Dubbed the cultural capital of UAE, Sharjah is the third-largest city strategically located on the southern shore of the Persian Gulf on the Arabian Peninsula. Sharjah’s sheer size and history lend to its diverse cultural heritage bringing home the title of ‘World Book Capital for 2019’ by UNESCO. With a settlement dating back to 5000 years, historically, Sharjah has been one of the wealthiest cities in the UAE. While a phenomenal skyline, grand canals, lagoons, corniches home to upscale hotels add to the atmospherics of the city, it is truly the wealth of museums, art galleries, heritage enclaves, exquisite architecture, and the presence of the annual Sharjah International Book Fair that put it on the forefront of the Arab cultural landscape.
For your upcoming holiday in the UAE, do not make Sharjah a mere transit destination. Take a break from the more glitzy Emirati cousins and dive into the breathtaking sensory and cultural experience that awaits you in Sharjah. Here we round up some such sights and experiences.
Over five years in making, Sharjah’s largest mosque opened its doors to visitors in 2019. The Dh300 million project takes up 185,806 square meters with room for more than 25,000 devotees. Out of this, around 5000 devotees along with special seating for around 610 women can be offered inside the structure. Incorporating the elements of traditional Islamic architecture, the mosque is remarkable for its domes and minarets, ornate columns, and the numerous water fountains and gardens that surround it. Look up the stained glass work on the arched windows of the main prayer hall. You will find verses from the Quran etched on its walls. The giant chandelier in the center and the red carpeting exemplify opulence. There is a souvenir shop in the complex as well as a cafeteria. For non-Muslims to soak up the architecture of the Sharjah Mosque, there are ample open spaces aside from a collection hall that houses books and antiques from various Islamic eras. If you are a tourist who wishes to explore this breathtaking piece of architecture, you can stroll on the designated rubber track that winds around the mosque.
Mleiha Visitor Centre
About 65 kilometers southeast of Sharjah city, the Mleiha Visitor Centre is located in Mleiha close to Jebel Fayah. Among UAE’s most stunning archaeological sites, it unravels the ancient secrets of mankind in the Arabian Peninsula. Constructed around a massive Bronze Age tomb belonging to one Umm an-Nar, Mleiha is a rich repository of artifacts, interactive displays, and exhibits. You can even take a guided tour of the various archaeological sites in the vicinity. For delicious Arab fare, stop by at the on-site cafe. On offer are a host of activities as well such as treks and 4WD to Camel Rock and Fossil Rock. You can even go paragliding from one of Mleiha’s highest peaks. Dune buggy rides and desert cycling tours are also very common in the region.
Through the efforts of the Sharjah Art Foundation, Rain Room has come to be a permanent installation where visitors are treated to continuous rainfall – a sight quite rare in the deserts. At the Rain Room, you need to navigate carefully through a dark underground area saving yourself from the heavy downpour each time. The Rain Room is fascinating in that it uses sensors that bring a pause to the rainfall when it detects movement. So if you walk too fast, there is every chance of getting wet in the rain. Walk slow and you can cross over with your clothes as dry and crisp as when you had arrived. The incessant rain is created using 1200 liters of recycled, self-cleaning water. A form of experimental, contemporary art that involves digital practice, the installation is by the London-based collaborative studio, Random International.
A strictly cultural experience, retail therapy in the textile souq along the creek in Al Shuwaiheen and the Rolla Square Park area are some of the best for they are a treasure-trove of raw silk, embroidered fabrics, and cotton. For some truly vibrant colors, browse the collection at the Central Souq and Souq Al Soor textile center smack opposite Al Shaab Village and King Faisal Mosque. Shop for some fine silks, sarees, beaded fabrics, lacework, and designer wear too, for the souqs are a storehouse of some great quality textiles.
Al Noor Mosque
Undoubtedly, the most gorgeous mosque in Sharjah overlooking the Khalid Lagoon on the Buhaira Corniche, Al Noor Mosque is also the first to open its doors to non-Muslim visitors. What immediately strikes you about the structure is its Ottoman architecture with its spread of domes and the two tall minarets that are a permanent fixture of the Sharjah skyline. The detailing on its arches, domes, and pillars will hold you in thrall as will the sweep of calligraphic inscriptions from the Quran. A tour of the mosque is a great way to understand the Islamic as well as the local culture. Though there is no entrance fee to the mosque, a strict dress code is followed. A camera is allowed here; you can even photograph inside the structure.
Emirates Fine Arts Society
With its headquarters on Arts Square in the Heart of Sharjah, quite close to the Sharjah Art Museum, the Emirates Fine Arts Society holds art workshops, seminars, and exhibitions to promote art and appreciation for the national artists. Keeping the art scene alive in UAE, the society hosts an annual exhibition considered the longest-running art exhibition at the Sharjah Art Museum. Pop into the venue, take in its open courtyard that is available to visitors who wish to catch a seminar, workshop, or lecture in ceramics, calligraphy, painting, photography, sculpture, and graphics.
Emirates Handicraft Centre
Located in the Heart of Sharjah heritage district, close to the Corniche Road and West Gate, the Emirates Handicraft Centre is housed in a traditional 19th-century pearl merchant’s residence lending it the atmospherics for a display of handicraft that symbolizes life in the desert city. Before you can even get to the art showcase, you will be struck by the surrounding stone and stucco wall, the sprawling central courtyard, and the warren of rooms adjoining it. You can pick up typically Emirati souvenirs of the likes of date molasses outside of watching artisans at work. It is truly wonderful to experience first-hand how a palm-leaf basket is woven by hand.
Sharjah Calligraphy Museum
Located in the Calligraphy Square in the historical house of Hamad Al Midfaa in the Heart of Sharjah heritage district, the Sharjah Calligraphy Museum is a step back in time to discover the heritage of Arabic calligraphy. Incidentally, this is also the only museum in the entire Arab world dedicated wholly to calligraphy. As you stroll around a spacious courtyard warmly lit by the morning sun, you learn about the tenets of calligraphy beginning with Kufic scripts progressing to more dynamic styles. Get a sense of this timeless Islamic art form with a collection of works by local as well as international calligraphers created on ceramic, wood, paper, and canvas. You can even sign up for a workshop to hone your calligraphy skills.
Sharjah International Book Fair
A 10-day annual affair that was launched in 1982 is today the world’s foremost publishing event, not to mention, the largest in the Arab world. Hosting 1875 publishing houses from around 77 countries, it is one helluva event that gives you access to some 20 million books under one roof. Aside from bringing forth some of the best writing talents from around the world, it holds discussions on a host of topics curated by speakers of international repute. Dubbed the fourth largest in the world, the fair is a great place to find some of the best literature from the Arab world. With a chance to lay your hands on hard-to-find new titles and participate in workshops, panel discussions and book signing, your time at the Sharjah International Book Fair will be extremely rewarding.
Al Noor Island
A family-friendly place for those looking to unwind while getting transported to a world of sculptures, butterflies, and some unimaginable lighting displays, you are in for a treat here at Al Noor Island. Explore the Butterfly House home to over 500 butterflies of 20 different species. The entire space is done up in a way that it retains humidity and lets natural light trickle in. Covered with thick foliage, it serves as a sanctuary for butterflies of the likes of pink rose, tailed jay, and emerald swallowtail among others. Look up the literature pavilion spruced up with colorful cushions and verses written in Arabic calligraphy. Walk around in the pavilion and the sound of gurgling water from the fountain will soothe your senses. Aside from that the Al Noor Island has landscaped gardens with a wealth of plants and some pretty awe-inspiring art installations that take on a whole new meaning at night when they are lit up with colorful LED lights. You have a cafe on the site too.
If this already inspires you, pack your bags for a fun-filled journey into the cultural heart of UAE – into Sharjah.