Sharjah’s Centuries-old trade routes
Sharjah’s dhow wharfage sits on the opposite side of the city’s creek to the city these days. The dhows used to moor along the corniche road, where they had long tied up to ply their trade with the merchants and traders of Sharjah’s bustling souk, lovingly restored to its former glory as part of the Heart of Sharjah project.
The blue-painted wooden boats are a reminder of Sharjah’s long and colourful maritime past: the Al Qawasim (Al Qasimi), the ruling tribe in both Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah, was the dominant maritime force in the Gulf throughout the C18th. However, hey were no match for British maritime firepower and redcoats. Ras Al Khaimah, Linghah and other Qawasim-held ports were comprehensively bombarded, sacked and put to flame in British raids aimed at suppressing the local maritime power.
In his spirited defence of the peoples of the coast, Sharjah’s current Ruler – HH Dr Sheikh Sultan Al Qassimi – invokes a picture that will be surprisingly familiar to followers of the Middle East in the post-Bush era: “Any misfortune that happened to any ship in the area was capriciously attributed to the ‘Joasmee pirates’. In this way the strategy of the ‘Big Lie’ was contrived; almost overnight the term ‘Joasmees’ became synonymous with ‘pirates’ and even the home of the Qawasim became ‘the Pirate Coast’ instead of the ‘Arabian Coast’.”
British influence was to dominate the trade routes of the Gulf in the century to follow, laying the first telegraph cable through the Gulf’s warm shallow waters from Bahrain to Kasab, the mountainous Omani enclave at the tip of the UAE that juts out into the Straits of Hormuz.
Persian intransigence meant one of the great global trade routes of the early 20th Century would go through Sharjah, supplementing the emirate’s maritime revenues. A proposal to route the Imperial Airways flight linking the Western and Eastern British Empire through Persia was abandoned and the flight stopped at Sharjah instead. As it happens, Sharjah was thriving in any case: throughout the C19th and early C20th, Sharjah was an important pearl fishing port. A British marine survey from 1830 reported ‘three to four hundred boats’ fishing each season, earning the ruler 100,000 Maria Theresa Dollars.
The Imperial Airways flights, commencing in 1937, were a welcome relief to the city’s coffers, depleted by the impact of the invention of the cultured pearl and the Great Depression. Both of these events had plunged the pearling ports of the Trucial States, Sharjah included, into terrible hardship.
Sharjah became home to the Mahattah Fort, built to house travellers on the Imperial Airways eastern empire route, the flight in massive four-engined Handley Page biplanes from Croydon to Brisbane. It took just four days to reach Sharjah from London, an overnight stop on the way from Basra to Karachi.
As those biplanes climbed laboriously out of Sharjah, over the desert oasis town of Dhaid and up into the turbulent skies above the Hajjar mountain range, passengers would peer out of the windows at the great ravines and passes snaking through the bare, forbidding precipices. Thousands of feet below, travellers along the Wadi Ham would still be tracing their way along a trade route thousands of years old, wending along the seasonal watercourse from Fujairah, the coastal stronghold of the Al Sharqi tribe – the Sharqiyin, through the mountains to the strategic bottleneck of Bithnah.
Today, Mahattah is a museum to the history of air travel in Sharjah – and well worth a visit at that. The dhows continue to trade in and out of Sharjah port, although the pearling boats are long gone. But you can take a walk along the old corniche and wander through the restored alleyways of the souk and sometimes, if you stop to reflect a while in the shade, you can hear the clamor and cries of the tradesmen and craftsmen of the souk across the centuries.