The Overlooked Emirate - Sharjah, UAE - December, 2019

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December 24th 2019
Published: December 14th 2019
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Frequently considered a Dubai suburb due to its close proximity, Sharjah (literal translation means “rising sun”) is actually the third most populous and largest emirate of the United Arab Emirates, and due to its cultural affiliation, the city is visited by many tourists annually. It is the capital city of the Emirate of Sharjah and shares all kinds of political and cultural relationships with the other six. Many residents work in Dubai and live in Sharjah. Due to the influence of Islamic values alcohol is forbidden, so restaurants and hotels do not serve it, so since Sharjah is a dry state, bars, pubs and nightclubs are almost non-existent. This should be an interesting trip, to be sure.

While Dubai is all about flashy tall buildings and shop-till-you-drop malls, neighboring Sharjah takes a much more subtle approach, forgoing glitz and glamour to concentrate on culture and history. Some visitors are put off by its conservative reputation, but assuming you can handle a few days without a cold beer, this city is home to some of the best museums and art galleries in the country, such as the restored Sharjah Heritage Area and the mind-boggling vast history of the Mleiha Archaeological Site. This emirate is doing more than anywhere else in the UAE to preserve its heritage.

A little bit of history: Human settlement in this area has existed for over 120,000 years, with significant finds made of early axes and stone tools, as well as copper and Iron Age implements. The history of Sharjah dates back some 5,000 years with one of the earliest surviving mentions appearing as early as the 2nd century AD in a map drawn by the Greek geographer Ptolemy, which shows the settlement then known as Sarcoa, where modern day Sharjah can now be found. In 1490 AD, Sharjah was also mentioned in the personal accounts of the famous Arab navigator, Ahmad Ibn Majid, as he navigated the Gulf's waters. Historically, Sharjah was one of the wealthiest towns in the region, as well as being the most important port on the lower Arabian Gulf, from the time of the early trading with the East into the first half of the 19th century. Alongside fishing and trading, the lion's share of the city's wealth rested on its pearling industry, which lasted into the late 1940s.

In the 16th century, the town became unstable as the Portuguese conquered area on the east coast, in order to control the spice trade. Following this, the Dutch tried to dominate this region for the same reason. The 17th century was the turning point as the British arrived in the region and started trading with Qawasim, the forefathers of the present day ruling family. The area of the Gulf and Red sea were preferred by Europeans for linking principal routes of communication between the Mediterranean and India. By the end of the 18th century, relationships between Qawasim and the British deteriorated as they blamed each other for attacks and misbehavior. In 1809, the initial land-based attacks by the British were stopped. In the year 1820, the first of other peace treaties were signed assuring maritime peace, security and protection of the British against any attacks for 150 years. On December 2, 1971 Sharjah became part of the United Arab Emirates as a founder member. In 1972, His Highness Dr. Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi succeeded as Emir, and in the same year, oil was found in the Mubarak oilfield situated 50 miles offshore, close to Abu Mousa Island. The production of oil began two years later, with gas drilling beginning in 1990. The city is renowned for its commitment to art and culture and has done well to preserve its local heritage. In 1998, the city was rewarded with the title: “Cultural Capital of the Arab World” by UNESCO.

Docking at Port Rashid in Dubai following a recent Suez Canal cruise, I disembarked for the last time at 9:30am to claim my bag in the terminal shed. Spying a driver holding my name sign and upon identifying myself, I was quickly escorted to a Lexus sedan for my 30-minute private transfer to Sharjah. Being a holiday the roads were relatively empty, and I was checking into the Hilton Sharjah hotel just after 10am. During my drive to the hotel, I was astonished at the amount of construction which has, and is, taking place in the emirate – it’s almost like viewing a mini Dubai! They are definitely planning on cashing in on the tourist trade enjoyed by Abu Dhabi and Dubai, that’s for sure. Located in the heart of the city, this Hilton is an older structure on the Corniche, which fronts onto the Khalid Lagoon. As I entered the massive marbled lobby, it became apparent this property is used to hosting international guests who demand 5-star accommodations and service. Guest rooms and suites provide floor-to-ceiling windows which ensure breathtaking vistas of the lagoon or the city’s scenic skyline. This elegant hotel features 2 restaurants, 2 lobby lounges and the 3 outdoor pools which offer stunning lagoon views. After completing check-in procedures at the front desk, I was personally escorted by the assistant hotel manager to my upgraded room on the 15th floor. Well “room” is not exactly what I would term my home-away-from-home for the next few weeks. They had assigned me a suite which is bigger than most western apartments. The marbled lobby entrance alone must be 12’ square with rooms branching off in three different directions. Granted it is only one king-size bedroom unit, but with a huge living room, dining room (sitting for 10), 2.5 bathrooms, a butler’s pantry, large-screen televisions, sofas, desks, lounge chairs and endless mirrored wardrobes – don’t even get me started on the master bathroom, 4 people could sit in the tub comfortably – OMG, I could sponsor a refugee camp in here! With sweeping views of the city from the bedroom and those of the corniche/lagoon from the living and dining rooms, I could easily get lost in here after a couple of drinks. Whoever said brand loyalty doesn’t pay off, certainly not me?

I checked out the Executive Lounge on the 17th floor after unpacking – the carpeting has seen much better days and the furniture needs updating to reflect the 21st century but other than that, it will serve as the destination for evening canapes. There is an automatic coffee machine which doesn’t appear to dispense milk for lattes and cappuccinos, probably needs servicing…. we shall see. Open from 6am to 11pm every day, I’ll have a better idea of the goodies on offer when I stop by later this evening. The hotel has a host of services available to guests: swimming pools, sauna, fitness center, squash court and a spa. Mojo and Al Dallah are the two restaurants onsite along with a pool terrace, all three providing food and drinks throughout the day. Several times each day, the hotel provides complimentary shuttle service to a nearby private beach and Dubai’s Deira City Center.

As twilight crept over the city, I returned to the lounge and met Alina, the Russian girl who manages the lounge. While she prepared for evening guests, I grabbed a comfy chair next to the floor-to-ceiling windows and watched as daylight waned and lights blossomed around the lagoon. The water surface magnified these lights and produced a warm glow across the entire area – it was magical. By 6pm the evening’s canapes had arrived, and I was very pleasantly surprised to find crispy vegetable samosas, shrimp paella, two selections of sandwiches, platters of fruit, cheese and vegetables with crackers…. more than enough food for a complete dinner – it was all delicious, but unfortunately no alcohol - bottled water, juices and soft drinks only from the refrigerator.

From the lounge windows I could see Flag Island/Al Montazah which is located near the Government Department Buildings in Al Layyah next to Al Jubail Market. The flagpole on the Island was the 7th tallest in the world on opening day December 2, 2012 and is crowned with a 50’ x 100’ UAE flag. The lighting of the pole and its surroundings is characterized by a unique design: it features lights all around the circle with a height of 6’. Seven mounted lights around the pole represent the seven emirates of the UAE. Flag Island was designed to be a new attraction, turning the island into a new tourist destination featuring varied recreational facilities including an open-air amphitheater that accommodates 1,000 people, the 1971- Design Space and also Jones the Grocer restaurant.

Since my arrival, the weather has been very typical – warm and humid for this time of year – that is about to change. A cold front is moving across Saudi Arabia which promises rain in the next 2 or 3 days – that’s different – rare to see “liquid sunshine” in this region of the world, and it will be a first for me in the Emirates. Rainfall is so unusual here, there is even a tourist attraction in Sharjah called the “Rain Room” at Al Majarrah Park, an art installation which simulates a downpour, but one in which you never get wet. The surreal experience is made possible by motion sensors that hold back the nonstop “rain” where visitors stand or walk. You can even hold out your arms or take a selfie, if you do it a little slower than normal. The Rain Room is a dark underground chamber lit only by a spotlight that makes the water dazzle like strings of light, slicing through black space around them. It evokes a sense of an otherworld, where night never ends and perpetual rain is the only inhabitant, and the only thing you can see and hear. In a way, the rain is endless because the water in Rain Room never stops — it’s all recycled continuously and cleaned. The falling water goes straight through small holes in the floor, is cycled up, and rains down again. Entrance fees are 25 AED ($6.81) adults, reduced fees for students and teachers, and free for children.

Of course Sharjah has a HOHO bus system with the #5 stop directly across the street from the hotel. As always, this is the first sightseeing vehicle I use when visiting a city (new or old). This one offers a total of 25 bus stops for a 2-day senior ticket price of $44, covering 2 daytime and 1 night routes, with a free shuttle to Dubai. As I had retained the ticket stub from my Greek HOHO trip last month, I was given a 10% discount off this price. This discount is applicable worldwide and is good for up to 12 months from original purchase. A 1-day senior fare ticket offering just the 3 routes, is $25. Shortly after breakfast I made my way across the Corniche and waited almost 45 minutes before the HOHO bus arrived. Apparently they only run once an hour and as I didn’t see another sightseeing bus for the next few hours, I assumed I was on the only one working. Obviously it was a slow day – I had the entire vehicle to myself for the 6 hours I was onboard and got to know the driver quite well. Having lived in the Arab world over the years, I’m accustomed to seeing separate carriages on trains and metro systems set aside for females only, but I have never seen one on a HOHO bus – this one had the front half of the upper deck enclosed in glass with a door. Just adds further proof how conservative Sharjah really is! I really had to laugh when I noticed one store in the downtown area which is comparable to our 99-cent stores in North America – this one was 1 to 10 AED ($.27 to $2.72). I made a mental note to stop in before I flew home.

The Al Majaz Waterfront covers an area of 231,000 square feet, featuring stunning scenery overlooking the Khalid Lagoon. This iconic leisure destination boasts breathtaking landscapes and incredible architectural designs that reflect Sharjah’s rich cultural and historical heritage. With a lively fun-filled atmosphere, the waterfront attracts visitors of all backgrounds to explore its wonders. Launched in 2010, this popular tourism project offers an impressive variety of recreational facilities, including the spectacular Sharjah Musical Fountain overlooking international restaurants and cafés, a jogging track, snack and drink kiosks, a magnificent mosque, the Maraya Art Park, the Splash Park for kids with a children's playground, mini golf for all ages and relaxing green areas. Al Majaz Waterfront hosts a variety of exciting events, concerts and festivals throughout the year, all which attract visitors and tourists across the region. The shows offering a truly mesmerizing experience for visitors by providing a variety of services, including free Wi-Fi, public facilities and more than 1000 parking lots. The fountain show begins every evening except Sundays, at 7pm.

Al Noor Mosque is one of the very few mosques that are open to the public here. Situated at the Khaled Lagoon at the Buhaira Corniche, the architecture is inspired from Turkish Ottoman designs. The mosque was built by her Highness Sheikha Jawaher bint Mohammed al Qassimi, wife of Sharjah’s ruler, and is regarded as the most famous place of worship in the emirate. Completed in 2005, it can accommodate 2,200 people for prayer, which includes 400 in the ladies section and 1,800 in the men's. The mosque’s design has elements that are similar to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul (also known as the Blue Mosque). The main entrance is flanked on both sides by two graceful minarets which soar into the sky at a height of 170’. One of the most eye-catching features of the exterior is the elegant 34 cascading domes. The central dome is surrounded by several half domes and supported at each corner by four small cupola domes. The interior of the central dome reaches a height of 103’. The interior of the domes is highly decorated with a combination of floral, geometric and other interlaced patterns. These arabesque patterns are made up of a number of repeated geometric elements. It’s the first mosque in Sharjah allowing visits by non-Muslims, using a guided tour that informs about Islam and cultural aspects of life in the UAE. Photographs and cameras are permitted during the Mosque visit. This one-hour free public tour is held every Monday and Thursday at 10am.

Stretching along either side of the 1.5 mile long Qasba Canal, which connects Khalid and Al Khan Lagoons, Al Qasba is packed with popular cafes, restaurants and interesting attractions. One great way to explore this canal is via abra (water taxi). It’s a stunning destination offering a variety of cultural, dining, and entertainment options. Enjoy the panoramic views of Sharjah and neighboring areas from the Etisalat Eye of the Emirates Wheel, in air-conditioned cabins that climb to over 200’ in height. Entrance fees are 20 AED ($5.45) adults, 10 AED ($2.72) children. The musical fountains here are free and begin each evening around 5pm.

And what would any Arab country be without a souk? Open since 1979, the Central Souk is the most famous in Sharjah. Here you will find an extraordinary collection of handicrafts, brilliant in color and magnetic in appeal. Dive into a maze of more than 600 exciting and intriguing shops to discover unusual treasures and traditional gift items, handmade goods and regional imports. Housed inside an architecturally-marvelous structure (it is one of the most photographed buildings in Sharjah), the Blue Souk is where you should be if you want to shop till you drop! Embellished in blue tiling thus giving it the name, the souk has traders selling items such as electrical goods, traditional as well as antique jewelry, kitchen utensils, gold, famous UAE gems, perfumes, souvenirs and even Arabic carpets. Open daily from 9am to 11pm, I would suggest no less than 3 hours to really explore it from end to end. It’s an enclosed building and fully air-conditioned. This is where bus stop #1 is located and where you change from the Red Line to the Green Lines routes. No entrance fees here.

Winding along the coast, Sharjah’s Corniche is approximately 3 miles long and definitely the place to go for long walks and incredible views of the city’s skyline. At the northern end, dhows and other sailing vessels can be seen bobbing outside of Creek Customs. Further south, this bustling street is lined with shops, restaurants and hotels which really comes alive after dark, with tourists and locals out enjoying the warm evening breezes. Khalid Lagoon is an artificially-created lake which spreads over 6,641 square miles of water surface. The majority of tourist landmarks surround this lagoon.

The Sharjah Islamic Museum is the first of its kind in the UAE. Situated right at the historical “Heart of Sharjah”, it started life as a traditional Middle Eastern souk or indoor market. The building now houses more than 5,000 exquisite artifacts from all over the Islamic world and hosts regular exhibitions and internationally renowned displays of Islamic masterpieces. It features seven galleries spread over two levels, with the ground-floor galleries covering aspects of the Islamic faith and the achievements of Arab scientists and astronomers. The upper floors offer a chronological overview of Islamic arts and crafts, including textiles and jewelry. Housed in a building every bit as impressive as its collection, astrolabes, manuscripts, ceramics and coins all vie for your attention, but don’t miss the gold-embroidered curtain for the door of the Holy Ka’ba, and the mosaic inside the central dome detailing the 12 zodiac constellations. Entrance fees are 5 AED ($1.36) adults and free for children.

One of my favorite stops was the Sharjah Aquarium and Maritime Museum, which offers visitors the opportunity to experience and learn about the marine environment of the UAE, through its displays of a wide variety of local fish species. First opened in June 2008, it consists of two floors equipped with 20 water aquariums, each filled with approximately 475,510 gallons of water, that recreate different local aquatic environments, from coral reefs and rock pools to lagoons and mangroves. There’s a huge variety of marine life on display, from clown fish and seahorses to eagle rays and reef sharks. Feeds and talks are scheduled throughout the day, while a walkway lets you see the creatures up close. Kids will also love the touchscreens and interactive displays. Advanced technologies and cutting-edge design allow tourists to wander at will through tunnels and over bridges to gain various perspectives on the 250 species – some rare, some just colorful – living in this beautifully constructed habitat. Entrance fees for the aquarium are 25 AED ($6.81) adults, 15 AED ($4.08) children. These tickets also include entry to the Sharjah Maritime Museum next door.

Another favorite stop was Sharjah Fort (aka Al Hisn Sharjah), a two-story traditional rock, coral and adobe fortification located in the city center. Originally constructed in 1820 by the then ruler of Sharjah, it was partially demolished in January 1970, leaving one remaining tower. The fort has been faithfully restored by the current Sheikh, as part of a comprehensive program restoration of the old port city, under the name of “Heart of Sharjah”. This program began in January 1966 and was completed in April 1997. The pole in the center of the fort was used to flog criminals or stake them out as punishment. Early 1830 British records, note Sharjah’s fort is located “on a little inland, mounting 6 pieces of cannon, together with some detached towers. In case of alarm from an enemy, it’s stockade is round with date trees and wood sufficient for repelling Arab attacks, although of little service against regular troops”. Hardly installs confidence, does it?

Having exhausted what the city center had to offer, it was time to venture out further afield using a local taxi …. specifically the east coast enclave of Khor Fakkan (literal translation means “Creek of Two Jaws”), a bustling metropolis hemmed in by a sandy crescent beach and a palm-lined promenade, from where a parade of container ships steer into the port. I had negotiated with a local taxi company recommended by the hotel, for a private car and driver for 10 hours, at a total cost of $100 – a great deal. Located approximately 85 miles east of Sharjah City, a trip which used to take almost five hours, since spring 2018 a new highway links the two cities thru the rugged Hajar Mountains, cutting the travel time down to just 1 hour. Fourteen years in the construction, it’s a spectacular feat of engineering that passes thru five tunnels (the longest one clocking in at almost 2 miles) and a sleek rest area overlooking mountain-rimmed Al Rafisah Dam. Khor Fakkan is not without its charms, especially along its well-maintained corniche, which runs the full length of the waterfront. It’s a good stop to stretch your legs if you’re driving up the coast. The city though, is dominated by its super-busy container port. At times, an entire armada of ships can be seen on the horizon, queuing to dock, unload or refuel.

There is much to see and do here for visitors. Situated on the northeastern end of the city, Khor Fakkan beach is famous for the sunrises and sunsets across the sea. Be it snorkeling, scuba diving, jet skiing or any other water sport – this beach offers fun-filled and thrilling activities. The Salem Al Mutawa Mosque, built around 200 years ago, showcases unique Arabic-style architecture and interiors. It’s especially worth visiting during evening ours, when the entire structure is lit by dozens of different colored lights. The ruins of a Portuguese fort, constructed by Captain Gaspar Leite around 1635 AD, this 3-sided fort is another hotspot. Signboards depict the architecture and history, providing a detailed insight into historical events witnessed by the structure over the years. Among the sands of the desert and the rocky western Hajar Mountains terrain, is an oasis-like park called Al Metalaa with lush green gardens; and finally, Shark Island on the southeastern end of Khor Fakkan Bay. It’s an ideal location for snorkeling, windsurfing, jet skiing, boating and deep sea diving.

Just behind the Hilton is a mosque with the loudest speaker system….every morning before 6am, the first of five azans (calls to prayer) is blasted out by a muezzin from the minaretand right into my bedroom – not my idea of an alarm clock whatsoever. Now where the hell did I put my ear plugs? I generally spend at least an hour each morning enjoying the hotel’s buffet breakfast and reading the English language newspaper in Mojo Restaurant on the first floor. Smaller tables for two are placed along the massive ceiling-to-floor windows overlooking the corniche and lagoon, a perfect place to drink coffee and plan my upcoming day. There is a crepe station where the chef prepares this delicious concoction with dribbles of chocolate sauce – heaven on a plate. He also makes fantastic omelets with a variety of ingredients. An excellent selection of breads, cakes, donuts and pastries with a choice of preserves and honey adorn another station. Yogurt (in 3 different varieties), hummus, fresh fruit, oatmeal, dried nuts and fruits at a third. You’re really spoilt for choice at times.

So next time a trip to the Emirates is planned, give a thought to adding Sharjah to the itinerary after spending time in Abu Dhabi and/or Dubai – it’s definitely worth considering.

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14th December 2019

Miss you~~
It sounds like Sharjah was everything you thought it would be! Where are you off to now?
3rd September 2021

Nice Post!! great information
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