You’re bored. The kids are driving you crazy. You’re on holiday and want something to take you away from the beach. You’d like to get under Sharjah’s skin a little and explore ‘the cultured Emirate’. All good reasons why these five visits to just some of Sharjah’s many fine attractions will repay you with something a bit different from that weekend shuffle around the mall. You’ll find lots more, by the way, at the Sharjah Museums website. And you can always take a Big Bus Tour around Sharjah and try and fit these all into one mad day of touristic terrificness!
Sharjah Gold Souk
The Souk Al Markazi or Blue Souk, is to be found at the edge of the Buheira Lagoon and sits at the end of King Feisal Street as it joins Al Aroubah Street, near to the fish market, the Saudi mosque and Al Ittihad Square. Any cabbie should know at least one of those! A major piece of contemporary Islamic architecture, the Blue Souq is nestled snugly by the deliriously optimistic ‘Smile, You’re In Sharjah’ roundabout, so called because it contains that very injunction picked out lovingly in flowers on the green grass of its eponymous roundabout
The sheer diversity of the Blue Souk is marvellous, from clothing and incense through perfumes, antiques and a bewildering array of gold, although if you’re seriously interested in picking up all that glitters, Sharjah has a dedicated gold souk, too – you’ll find it north of Sharjah City Centre on Al Wahda Street.
At both souks, prices are merely a joke between friends. You’re there to haggle and haggle hard, because the stallholders are trained negotiators with a fearsome ability to extract you from your money. The haggling is all part of the entertainment, of course.
Sharjah Desert Park
The Sharjah Desert Park was originally built under the eagle eye of amateur zoologist and long term UAE resident Marijke Joengbloed. Arguably the most distinguished amateur naturalist in the UAE in her time, Joengbloed wrote a letter to His Highness Dr. Sheikh Sultan Al Qassmi, the ruler of Sharjah, to complain that the Bedouin were decimating the breeding grounds of the spiny tailed lizard (Thub or Dhub, in Arabic) as it is considered an aphrodisiac. In an act of astonishing generosity, Sharjah’s ruler responded by suggesting they build a wildlife park and conservation centre, which they duly did. Joengbloed, a delightfully eccentric woman, took great pleasure in the fact that the larger animals in the desert park are kept outside, while the humans are kept inside looking out at them: effectively reversing the accepted zoo visitor/animal relationship. The humans are the ones in restricted enclosures!
The park and museum are fascinating, with truly great displays on the geology and natural history of the UAE’s desert biome as well as examples of the very rich flora and fauna of the Emirates’ deserts and wadis. The stars of the show are the Arabian Leopards, who are just big, lazy, arrogant cats who look at you like they’d like to eat you if only they could be bothered to get up.
You’ll find the park on the Sharjah/Dhaid highway.
Al Mahatta Fort Museum
To my immense surprise, this slice of colonial history was preserved by the Sharjah Government just when it was crumbling to pieces and seemed set to be knocked down. It stands today as a great little museum to the history of flight in the region, from the Handley Page biplanes (and seaplanes) that used to connect Croydon to Queensland back in the good old days when the Sun never set on the British Empire.
The restoration of the fort, built originally by the ruler of Sharjah in 1936 to offer protection to the passengers on the Imperial Airways route as they overnighted in Sharjah, is true to the original in every detail and is most impressive. There’s a great display of ‘planes in there, including some of the first Gulf Aviation planes (the precursor to Gulf Air) and the amiable curators usually allow people with kids to get up in one of the riveted aluminium exhibits.
The Mahatta Fort was immortalised, incidentally, in the 1937 documentary Air Outpost by London Films under the aegis of Alexander Korda (and with a soundtrack by William Alwyn). “Thanks to the achievement of modern flight,” the soundtrack gushes in a truly Cholmondeley-Warner voice, “It’s possible to fly from Croydon to the desert Kingdom of Sharjar in just four deys!”
The documentary is held up as an early example of ‘true’ documentary, where the film-maker takes an unscripted approach to showing life as it truly is, which is a little dubious, but it shows not only life in the fort but Sharjah’s people and souk in a fascinating and unique piece of footage.
Mahatta is just around the corner from the ‘Blue Souk’, the Saudi Mosque, IttihadPark and ‘Smile You’re in Sharjah’ roundabout (known to us for many years as ‘Smile You’re Insane’ roundabout). You can tell when you’re on the right road, it’s straight as a die – that’s because it is in fact the old runway. It’s the road that runs parallel to Feisal Street, going from Ittihad Park to Wahda Street, just round the corner from Mega Mall.
And you can watch ‘Air Outpost’ for yourself right here before you visit the museum!
The Heart of Sharjah – the Souk Al Arsah
The Sharjah government started to renovate the Souk Al Arsah in the ‘90s, turning an area of broken down old coral-walled buildings into a dramatic and pretty faithful reproduction of the original Sharjah souk. It forms part of the extensive renovations that lie at the Heart of Sharjah.
Delightfully, the government let the shop units to the families who had originally owned them although many of these have now been leased out to Indian shop-owners. Some have remained as locally owned and run bric-a-brac (sorry, ‘antique’) shops and are fascinating visits. I cannot recommend a wander around this souk highly enough. Many of the old trading family houses around the souk have also been restored and are open to visit and there’s a maritime display put together by the heritage association, too, reflecting some of Sharjah’s history as a pearl diving centre. When you’ve done wandering, wander over to the Sharjah Fort, again a huge renovation project (there was only one round tower left of the original fort) that has resulted in an interesting building: although it could be a richer display than it is currently, it’s still well worth a trip to see.