Sometimes, I wonder if my biases get in the way of my ability to appreciate things other people seem to value. Sharjah is a place that raised the issue for me, again.
Ten kilometers Northeast of Dubai, it carries the UNESCO title "Cultural Capital of the Arab World." Perhaps my expectations were too high. If this place is indeed the cultural capital of the Arab world, then culture must not be a high priority for the Arab world. If culture is intended to be analogous to "ethnography" or "lifestyle," then maybe there’s a point to its title. If culture means the arts, architecture, and intellectual history of a region, then I missed something. That aside, our 1-day visit to Sharjah was at least interesting, but I wouldn't call it exciting.
The fact that Sharjah is the most fundamentalist of the Emirates did not impact us at all. The fact that there is very little signage for tourists did. Our driver got lost twice, which, frankly, is not a criticism of our driver. We finally were able to locate the Al-Hisn Fort and the surrounding Heritage Area.
The Heritage area is widely touted as a place where one can really appreciate Arabic Culture and contains a number of museums and historical sites. It is near a number of art galleries as well as the corniche and within walking distance of the famous or infamous gauche Blue Souk.
We tried to depend on our guidebooks to find our way around, in lieu of any helpful signs or directions, and found that the guides were as clueless as we were. For our first stop, we finally stumbled on to what we were later to learn is the Majlis of Ibrahim Mohammed al-Midfa.
Ibrahim al-Midfa was considered an intellectual leader and established the first UAE newspaper in 1933. The museum now houses Ibrahim Al Midfa's books, papers, and studies, as well as his photographs and personal things. It also serves as a meeting place for government sanctioned literary and historical pursuits. In the absence of any information, it was hard to figure out what we were seeing.
We were fortunate to meet an employee who volunteered to walk us over to the area containing the Islamic Museum and the Sharjah Heritage Museum. We visited the Islamic Museum first and found it to be the most interesting of any of the sites we visited.
The Kaaba exhibit was fascinating and included a documentary film about how the Prophet's Mosque and the rites of Hajj and Omra developed. The museum also exhibits a piece of the curtain of the Kaaba. The exhibits helped me understand the importance of the Kaaba as well as some of the more esoteric rituals of the Haj.
The Islamic Museum also exhibits scientific and literary religious manuscripts and arts and crafts, including clay, pottery, metal, and glass, as well as textiles, jewelry, and coins. The artifacts go back 1,400 years.
The Sharjah Heritage Museum is housed in the Bait al-Naboodah or al-Naboodah House. It is a traditional Gulf building built in 1845 and was family owned until the late 1970s, when it was transformed into the Heritage Museum. We wandered throughout its 16 rooms on two stories. Each room is filled with artifacts, mostly furniture, clothing, and jewelry, some of which are labeled. The ventilation structures, called berajils, were interesting, as was the open-fire kitchen. There is a Sharjah documentary and some interesting photos near the entrance.
Our next stop was the Al-Hisn (Fort) Museum, which was the residence of the ruling family for almost 150 years. Built in 1820, it was partially destroyed in 1969, then rebuilt and converted into a museum in the 1970s. Like the two previous sites, it consists of a number of rooms that served different functions, like pearl trading, nursery, public events, school, library, etc. The only unique thing about it was its history as a fort, and that wasn’t featured anywhere I could find. There was a weapons room but nothing about how the fort functioned as a fort.
We also visited the Souq al-Arsah, which has been restored. It was one of the oldest souqs in the UAE but almost completely collapsed in the 1970s and 80s. It’s now full of various kinds of shops selling the usual soug fare of everything from handmade rugs to cheap souvenirs. We were the only visitors, and we finally left because the shop owners would not leave us alone to browse. I don’t blame them. They were most likely totally bored.
Theoretically, each of the above sites was supposed to offer visitors dates and coffee. It never happened except in the Souq, where snacks were available for a price.
The museums are generally open from 9am to 1pm and 5pm to 8pm, except Friday, when they're open from 5 to 8pm only. However, we were there in the mid-afternoon, and every museum was open. Maybe that’s why the place seemed so deserted. Everything is closed on Mondays. During Ramadan, the hours vary. Phone first at 06 568 1738. Each museum charges separately and the tariff varies from 3 to 10 Dirham.
From the souq al-Asrah, we walked out to the corniche. A maritime museum is directly adjacent to the souq. We didn’t go in but did enjoy the courtyard display of different types of craft, especially an original Shashah (traditional fishing boat) made from the mid rib of the date palm frond. Anchored nearby and part of the museum is a traditional coastal sailboat. Unfortunately, it was closed.
We strolled along Corniche Road. We saw many small boats used for local gulf commerce. It was fascinating watching the loading and unloading, most of which was being done by hand.
We headed for the Arts Center and Sharjah Art Museum, which is 1 block inland from Corniche Road. Unfortunately, everything was closed. I guess they adhere to the posted hours of 9am to 1pm and 5 to 8pm. In the Art Center we did find some paintings on exhibit, but they were not very memorable.
After a quick stop at the fabled Blue Souq, which looked like an ugly tourist trap of immense proportions, we decided to head back to Dubai to avoid the evening traffic jams. Speaking of traffic jams, the following Thursday, a 3-hour back up developed as people tried to get to Sharjah. Evidently a road was unexpectedly narrowed from three lanes to one, and there was no alternative route. Be sure and inquire about local conditions before heading fro Sharjah on a weekend.
While we were disappointed to miss the Art Museum, we did not return to Sharjah. Sharjah has a wildlife park/zoo featuring desert animals and a Natural History Museum and Desert Park, both of which might be worth a visit. There are also a number of other museums. The Sharjah website, http://www.sharjah-welcome.com/index.php, claims a total of 20, ranging from archaeology to cosmetics. We did wander into the Numismatic Museum but found almost no descriptions of what we were looking at so we left.
In summary, Sharjah is worth a visit but plan ahead to ensure you know which sites you want to visit and how to get there, what the sites’ opening hours are, and how to avoid traffic jams.