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Saturday, March 25, 2017

12/12: Sharjah, UAE: Flag Island & the Emirate's Heritage Area: Part 1

My apologies for not writing this post before now. I have been preoccupied with my responsibilities on our Homeowners' Association Board of Directors and planning our next two trips: leaving in early May for a six week trip to  visit our daughters in Michigan and New York and reconnecting with family and friends in Ottawa, Canada before driving down to Florida to be beach bums at our favorite state park. I have also been a tad busy  fleshing out details of our 3.5 month long escape to South America this fall. Thanks to Lil Red for getting me back on track to finish writing the last few blog posts since our trip ended in mid-December!

After enjoying a few days in the United Arab Emirates' best known cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, we wanted to explore Sharjah, the capital of the country's third largest emirate located north of Dubai. Even though the city is overshadowed by both Abu Dhabi and Dubai, it is older than both. Recorded references to Sharjah, which means 'Eastern' in Arabic, date back to at least 1490.
As we drove toward Sharjah, it was as if the city was just another Dubai suburb because there was no discernible break between the cities on the highway. We headed first to Flag Island which boasted a giant UAE flag and the large Khalid Lagoon, home of one of the world's largest fountains. After several days in the UAE, we had almost gotten used to reading about the world's largest fountain, the largest mall, the largest mosque, the tallest building, the biggest hotel, etc!

The Flag Island Amphitheater:
From Flag Island, we enjoyed fabulous views across the lagoon of the Sharjah Real Estate Registration Directorate! The boats moored in the lagoon weren't too shabby to look at either.
The Sharjah Department of Culture and Information and Media Center was housed in an equally ostentatious building.
And finally, the Sharjah Finance Department:
Walking around the tip of Flag Island gave us great views of ships of all sizes and descriptions.

There were so many gardens of petunias all over the island - I don't think we've ever seen that many before in one place. But of course, we were in the UAE where everything must be bigger than anywhere else.
The cute 'See You Next Time' sign as we left Flag Island to explore other areas of the city:
The impressive King Faisal Mosque was close by. One of the largest mosques in the UAE, it had room for 3,000 worshipers.

I was wandering around the interior courtyard by myself when I noticed only the 'Gents' Entrance' to the prayer hall. A man came up to me and said very kindly he would take pictures of the mosque's interior for me. I was so touched by his thoughtfulness.

Abdel said he was visiting Sharjah from Algeria. 
A few minutes later as Steven and I walked across the huge Al Ittihad Square, Abdel caught up to us to give us a couple of bottles of water as it was so hot - what a marvelous act of kindness to two strangers. His gesture was so typical of so much thoughtfulness and generosity we've received by so many other Muslims in our travels. The square was once used a turning circle for aircraft using the original Sharjah airport!
At one end of the square was the soaring Al Ittihad (Union) Monument which was unveiled in 1989.

From a distance, the monument looked very impressive but, once we were up close, we noticed it hadn't been maintained well. There were broken tiles, lots of trash, missing bricks, etc. It reminded us of many parts of Abu Dhabi that were similarly poorly maintained.
We drove next to visit a number of souks near the Corniche or road bordering the waterfront. We found a parking spot where we didn't have to return for about eight hours but thought, surely, we'd be back well before then and on our way back to Dubai. We should have known better!

Even before getting out of the car, we knew we were near the Bird and Animal Souk from its odors!
This was a sugar glider, an animal I'd never heard of before.

Freda - this photo of turtles was for you.

Just in case you wanted to see yet another photo of a falcon!

Seeing these turkeys reminded us of how much we sure missed eating turkey at Thanksgiving for yet another year.

Nothing like getting your food fresh; customers picked out their live chickens and then saw them prepared right in front of them! I love chicken but do prefer buying our chicken all packaged neatly in our local grocery store meat shelves.
Outside the souk, there was store after store selling every variety of bird food. It was all laid out like buying spices at one of the many spice souks we'd seen in other Arab cities.

Walking along the very busy Corniche Road toward the Heritage Area in downtown Sharjah was a tad nerve wracking but at least it was made more pleasant by all the nurseries we passed. Janina and Pat: You both would have loved the marvelous selection of plants.

The bags of Dubai Natural Fert(ilizer) cow manure from the Green Desert Fertilizer Factory looked like the ones at our local Home Depot back home.
Admiring all the boats in the Khor Khalid harbor made me think I must have inherited some of my maternal grandfather's seafaring blood. He spent his entire professional life sailing the world as a captain on the P and O, the world's oldest cruise line.

Sharjah Court seemed immense for such a small emirate.

The Masjid al-Maghfirah Mosque was one of the few we didn't stop in or look at more closely this trip.
This was the first of several huge copper pots we saw in Sharjah; no idea why they were there and nowhere else in the UAE.
The rather swish Radisson Hotel marked the northern tip of the Corniche before we headed inland.
I read that Sharjah's reputation for tourism and culture has been steadily growing; the city was the Capital of Arab Tourism in 2015 and the Islamic Culture Capital of the Arab Region in 2014. Sharjah previously served as the UNESCO Cultural Capital of the Arab World. Evidence of this could still be seen in the beautifully restored Heritage Area, a cluster of traditional mud-brick buildings scattered around a number of irregular squares and alleyways.

At the center of the heritage district was the Al Arsa Souk that we walked through to escape the hot sun. Few of the shops in the winding alleyways were open.
Not sure if this design on a building near the historic area was a stylized 'S' for Sharjah or a snake?
The historic Al Hisn Fort, built in 1823, was in the heart of Sharjah and recreated the days when it was used as the seat of Sharjah's government, the residence of the ruling Al Qawasim ruling family and a jail. As the most important building in Sharjah, it endured various changes over the years, including almost complete destruction, until it was restored in 2013-14 to resemble its original appearance.

A plaque in the square marked the area where Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr II sat on a stone bench constructed along the front wall while people gathered around him for conversation and counsel.
The sign in front of this room as we entered the fort said it was the jail's former 'Arrest Room' - it looked more like a Resting Area to me!
As we toured the recreated jail in the fort, we learned that crime was a rare occurrence in generally peaceful Sharjah but that, when the law was broken, criminals were imprisoned here at the Al Muhalwasa Prison.
The floor directly above the prison was used by guards to keep an eye on the inmates. If a guard addressed one of the prisoners  and he failed to respond, a group of three soldiers entered the jail through the ground floor entrance to investigate. Silence from the inmates could have resulted in injury or death. According to the information we read, prisoners ate the same type of food as the average citizen.

Iron shackles were used to immobilize the prisoners by locking their legs in place. A rope could be tied between the ankle shackles and around their wrists to further hinder movement. Some of the shackles didn't have a key; instead, the cuffs were hammered to secure them in place. 
Breaking the Law: The punishments criminals faced seem harsh by today's standards. However, at a time when daily survival was a challenge, the laws helped deter crime and maintain order. Theft: First offenses for theft were punishable by whipping. Re-offenders and those who stole valuable items, such as gold, money or camels, might have a hand cut off. The severed hand might be displayed in from of Al Hisn as a deterrent for potential thieves. Murder: Typically, murderers were held for one to two weeks before being executed. Punishment might have been less severe if the murder was in self-defense or accidental. Treason: The consequences of committing treason could be disastrous for the government and put the safety of society in peril. Traitors were therefore sentenced to some of the most severe punishments. They were occasionally punished in public as a warning to others not to commit the same crime.
Early Release: When the holy month of Ramadan was approaching, Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr II considered releasing people from Al Muhalwasa. Prisoners could also be released or given a light punishment if the victim or victim's family forgave him for his crime. 
The Trial Process: The judicial process was simple yet reportedly effective in the past as most disputes were solved through mediation. Some people directly approached the Sheikh who was the Ruler or his Deputy Ruler when they had a conflict. They and other dignitaries either solved disputes or referred trials that needed to be addressed by Sharia law to Judge Saif bin Mohammed Al Midfa. He determined the appropriate punishments for criminals. Once Judge Saif announced his verdict, his decision was sent to the Ruler in order for the punishment to be enforced. Male criminals were taken to Al Hisn; it is believed that women were detained elsewhere. 
A document issued by a Sharjah judge: 
From the jail, we then peaked in the fort's Armory, a small room used to store the fort's weapons, located near the main entrance to allow guards to quickly grab weapons. The teak door was rescued from the 1969 demolition of  Al Hisn, making it one of the oldest components of the fort.
The fort was built for designed both for comfort and privacy. The courtyard provided a space for people to enjoy the outdoors without leaving the fort. The ground floor was built without exterior windows except for the one in the arrest room which provided both seclusion and security. The layout of the building also allowed for airflow throughout the corridors. Plants and trees in the courtyard created shade, which also aided in reducing the heat. The building materials also helped to keep the interior of the fort cool.

The first floor had windows and ventilation openings or 'wind scoops' designed to circulate the air. The windows could be shuttered for privacy.
Instead of having a guest book as so many museums had, I liked that Al Hisn had a 'memory tree' in which people wrote down on notes what they had seen and liked.

The next exhibits were on the building materials of the fort and the city.
We learned that men working out at sea cut coral blocks from the seabed for use in constructing the city's walls, buildings and towers. Fan and brain coral were extracted from old coral beds at low tide and left to dry in the sun to reduce the salt content. When the coral was used to build the fort, jus or mortar was sandwiched between layers of coral as you can see in this photo.
The jus was made from crushing and mixing coral and shells with water before sand was added. The mixture was then dried and heated in a kiln, crushed again and mixed with water. The walls were covered with mortar to make them smooth. Together, the materials were strong and helped insulate the buildings against the harsh climate. Alcoves were built into the walls to provide shelving.

Brain Coral and Fan Coral on the left and right, respectively:
A sample of jus or mortar:
The wood doors were made of teak and reinforced with metal studs.
Palm trees were an important building material for traditional coral homes. The people who built Al Hisn, and those who reconstructed it in 2013/14, relied on palm leaves, fronds and fibers to make the ceilings. 
The Al Medbasa room was used to make dibs or date molasses. As we had already learned from visiting museums in other Arab countries this trip, different variations of medbasas were found all over the Gulf. Some were designed like a ladder or a shallow staircase in the ground. Others, such as this one in Al Hisn, were built with grooves in the floor. 
Dibs flowed along the channels and into a pot set in the lowest corner of the floor. Collecting dates was a social event and something that people looked forward to each year. The medbasa enabled the residents of Al Hisn to be self-sufficient. Dibs could last up to a year without spoiling.
Each bag of dates weighed 50-60 lbs.
The Gulf was known for its pearl banks as early as 4000 B.C. In fact, travelers often referred to the coast as 'The Pearl Coast.' The abundance of pearls enticed merchants from all over to find the most valuable specimens. Pearls were once the most sought after local trade product. The scattered islands in the Gulf became temporary homes for those searching for pearls.

Map showing the Pearl Banks:

The name Qawasim is the plural of Qasimi. The Qawasim, who are believed to be descendants of the Prophet, left the area now known as Basra, Iraq, around 1500 to escape aggression from various tribal leaders. They came to Sharjah briefly before going to Persia, now called Iran. Years later, some of them returned to Sharjah in search of security and to establish themselves.

The Qawasim relied on the sea for their livelihood in the 18th and 19th centuries. They supported themselves through fishing, pearling and trade. They sailed trade ships to ports near and far, including India, Yemen, Africa, Iran and Basra. Products such as pearls and dried fish were traded for food, textiles and wood.
The Well: Al Hisn was equipped with a khareeja or saltwater well. The water was mostly used for domestic purposes, as it wasn't suitable for human consumption. It was used to clean the fort, wash clothes and dishes. People also bathed in the brackish water. By using the khareeja, pure water could be reserved for drinking and cooking. At the time, this was particularly important because of the scarcity of fresh water. The water was collected using a bucket made from animal skin tied to a rope. 
The Al Ghurfah room was first used as a meeting place around the early 1930s. It hosted local and foreign dignitaries, such as sheikhs, ministers and merchants. Translators, economists and lawyers would also have met there. They all played a significant role in helping to accomplish important projects such as the negotiation of oil concessions.
A portrait of His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi who was responsible for the restoration and reconstruction of buildings in the old city center in the early 1990s. On a map in 1669, Sharjah was called Quiximi, after the Qasimi family, ancestors of the current ruler. 
We also explored the galleries on the fort's upper level.
The first was the Majlis or meeting room. The pictures illustrated the evolution of Sharjah during the last two centuries. Sharjah dominated maritime trade, which led to conflicts with various powerful countries. Despite international competition, the Qawasim, Sharjah's rulers, were able to continue earning a living through maritime trade by using traditional ships. Sharjah's markets flourished with the trade of pearls, fabrics, wood and seafood. I read that after WWI, Britain sought to link its colonies and Sharjah was chosen as the headquarters for the region's airport. With the discovery of oil in the Arabian Gulf, many people competed for rights over oil concessions. Sharjah's rulers used the proceeds of oil, and later gas, to improve education and the Emirate's development.
Al Mazaghel or Loopholes: This space was designed with special openings where guides could fire upon people from behind the safety of the wall. The guards would position themselves on the floor across from the openings. The loopholes were an important means of defending the fort and were unique to this majils because of its location in the fort and the need to protect the building from all angles.
The uniquely-shaped Muhalwasa Tower was an important safety feature of the fort. The battlements, loopholes and the lack of windows were used to help defend the fort and provide safety for the guards during an attack. Muhalwasa is derived from the Arabic word 'mehalwas' which means twisted. The name also has connections to the verb 'hils' - to embed - which implies that the prison was difficult to escape from.
A guard was stationed outside Al Muhalwasa tower to help defend the fort. The guard also helped monitor the inmates inside the prison from the first floor.
Cannon: Al Hisn was built in a strategic location, overlooking both the desert and the sea. The two cannons in the tower were used to defend the land-based side of the fort. The wooden carriages the cannons sat on made them mobile.
The Tower Guard: From this spot, the guard could keep a close eye on the prisoners below. Guards were armed with rifles and also wore traditional ammunition belts.

The door was extremely low but at least, if you hit your head, you wouldn't take a chunk out because of the sisal heading!
The Sheikh's Room was certainly attractive but in no way luxurious or even very spacious given that he was the ruler of the emirate.

Hatabat Al Tawba or Repentance Wood: The repentance wood was placed in front of Al Hisn over a century ago. Criminals were punished while tied to the post. This post was a replica. The original came from the mast of a pearling ship that was burned in a raging fire when a blind man's home made from palm fronds caught fire while he was cooking fish. The fire spread throughout the neighborhood and the wind carried the fire toward the creek where the pearling ship was anchored. The post was placed outside of Al Hisn as a means of openly punishing criminal behavior. Before the fire, pearl divers who refused to work were tied to the ship's mast as a form of discipline. The repentance wood was there as a witness to the fire, the difficulty of life at sea and to Sharjah's early discipline system.
Our tour of Al Hisn had been very informative and interesting as the exhibits had excellent English information panels unlike so many other museums we'd recently visited. I was so surprised that there were only a couple of other tourists wandering around the fort when we were there. After leaving the fort, we explored other sights in Sharjah's Heritage Area. I hope to share those with you soon in the next post.

Posted on March 25th, 2017 from Littleton, Colorado.

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