In the third largest emirate, Liz Fullick discovers an intoxicating mix of history, culture and cuisine.
On entering the hotel, the concierge approaches with an ornate brass tray, carrying small handless cups and an Aladdin-style brass coffee pot, the dallah. He fills one cup with smooth, aromatic and cardamom-flavoured coffee, and offers me a plate of pale brown dates. When I’m done, he brings forward the tray for me to deposit my empty cup and the date stone.
This is the hospitable Arabic welcome.
I am a huge fan of the Middle East and love it a little bit more with every visit, yet for many, the United Arab Emirates is merely a stopover on the way to somewhere else. There are seven emirates, Dubai and Abu Dhabi being the largest and most well-known. Sharjah is the third largest, and may be, on the face of it, an unlikely destination for Western tourists, as it’s a dry state, where the transportation, sale and consumption of alcohol are strictly prohibited and punishable by law. But don’t let this put you off.
A vehicle flyover is all that separates Sharjah City from Dubai and many Emiratis commute between the two, so traffic is the first thing you notice about this cosmopolitan city.
Sharjah City is the centre of Sharjah’s government and is an industrial hub. It has been named 2014 Capital of Islamic Culture, and it’s easy to see why. Ornate, traditional design stands side by side with modern functional structures, highlighting not only how far the Emirates have developed in the last few decades, but also the breathtaking beauty of Islamic architecture.
The UAE is a desert region that stands on the eastern tip of the Saudi peninsula, at the heart of a very important east-west trade route. Humans have inhabited this barren land for more than 5,000 years, and Sharjah (slightly larger than Luxembourg) was one of the wealthiest settlements in the region for much of that time.
Before the discovery of oil in the region in the mid 20th century, the UAE’s main industries were natural pearls and dates. Cultivated pearls from Japan effectively finished off the industry, but date harvesting is still big business. Oil wealth has created a pace of change in this region that is probably unparalleled, yet Sharjah has been careful to prevent its early heritage from being consumed in the rapid growth.
Sharjah is justifiably proud of its Islamic heritage. Islamic culture is evident throughout this emirate and constantly celebrated. In 1998, it was named Cultural Capital of the Arab World by Unesco, and as this year’s proclaimed Capital of Islamic Culture, it’s a great time to visit.
Whereas Sharjah City resembles almost any other in the developed world, the Heart of Sharjah, the region’s largest preservation and restoration project, gives a truly authentic flavour of what it would have been like to live in this region before the discovery of oil. Traditional, low, castellated structures abound, with small, high windows and ornate wind towers, designed to capture any precious breath of air and circulate a welcome breeze – early air conditioning, Arab-style.
The visitor centre is a great place to glean an understanding of this fascinating area. It is here that the uninitiated can learn the little rituals and etiquette that surrounds coffee drinking. In fact, you will probably be offered a cup while you are here, as the provision of refreshment is something very deeply rooted among these warm people. They are delighted to show you how to accept and how to politely refuse another cup. Do it wrong and you may be drinking coffee all day.
Sharjah Light Festival takes place every February, when 12 of the emirate’s unique structures provide the canvas for a week-long kaleidoscope of visual effects, illuminations and projections. Already stunning architecture is further enhanced by a myriad of colours and magical displays from international and local visual artists.
The emirate’s largest mosque, the King Faisal Mosque, is illuminated every night from 7pm for the duration of the event, and the Al Majaz Waterfront provides stunning reflections in a light and sound display.
Al Noor Mosque is an architectural statement in itself, with 34 elegant cascading domes and calming vanilla decor, but more importantly, it is a centre for cultural understanding that warmly welcomes non-Muslims. A Monday hour-long tour gives female visitors the chance to get a tiny taste of life as a Muslim woman. Maryam seems delighted to help me on with the black, loose-fitting abiyah, and expertly wrapping my hijab, happy for me to use my own fine linen scarf around my neck and head, as it is less slippery than the silk scarves provided. It’s all a pleasure to wear and extremely comfortable.
Heading out about 80km to Khor Fakkan on the Gulf of Oman, where many of Sharjah’s resort hotels are located, brings the arid landscape to life. It comes as no surprise to see mile upon mile of golden sand, punctuated with dusty date palms, alongside the 21st century highway. And it’s more mountainous than might be imagined.
There are occasional communities along the road and about 25km from the coast is the Friday Market. This market began life some years ago as a one-man stall selling provisions for weary travellers on a Friday, the Islamic weekend, and has since grown into a seven-day a week outdoor facility. This is the place to try foods that never get to our shores – a hard green plum-shaped fruit with a delicate and very juicy taste (not dissimilar to a pear), tiny sweet bananas, palm coconuts and even bottles of cool camel’s milk.
Sharjah may be a dry emirate, in terms of its arid landscape and lack of alcohol, but it is simply dripping with culture and allure. A few days without beer is a small price to pay for the tremendously warm welcome you’ll experience here.
• Liz Fullick was a guest of the Sharjah Tourist Board (www.sharjahtourism.ae).
Doubles at the Radisson Blue Resort Sharjah (www.radissonblu.com/resort-sharjah) cost from £87 room only.
Emirates (www.emirates.com) fly from London Heathrow to Dubai from £360 return.