Day 25: Sharjah, United Arab Emirates (UAE)
ABOARD OCEANIA’S NAUTICA — The saga of the mosques continued as we began a tour of Sharjah, Dubai’s neighboring emirate to the north. Nautica put into Dubai by 8 a.m., and as we had arranged our own tour of Dubai for the following day when we disembark, we took advantage of the ship’s excursion to nearby Sharjah upon our arrival. It’s something we might not have thought of on our own.
The two cities have grown together and we couldn’t tell when we left Dubai and entered Sharjah except that our guide Chamenda pointed it out. On our tour we drove past a huge mosque called the King Faisal Mosque, named for the Saudi monarch. At the mosque’s dedication in 1985 it was the largest in the UAE, and Sharjah was the more modern, developed emirate dominating tourism with the main international airport.
But during his speech at the dedication King Faisal called upon Sharjah to ban alcohol in adherence to Islamic law. Whether out of respect for the king, or for the power of his argument, the emir of Sharjah complied immediately. And the rest is history, as they say. Tourism moved swiftly to Dubai along with development, and Dubai’s emir seized the opportunity and never looked back.
Dubai is now a center of commerce, finance, trade as well as tourism, awash in modern high rises — including the world’s tallest, posh resorts, luxury expatriate communities and a new and very busy international airport.
Sharjah has become something of a bedroom community for foreign nationals of modest means who work in Dubai as the rents are half, or less, of Dubai’s. Sharjah’s reputation as a conservative, traditional society may attract some devout Muslims as residents or investors, and the emirate has decided to focus on history and tradition as a means to try and rejuvenate tourism. Thus, our tour was called the “Heritage Tour” and focused on Sharjah’s modern public buildings in traditional style and on preservation and restoration of historic buildings and districts.
A photo stop at Quran Roundabout revealed the former, including an attractive public library and a government ministry in what might be called neo-Islamic style arrayed around a busy circular road that in turn wrapped around a large metal sculpture of the Muslim holy book. Near the old Dhow harbor crowded with the traditional Arab vessels, we stopped for a look around the Heritage Area, a district of mostly 19th and early 20th century houses built of coral stone.
Chamenda told us the homes were largely occupied by Iranian merchants back when Sharjah’s principle export was pearls. The homes’ thick walls and tall ceilings provided some relief from the intense heat, and distinctive “wind towers” were designed to capture the breeze and funnel it into the home. Windowless or high-windowed exteriors and walled courtyards assured privacy, especially of un-veiled women. Generally, only family members were invited in.
In the visitor center, called the Discovery Center, Ahmed pointed out old photos of the district and then explained the ongoing construction and renovation work and showed us plans for the near future that would culminate in the demolition of some high rise buildings to help recreate the former ambience of the neighborhood.
It might seem as though Dubai is racing into the 21st century while Sharjah is heading in the opposite direction. Not really, just a different version of the present.