From rusty cannons and ancient manuscripts to majestic fishing ships and tombs housing the oldest traces of life in the country, museums across the UAE are home to hidden treasures unknown to most of the country’s residents and citizens.
“Each museum has something special and visitors always leave the museum knowing something new about this country,” says Nasser Hashim Mohammed, the curator of Sharjah Archaeology Museum.
“Every stone, every broken piece of pottery and even the size of the tip of an arrow or spear tells us a story.”
Among his favourite pieces is an impressive gold horse bridle, found buried with an animal ritually slaughtered some time about 300BC near Mleiha, an area in Sharjah, but there is much more to see in a museum divided into four major time halls: the Stone Age (5000-3000 BC); the Bronze Age (3000-1300 BC); the Iron Age (1300-300 BC); and what the museum calls the Greater Arabia Age (300 BC-AD 611), the period before Islam.
Mr Mohammed’s regret, however, is that too few of his countrymen share his enjoyment of the treasures in his keeping.
“Unfortunately, there is such a great lack of interest and awareness among the Emiratis about history and museums that we are trying hard to awaken some sense of interest in their past,” he says. “They tend to just like to see heritage pieces from the time of their fathers, nothing older than that.”
But there is much to be seen in the nation’s many museums that is considerably older than that.
Mr Mohammed is proud of his museum’s latest exhibition, Al Buhais 18, the title of which refers to the 18th archaeological discovery in Jebel al Buhais, located in the central region of Sharjah, on the western edge of the Hajar Mountains.
The exhibition includes a chronicle of Stone Age life and death in the region and includes three 7,000-year-old skulls that show evidence of trepanation, a procedure known to have been practised since Neolithic times, in which bone is removed for medical or ritualistic reasons.
Subsequent bone growth on one skull, belonging to a male aged 50 to 60, indicates that the patient survived the procedure.
Evidence of one of the region’s first known families can be seen in a cast taken from a grave.
During a dig from 1995 to 2005, a German-Emirati archaeological expedition found the remains of five people – two women and three men, all under the age of 40 – buried close together and lying partly in each other’s arms.
All the bodies were laid on their right sides, facing north, and adorned with jewellery; one of the women was wearing a red bead, made from the semi-precious gem carnelian, below her nose.
It is rare to find such human remains from the Stone Age in the south-east of Arabia, says Mr Mohammed, and one of the largest collections is be found in Sharjah; another forms part of the private collection of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, which is on display at Dubai Museum.
Artefacts from all parts of the country are on show in museums in Sharjah, Al Ain and Dubai, featuring some of the oldest examples of the written word, including Aramaic, Hasaean and Greek inscriptions that have survived on jewellery and pottery that pre-date the Arabic language.
The priceless finds range from those of academic interest to the touchingly personal. Ancient toys, mainly animal and human figures dating to 100 BC are showcased in the same museums.
What is most surprising, perhaps, is the number of museums in the UAE, especially in Sharjah, which boasts the impressive Islamic Civilisation Museum containing rare examples from the world of Islamic art, history and science, as well as the Maritime Museum, with its collection of handcrafted dhows, fish traps and demonstrations of how UAE pearls were found, collected, measured and weighed.
The Sharjah Calligraphy Museum is one of the few institutions in the Arab world devoted exclusively to the art and offers visitors a window into centuries of Arabian history through beautifully written script.
Each emirate has its own dedicated museum, scattered collections and heritage villages where ancient crafts and ways of life are kept alive. The trick is knowing where to look – and it’s not always obvious.
In the capital, for example, the public library at the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation has Islamic and pre-Islamic manuscripts on grammar, astronomy, religion and poetry from across the Arab world, as well as a 10kg bible from 1736 and many Arabic books and newspapers that are more than 100 years old.
At Al Ain Museum, visitors can take a trip through the history of the region, and the entire Middle East, in fact, via its collection of coins dating back to pre-Islamic times.
A large collection of gifts received by the President from visiting statesmen and royalty communicates a strong sense of political history.
The idea of exhibiting the gifts came directly from Sheikh Zayed.
There are also important tombs from the Bronze Age. The biggest is the Hili Grand Tomb, which stands in the middle of Hili Archaeological Park, 12km north of the museum, built by the people of the Umm an-Nar culture who once lived in the area occupied today by the UAE and Oman.
The tomb’s two entrances are decorated with reliefs of humans and animals such as the oryx and leopard, both once indigenous to the region.
Similar large, round tombs from the period have been found also in Ras al Khaimah.
Inside Al Fahidi Fort, which houses Dubai Museum, are collections of weapons such as cannons and artillery, traditional costumes, a reconstruction of an old souq and musical instruments.
There are also good examples of traditional huts and wooden boats, while a stroll past displays inhabited by life-size wax models offers visitors a glimpse into traditional Emirati life, from the desert to the sea.
Ajman Museum occupies the 18th-century fort that served as the Ruler’s palace and office until 1970, when it became the main police station.
It, too, houses a collection of wax figures showing aspects of traditional medicine, domestic life and trade and craftsmanship.
Until the early 1960s, the National Museum of Ras al Khaimah was also a former residence of the ruling family.
Today visitors can stroll through the former royal home and see its majlis, living room and well-preserved bedrooms.
In Fujairah and Umm al Qaiwain are two museums packed with archaeological finds, as well as heritage villages with recreations of the traditional homes peculiar to each emirate.
In most of the museums there are numerous collections of the seashell and fish-bone necklaces and metallic jewellery that were worn by the living and sometimes buried with them.
Mr Mohammed, 25, has visited all of these museums, and continues to visit them as they are updated with special exhibitions of objects on loan from neighbouring countries.
In a sense, his own story reflects the battle he and his colleagues face to interest their countrymen in their collective history.
When he chose to pursue his career he did so against the wishes of his family, who wanted him to become a doctor or an engineer.
“They wouldn’t take this seriously, thought it should remain just a hobby, but history and archaeology are part of my life and I turned my hobby into my career,” he says.
Mr Mohammed has made it his mission to battle the widespread lack of interest in museums and recognises that the institutions themselves must do more to bring people to their doors.
As part of his effort to encourage people to visit Sharjah Archaeology Museum, he has set up “al bayt al madfoun”, or “the dig house”, where children and their parents are able to take part in a dig at the museum on a recreated site, complete with buried “finds”, using real archaeological tools and learning how to properly document their finds. “Slowly,” he says, “more parents are finding out it is fun to come to the museum.”
This year he also ran a cash-prize competition for high school and university students to make a short video documentary about heritage or archaeological subject. It attracted 27 entries. “We want people to view museums as something more interactive and part of their lives and culture. In Europe, people line up to go to museums, while here, it barely crosses their minds to visit their country’s historic wealth.”
That, he says, is something “that will hopefully change with time and more awareness”.