April 25 2013 12:20 AM

Dr Robert Carter addressing a packed audience.


By Fran Gillespie/Doha

The auditorium at the Museum of Islamic Art was packed with history, archaeology and architecture enthusiasts on Tuesday evening for a special presentation by University College London Qatar (UCL Qatar) entitled Doha: Past, Present and Future.

Dr Robert Carter, senior lecturer in Arab archaeology at UCL Qatar, began by setting Doha in the context of urbanism in the Middle East:

“The earliest cities in the world are found in the Middle East and people have been living in towns on the Gulf coast for at least 5,000 years. The urban landscape of towns remained largely unchanged until very recently, the dense housing and narrow alleyways providing much-needed shade,” said Dr Carter.

During the great age of pearl fishing in the 18th and 19th centuries, pearling and trading ports were founded all around the Arabian shores of the Gulf. Recent discoveries of fragments of Sasanian pottery on an archaeological site suggests there was probably a settlement in the vicinity of Doha as long ago as 1,600 years, but today’s town was founded just over 200 years ago. It originally consisted of three settlements, Bida, Jasra and Doha, but by the mid-19th century the three villages had merged and were collectively named as Doha on maps. Although the town suffered several devastating attacks between 1821 and 1867 it was quickly rebuilt, and continued to expand until the 1920s as revenues from pearling hit their peak.

Crash followed boom, and the arrival of cultivated pearls, plus a recession in world economy, led to a period of decline from 1925 to 1950, with the shrinking of the outskirts of Doha visible from aerial photographs. The discovery of oil led to an explosion in Doha’s size and by 1969, Doha’s city limits had reached to what is now known as the C-Ring Road.

Dr Carter closed by stating that pre-oil archaeology still survives in parts of Old Doha today, and although much of it is buried underground, there is a great opportunity to learn more about the history of Doha and its inhabitants from this living heritage.

Tim Makower of Makower Architects, said that Doha’s old buildings are a treasure and of national importance. The architecture of the past has provided an inspiration for today’s urban living, and current architectural designs such as the Msheireb Project are “rooted in the past”. Although much of the old city has been cleared away as Doha expanded, enough earlier buildings are left in the central districts of Najada, Al Asmakh and Msheireb to show what architecture was like in the pre-concrete era. Such buildings should be carefully preserved, he said, and can take on a new lease of life as boutique hotels or retail outlets.   

Photographs of traditional and pre-modern buildings in Doha show that different layers of façade, surfaces, motifs and use of space still have recurring themes, which all add up to bind the city together and create character. The designs of the Msheireb Project stress the importance incorporating this plurality, such as large and small buildings co-existing together.

Summing up, Makower stated that Doha’s architectural DNA provided guidance “for new to grow out of the old”.

The public lecture was the forerunner of  a two-day workshop exploring Doha’s historical urban heritage taking place at UCL yesterday and today. The workshop brings together experts across a range of disciplines to document Doha’s historical development, examine what remains of this living legacy and discuss the role “old Doha” has to play in the future formation of the city.



1) Tim Makower discussing how the old and new Doha can be successfully  combined.

2) Traditional architecture in old Doha.

3) Aerial photo of Doha c.1950.


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