California is not the only place to see film stars and movie sets these days. Qatar has its own piece of Hollywood set in the most unlikely of places. Deep in the desert of the Zekreet peninsula, hidden behind a canyon, lays Film City, one of Qatar’s truly bizarre sites!
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As we travelled along a dirt path through a national park housing those elusive ostrich and oryx, the environment gently morphed into something altogether different. The brown pebbly surface of the desert transformed into a pale cream sand, with the waves of the Zekreet Peninsula shoreline twinkling in the backdrop. What was most remarkable however, were the series of ridges we now drove through, forming a miniature canyon.
The harsh light of the sun had bleached the limestone ridges over the centuries, forming a pale yellow colour similar to that of buttermilk at the bottom and gradually changing hue to a blinding white on its upper crust. The wind from the ocean had eroded the ridges, forming their twisted shapes so they now stood like hulking figures over those who travelled through them. The colours of the miniature canyon formed a stark contrast to the open blue sky and shore lapping in the distance. Despite the size of the makeshift canyon, nothing escaped the penetrating rays of the sun as it reflected off the rocks and glance off the waves in the distance.
At length, the ridges began to narrow ever closer towards us as we approached a steep incline towards a tight crossing. Out of the corner of my eye, I spied something perched on the outcrop of one of the ridges. Climbing to the top of the ridge, I soon discovered what looked like a small cairn, a circular collection of sandy-hued stones. Dozens of them sat on the cliff of these canyon outcrops and dotted the scenery, as though they were keeping a watchful eye of the area.
Although in this instance it is uncertain, traditionally the Bedouin built these to symbolise to others their territorial boundary, or were even used to mark where someone was buried! Regardless of the reasons, the cairns afforded a panoramic view of the surroundings, with the smell of sea salt heavy on the air.
Soon we approached a narrow pass that sat on a steep incline between two ridges. Stretching my hand out, it was almost possible to touch the sides of the ridge as we drove into an altogether different landscape.
Gone was the canyon, the bleached rocks. Where the air was thick with sea salt, now only a slight taste remained. Instead, the ridges were replaced with a gently hilly terrain, which the makeshift pathway along the side of the hill allowed a partial view of the surroundings. The area, littered with medium sized rocks of varying shades of brown, varied only by the occasional sight of a low ivy-coloured shrub. A series of large ancient cairns sat on the side of the ridge, noticeable despite their age and decrepit state. Halfway along the road several wells were situated in a clearing in a group, the only sign of modernity.
Following the makeshift path, we gently drove down into a valley where a large collection of palm trees sat at the bottom. As we raced along the road, sandy-coloured turrets appeared behind the shielded protection of the palm trees. The closer we approached, more turrets, building roofs, and minarets floated above the tops of the palm trees, forming what looked to be a mirage against the backdrop of the stark landscape. The ramparts and city walls soon grew out of the horizon, with a narrow wooden door the only way of entrance into the fortress.
A big friendly man called Hamad, wearing a beaming smile and with eyes full of mirth, appeared in the doorway and greeted us as we approached. With a beckoning hand, we followed him through the ramparts and into the city.
If you ask anyone in Qatar why Film City was built, you will receive several different answers. Some assert it was built for a big Hollywood production, others say it was for an Arabic film; others still claim it was built for Qatar’s 2022 World Cup promotional video. Whatever the reason the expansive layout of the city, remote location and distinct lack of people, only served to amplify the surreal element as we walked through its main square.
Standing in the centre of this bizarre outpost, the buildings plotted out before us were a mixture of haphazardly squashed rooms, towers, and fortress walls. The small rectangular rooms were clustered in groups around the square, with heavy wooden doors and rickety poles extending from the entrance of the rooms. Towers peered over the rest of the buildings, the waving motif on their borders reminiscent of the Zekreet shoreline we had previously driven past. Lookout windows peeked from the minaret of the mosque, the tower acting as a herald to the surrounding landscape.
Following Hamad’s long strides we were led to a precarious ladder leading to the tops of the ramparts and city walls. Gazing across the sweeping landscape, an oasis hidden between the palm trees, glistened in the shade in front of the city walls. After running backwards and forwards across the fortifications, Hamad guided us around the buildings, showing us all the quirks of the City.
Pointing towards the ceiling inside one building we noticed that the roof had been lined with straw. Hamad explained this was an ancient trick to encourage wind to circulate throughout the room, acting as a makeshift air conditioner. As we reached the back walls of the City, Hamad suddenly bore a mischievous grin and produced a homemade swing from behind an escarpment, upon which we all gleefully took turns attempting to stay balanced.
The sun winked between the palm branches as we meandered around the shaded pathway towards the oasis. Originally an ostrich and oryx farm, they had wandered away from the oasis long before our entrance. Delicate flowers in white and purple hues speckled the sandy ground, and we continued to follow the hoof prints along the pathway.
All of a sudden, we happened across the oasis – an electric blue-green that was striking to the eyes against the backdrop of the vast, beige desert. The shrubs and palm trees that encircled the oasis shaded the area from the searing heat, which only made it more inviting as we spent several minutes relaxing by the pool of water.
Waving goodbye to Hamad as we trundled away from the gates and into the desert, the thought of the previous events – finding mysterious cairns, a film set in the middle of the desert – the day had really been as surreal as the oasis in the desert.