The Heritage City of Sharjah

I force my feet to move forward, stepping from the shade to the blinding light outside. I instantly long for the shaded coolness of my sister’s apartment building.  Unfortunately,  I have no choice but to brave the mid-morning sun.  I only have a couple of days to explore the city. The heat may be oppressive, but the emirate is waiting. From a distance,  I see a sign.  As if mocking me, it says: Welcome to Sharjah.

Sharjah is one of the least popular of the seven emirates or principalities  of the United Arab Emirates—the other six being Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah and Umm al-Quwain. That’s why when I told people that I was going to Sharjah, I got either a blank stare or a “San ‘yun?” (Where is that?).

Sharja Factoids.

Sharjah is in the UAE and is its third largest and wealthiest emirate. It is about 170 kilometers away from its sister city, UAE’s capital city of Abu Dhabi and less than 20 kilometers from the more popular emirate, Dubai. It is currently ruled by Dr. Sultan bin Mohamed Al-Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council of the UAE and more formally known as Sheikh of Sharjah.

A view of the old residential area of Sharja. Photo Credit: Basil D Soufi

Sharjah is also the heritage capital of the United Arab Emirates. Or so I was told by my sister who has been happily living here with her husband since the early ’90s. But to its credit, Sharjah was indeed named the Cultural Capital of the Arab World by UNESCO in 1998. It is easy to see why. Art and culture seem to be inculcated in everyday life— be it in architecture, infrastructure, education and lifestyle.

one of the many mosques in Sharjah

Where to Go.

If you have a couple of days in Sharjah, here are some highly recommended places that you should see.

The Blue Souk or Central Market (Souk Al Markazi)

The traditional souks provide the cultural backdrop for shopping in Sharjah. One of the most popular is the Central Market or more popularly known as the The Blue Souk because of its prominent façade covered in beautiful blue tiles.

Here,  one can find jewelries, handicrafts, carpets and souvenir items. Haggling is practiced and can yield great discounts.

The Heritage Area

If it’s not very hot (perhaps in the late afternoon), take a walk around the Heritage Area near the Corniche between Burj Avenue & Al-Maraija Road.

Photo Credit: http://www.hoteliermiddleeast.com

Here, you can find several notable buildings and museums, including the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization— a treasure-trove of Islamic art and relics.

Just around the area, you can also marvel at the Imam Ibn Hanbal Mosque, a glorious site when all lit-up at night.

Al-Qasba and the Eye of the Emirates

If you can’t go to Venice, let Venice come to you.

This seems to be the pronouncement of the developer of Al-Qasba,  home to a huge manmade canal and the equally gargantuan Eye of the Emirates.

Al-Qasba is like a Luneta Park of sorts, only bigger and more modern. If you find yourself there, you can take a short cruise on the canal aboard one of the traditional boats, relish the local and international cuisines offered by many restaurants, or ride The Eye and see Sharjah from alta vista.

While there, I noticed that Al-Qasba is also a popular hangout among families, lovers and friends.

The best time to go to Al Qasba is in the evenings, when the temperature has cooled down.  Entrance is free.

A Few Things to Remember.

  • For those who love to drink, let it be known that Sharjah bans the sale, possession and consumption of alcohol. So if you’re longing for an alocoholic fix, you can get it at the nearby emirates.
  • Shops are closed from 1-4PM and are generally open until about 9 or 10 in the evening.
  • Among the emirates, Sharjah has the strictest decency law so please make sure to dress accordingly. Also, to quote a website: Mixing between unmarried men and women is illegal: “A man and a woman who are not in a legally acceptable relationship should not, according to the booklet, be alone in public places, or in suspicious times or circumstances.” This doesn’t necessarily apply to non-Catholics but it would be great to be sensitive to local customs.

Sharjah is indeed an emirate not to be ignored by the traveller thirsty for Islamic art and culture. A virtual melting pot, it is also a place conducive to cultural exchange. On a more personal note, I love Sharjah because it has been good to my sister and her husband. It is a place where Filipinos are welcomed, respected and given great opportunities. It is a city that has allowed my sister to thrive in her business, and has therefore enabled her to support her family back home.

“’Ne, let’s go!” my sister beckons, motioning me to follow her. “There are still a couple of places you need to see,”  she says. Despite the heat, her excitement to show off her adoptive city is enough to excite me as well.

It may be extremely hot in Sharja, but in my book, Sharja is cool.