Residents call for a campaign to have the historical sites of Sharjah's Heritage Area recognised internationally. The ambitious plan will transform the traditional centre into a leading tourist and trade destination.
Giving a new life to old Sharjah
SHARJAH // It may not be as ancient as Egypt's pyramids, or attract as many visitors as the Taj Mahal, but fans of Sharjah's Heritage Area say it is every bit as worthy of recognition.
The age-old stories and myths of both the emirate and the country are bound up in its old streets and buildings built of coral and gypsum, but residents say far more needs to be done to keep such stories alive.
"Emiratis have a rich heritage but people have to know this," says Ali Al Abdan, a resident and heritage researcher in the area.
"Draw any comparison between this neighbourhood and Souq Al Waqif in Qatar and you realise immediately that what is required here is good and sustainable marketing to have this neighbourhood with all its historical sites recognised internationally.
One such site is the Souq Al Arsa, one of the neighbourhood's major landmarks.
Built more than 200 years ago, the souq is the oldest in the country and can be seen as an early predecessor of the free zones that continue to drive much of the nation's commerce today.
But while the idea of free trade may have been given a modern twist, the old souq remains much as it always has, selling traditional goods in traditional showrooms.
Antique items made of copper, silver and wood stand beside jewellery, pearls, herbs and dates, while wise old men sit sipping from their cups at the Al Arsa Coffee Shop.
Of a slightly less mature vintage is the Bait Al Naboodah (The House of Al Naboodah). Built in 1845 by the wealthy pearl merchant Obaid bin Eisa bin Ali Al Shamsi - known as Al Naboodah - and covering 1,280 square metres, the 16-room building is a classic example of a traditional Emirati home.
Built around its courtyard are rooms built of coral and gypsum. Its old washroom is referred to as "Al Adab", derived from a term meaning "etiquette".
Its majlis, which has a unique bridge or "sarbatoh", was a meeting place for merchants, sea captains and pearl divers.
Legend says it is home to a "mischievous guardian" who appears as a lady in white carrying two babies and is said to roam the house and vanish when approached.
Then there is Rolla Square, named after the first banyan tree, or "rolla" in Arabic, planted by Sheikh Sultan bin Saqer Al Qasimi in the 19th century. The tree, which grew wide and tall within a couple of years, became a popular shady spot for people waiting on cargo shipments at the nearby port.
Until recently, it was one of the biggest open spaces in the emirate, featuring dozens of banyan trees where locals could take a well-earned rest.
Plans to redevelop the square into a public park at the cost of Dh22million are part of a wider scheme called The Heart of Sharjah which will redevelop the heritage area into the largest of its kind in the Middle East.
The project aims to restore Sharjah to its 1950s heydays and transform it into a tourist and trade destination with "modern contemporary artistic touches".
"The Heart of Sharjah project aims to add attractive points of leisure and tourism that further develop the heritage of our emirate and enhance its position in the region," says Marwan Jassim Al Sarkal, the chief executive of the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority (Shurooq).
Shurooq is working with experts including the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property and the Sharjah Academy for Scientific Research to develop a method of rebuilding old houses that uses traditional techniques but provides extended durability.
The project is being undertaken in five phases scheduled to conclude in 2025. Phase one of the Old Town renovation, scheduled for completion in 2013, includes work at the Sharjah Art Foundation, rebuilding the Al Shanasiah Souq and making modifications along the Corniche.
This phase also involves rebuilding residences near Al Hisn Sharjah Fort, which once housed the emirate's ruling family, redeveloping the houses behind the Al Zahraa Mosque in Al Muraijah, and the conversion of the Al Midfaa family home into a hotel.
At the same time, many other old houses will be converted into hotels, museums, retail shops and restaurants.
Slowly, but surely, it's hoped that the work can finally succeed in bringing Sharjah Heritage Area the recognition it deserves.