Make the most of the cool weather and explore one of Qatar’s 6,000 archaeological and heritage sites.
Qatar is home to thousands of heritage sites including ancient towns, watchtowers and settlements, some dating back to almost 2000 BCE. Wander through abandoned fishing villages, marvel at coastal mosques and explore the ruins of ancient forts, all within a short two-hour drive of Doha.
Al Zubarah Archaeological Site
A relatively recent edition to the UNESCO World Heritage Site register in 2013, this is the only location recognised by the organisation in Qatar and is the country’s largest heritage site. The coastal town of Al Zubarah is regarded as the Gulf’s most important pearling town and trading port of the 18th century, and an impressive city wall, residential palaces and houses, market and industrial areas and mosques can all be found among its remains.
It lies around an hour and a half’s drive from Doha and incorporates the settlement of Qal’at Murair, which was fortified to protect the city’s inland wells, and Al Zubarah Fort, which was added in 1938 and where you can now find a visitor centre displaying fascinating information on the town and surrounding area.
Al Zubarah is a beautiful example of traditional Qatari building techniques and provides a fantastic insight into the traditions and trade of the region’s major coastal towns from the early Islamic period into the 20th century.
Madinat Al Shamal area, approximately 37km off Al Shamal Road.
Head 5km north of Al Zubarah and you’ll find a small abandoned town beside a shallow bay, with the ruins of a traditional Qatari mosque on the shoreline. Research suggests the settlement predates Zubarah and could have been abandoned when the new town was established. Interestingly, the town seems to have varied greatly in size over the years of its use, with many of the buildings showing signs of frequent remodelling.
On the road between Al Zubarah and Madinat Ash Shamal.
Around 30 minutes north-east of Zubarah is Ruwayda. At 2.5km long, it is one of the largest archaeological sites in the country. Archaeological excavations have uncovered a large fortress, which is thought to have been built in three phases. It contains a palatial residence, two wells, several warehouses, a seaside mosque, a ship repair shop, a walled tomb and remains of numerous temporary structures. However, little is known about the site, except that it appears to have been abandoned by the end of the 18th century.
Objects that have been discovered suggest far-reaching trade connections around the world. Items found include porcelain cups from the Far East, ceramics from Europe, earthenware from the UAE and Bahrain, a granite mortar and stoneware thought to be from Iran and mangrove roof beans that probably came from Africa.
On the Al Shamal road, around one and half hour’s drive from Doha.
Al Rakayat Fort
This is one of the few forts renovated in the 1980s to resemble its original structure, which can still be seen in the courtyard. It is believed to have been built to protect the freshwater well in the fort, which supplied a nearby village, as well as being a refuge for the village people during any conflict.
One of several forts from the 19th century, it’s located in an area north-west, and an about an hour’s drive, from Doha, where several forts and old villages can be found, built in the traditional style. Access is around 5km off-road from the main road, and can be tricky. Four-wheel drive vehicles are recommended.
On the road between Al Zubarah and Madinat Ash Shamal.
The Barzan Towers are some of the most well-preserved 18th and 19th century fortifications and religious buildings in the country and can be found in the town of Umm Salal Mohammed in the suburbs of Doha.
The towers were built in 1910 and 1916 by Sheikh Mohammed bin Jassim Al Thani, the founder of Umm Salal Mohammed, and could have been used as a lookout for monitoring the surrounding area, or as an observatory for determining the dates of the lunar calendar.
Both towers, along with a madrasa and a mosque, have recently been restored and now sit in a garden surrounded by indigenous plants. Originally constructed from stones that were covered with mud, the western tower has an architectural style unique to the region, while the eastern tower is built in the traditional Qatari style.
Umm Salal Mohammed, Doha.
Al Khor Towers
Al Khor is situated just 45 minutes north of Doha on the coast and was a centre of fishing and pearling in the early 20th century. Its three defensive watchtowers also guarded the historical well of Ain Hleetan, the main water source of the town, and the guards’ platforms were only accessible by climbing the external, cylindrical walls with the help of a rope.
Off Al Khor Coastal Road.
The Old Palace
Currently undergoing restoration, when complete the Old Palace will be at the centre of the new National Museum of Qatar. The futuristic architecture of the building – designed by Jean Nouvel – is an interlocking disc concept inspired by the Desert Rose and will surround the original palace building, which was constructed in the early 20th century. The restoration work will also preserve the original fabric of the building.
Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani’s Old Palace served as the residence of the royal family and the seat of the government for 25 years, before being converted into the original National Museum of Qatar in 1975. When it reopens, the museum will house exhibits that illustrate Qatar’s rich history along with a 220-seat auditorium, a research centre with labs, retail outlets, restaurants and a park.
Doha City Centre.
One of many sites in Qatar where petroglyphs, or rock carvings, can be found, this is by far the most impressive. A total of 874 carved figures were discovered here in 1957 on low limestone of in a variety of formations including rows, rosettes and stars believed to have been used for ancient board games. Carvings of boats, footprints and symbols can also be seen. Work is currently underway to add explanation boards, a gift shop and a café to the site, which is situated around an hour’s drive from Doha.
Off Al Shamal Road.
Jazirat Bin Ghanam / Purple Island
This small island off the east coast in Shaqiq Bay is one of the country’s most unique sites. Although never permanently inhabited, it was used as a place of transit during trade with Bahrain, and by fishermen and pearl divers as far back as 1000 BCE. Its other uses have included a campsite for pearling expeditions during the Sassanian Period (400–600 CE) and a fishing post in the Late Islamic Period.
Perhaps most interestingly, it was also a production site for red-purple dye – which comes from shellfish – during the Kassite Period, around 1400–1200 BCE. Archaeological excavations uncovered a shell heap filled with what was estimated to be around 2.9 million crushed shells and ceramic vats that were likely used for steeping the crushed molluscs, used to produce dark red dye.
The island is also worth a visit for its abundance of wildlife. Mangroves grow around the shores and migratory birds like flamingos and herons can sometimes be seen during the winter months.
Near Al Khor.
A peninsula situated off the west coast with a beautiful and unique landscape, and the remnants of prehistoric human occupation. The unusual landscape is made up of white cliffs, eroded from sandstone, and mushroom-shaped hills. So far, 130 prehistoric archaeological pieces have been uncovered here; there is evidence that semi-nomadic tribes inhabited the area, and flint hunting tools were discovered at various locations.
Ras Brouq, Bir Zekreet.
• Wear suitable clothing: lightweight and comfortable with appropriate footwear. Trainers or walking boots are recommended, and open-toe footwear should be avoided.
• Make sure to take adequate protection from the sun: a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen
• Not all sites have access to shops or cafés, and first aid will not be available on site, so take plenty of water and other basic first aid supplies.
• Always follow the advice and instruction of on-site signs or escorts, and stay on the designated paths wherever marked
• Driving onsite is strictly prohibited, be sure to only park in the designated, marked areas
• Be courteous and help preserve these historical sites: take your rubbish with you and do not remove stones, pottery, or any other objects