Just 10km north up the coast, the city of SHARJAH seems at first sight like simply an extension of Dubai, with whose northern suburbs it now merges seamlessly in an ugly concrete sprawl. Physically, the two cities may have virtually fused into one, but culturally they remain light years apart. Sharjah has a distinctively different flavour, having clung much more firmly to its traditional Islamic roots, with none of Dubai’s freewheeling glitz and tourist fleshpots – and precious few tourists either.
Sharjah’s appeal is far from obvious. Physically it’s the most unattractive place in the UAE, a desperately ugly sprawl of concrete high-rises and traffic, while at ground level the entire city, despite its size, seems oddly lacking in any kind of street life or definite personality. There are compensations, however, mainly in the shape of the city’s fine array of museums devoted to various aspects of Islamic culture and local Emirati life, all of which offer some recompense for Sharjah’s architectural squalor and puritanical regime. These include the world-class Museum of Islamic Civilization, the excellent Sharjah Art Gallery, the impressive new Sharjah Heritage Museum, and the engaging Al Mahatta aviation museum. Further attractions include the massive Blue Souk, one of the largest in the UAE, and Souq al Arsa, one of the prettiest.
Consistently outshone by Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the modern history of the UAE, Sharjah is finally showing signs of wishing to make itself more attractive to visitors (and of improving the living environment of its 800,000 inhabitants) with the ambitious Heart of Sharjah project (wheartofsharjah.ae). Launched in 2013, the fifteen-year project aims to remodel the entire city centre, demolishing eyesore modern buildings, restoring the various heritage houses and old-style souks, constructing new buildings in traditional style and landscaping the entire area in order to release Sharjah’s considerable, but at present rather muted, historical and cultural appeal. The biggest ever urban regeneration project in a country still obsessed with constantly building new toys, Heart of Sharjah will hopefully transform the looks and reputation of this rather ugly duckling destination, and perhaps even succeed in its ultimate ambition of having the entire city centre inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List (having already been registered by UNESCO on the list of “tentative” sites in 2014). Phase 1 is already well under way, with several museums in the throes of renovation and the recently reopened Al Hisn Fort now restored to its full glory.
The main reason for trekking out to Sharjah is to visit the superb
Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization
, which occupies the beautifully restored former Souk al Majara building along the waterfront, topped with a distinctive golden dome. The museum offers an absorbing overview of the massive – and often unheralded – contributions to global culture made by Muslim scientists, artists and architects over the past five hundred years or so, although some of the displays are irritatingly self-congratulatory, and occasionally veer into pure ahistorical propaganda (like the attempt to claim the purely Hindu Jantar Mantar observatory in Jaipur, India, as a work of Islamic provenance).
The museum is spread over two levels. Downstairs, the Abu Bakr Gallery of Islamic Faith has extensive displays on the elaborate rituals associated with the traditional Haj pilgrimage to Mecca. These are accompanied by a range of absorbing exhibits, including fascinating photos of Mecca, and a large piece of kiswah, the sheet of black cloth with Koranic texts richly embroidered in gold thread that was formerly used to drape the kaaba in the city’s Masjid al Haram.
On the opposite side of the ground floor, the Ibn al Haitham Gallery of Science and Technology showcases the extensive contributions made by Arab scholars to scientific innovation over the centuries. Absorbing displays cover Islamic contributions to fields such as chemistry, medicine and astronomy, emphasizing the degree to which Arab scientists led the medieval world (standard scientific terms like zenith, azimuth, algorithm and algebra all derive from Arabic, as do hundreds of names of stars, including Rigel, Algol and Betelgeuse). The sections on medieval navigation, map-making and stargazing are particularly interesting, complete with lots of quaint medieval gear including armillary spheres, wall quadrants and astrolabes.
The first floor of the museum is devoted to four galleries offering a chronological overview of Islamic arts and crafts, with superb displays of historic manuscripts, ceramics, glass, armour, woodwork, textiles and jewellery. Exhibits include the first-ever map of the then known world (ie Eurasia), created by Moroccan cartographer Al Shereef al Idrisi in 1099 – a surprisingly accurate document, although slightly baffling at first sight since it’s oriented upside down, with south at the top.
Among the relatively liberal Islamic emirates of the UAE, Sharjah is infamous for its hardline stance on matters of dress, alcohol and the relationship between the sexes. These derive from the close financial ties linking Sharjah with Saudi Arabia. In 1989, a Saudi consortium provided a financial rescue package after the emirate’s banking system collapsed with debts of over US$500 million. Saudi advisers subsequently succeeded in persuading Sharjah’s ruler to introduce a version of sharia-style law, and Saudi influence remains strong to this day. Many locals bemoan the stultifying effect these laws have had on the emirate‘s development – particularly painful given that, up until the 1950s, Sharjah was one of the most developed and cosmopolitan cities in the lower Gulf. Alcohol is banned, making it the only dry emirate in the UAE; the wearing of tight or revealing clothing in public areas is likely to get you into trouble with locals or the police; couples “not in a legally acceptable relationship” are, according to the emirate’s “decency laws”, not even meant to be alone in public together (in 2010 police even started going door to door in an attempt to round up cohabiting unmarried couples). Punishments for more serious offences include imprisonment and flogging, and there have been repeated reports of Asian and Arab expat workers being arrested by the city’s hardline police and being carted off into detention. Nor have Western expats been immune from grotesque miscarriages of justice, such as twenty-year-old British aviation student, Ahmad Zeidan, who in 2013 was arrested in Sharjah for alleged drug offences, beaten, stripped naked, kept hooded in solitary confinement, threatened with sexual violence, forced into signing a confession in Arabic (a language he did not understand) and sentenced to nine years in prison, where he languishes to this day.