In our fast-moving world, the most enriching moments often come when you’re just standing still. In a museum, for instance, when peering at a painting or admiring an artifact. The emirate of Sharjah fields the densest collection of museums and galleries (22 and counting) within the UAE. Unesco noticed and named it the Cultural Capital of the Arab Word in 1998. The title of Capital of Islamic Culture followed in 2014.

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Inside the Sharjah Heritage Museum. Image courtesy of Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority.

Running down a list of Sharjah’s museums practically ticks every box you need to broaden your horizon or connect with our shared humanity. Fine arts? Check. Old planes? Got it. Ancient ceramics? Sure thing. Here’s a quick overview of the must-see contenders.

Building a bridge to the past

Preserving its cultural heritage has long been an integral part of Sharjah’s vision for the future. The emirate has been busy restoring its historic core – called Heart of Sharjah – and rebooted several of the traditional coral-and-gypsum buildings as exhibit spaces. A former merchant home is now the Sharjah Heritage Museum where curators have pulled out all the multimedia stops to help visitors gain a deeper understanding of traditional customs and lifestyles of the region. A wander around the six themed galleries yields intriguing nuggets of knowledge about desert navigation, ancient dances, wedding ceremonies, Islamic holidays, the role of women, natural medicine and various other aspects of daily life.

From here, it’s just a date toss to the striking Al Hisn Fort, originally built in 1823 for defensive purposes as well as a royal residence and seat of government. Demolished during the 1960s modernization craze, it has been painstakingly restored and now shelters a modern exhibit that takes visitors on an intriguing trip back in time. A spin includes stops in the jail tower and in the armory with its collection of daggers and firearms. Nearby, a video explains the process of date syrup extraction in the grooved room where the process historically took place. Upstairs, furnished rooms provide a glimpse into the lifestyle of the ruling family.

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Exterior of the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization. Image courtesy of Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority.

Before exiting Al Hisn via the heavy teak door, you’re invited to stop for tea and dates in the former arrest cell. Thus fortified, head over to the exquisite Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization, the crown jewel among the emirate’s cultural institutions. In a converted souk modelled after London’s Natural History Museum and topped by a gilded dome, it’s a paean to centuries of contributions made by Muslim artists, scientists, architects and clerics. The ground-floor galleries intriguingly juxtapose religion and technology. While one row zeroes in on aspects of Islamic faith, including the traditional Haj pilgrimage to Mecca, exhibits in the opposite rooms showcase a panoply of scientific innovations going back to medieval times. Upstairs, the focus is squarely on arts and crafts with glass cases virtually spilling over with manuscripts, carved objects, textiles and ceramics originating as early as the 7th century. Don’t miss the architectural highlight: a cobalt-blue mosaic inlaid with gilded zodiac signs inside the central dome.

Canvassing contemporary Arab art

But Sharjah’s main artistic ammo lies in linking its local heritage with a globally-minded visual culture. A lively contemporary art scene has flourished here in recent years, championed to a large extent by the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF). Created in 2009 by Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, the youngest daughter of the emirate’s ruler, SAF not only hosts the internationally renowned Sharjah Biennial art expo but also puts on a year-round potpourri of exhibitions, performances and artist talks. The most cutting-edge works are presented in a cluster of white-cube galleries orbiting Al Mureijah Square in the southern historic center. At the nearby Calligraphy Museum works on canvas, paper, ceramics and wood illustrate the evolution of this timeless art form that elevates the handwritten word to ornate script. Bonus: the setting in a lovely building centered on an arcaded atrium.

But top billing among Sharjah’s art institutions goes to the Sharjah Art Museum, an imposing building on the northern edge of the Heart of Sharjah. Already an art-scene fixture for its high-caliber permanent collection and temporary exhibitions, the museum made a major splash in May 2018 with a new wing spotlighting Modernist works from across the Arab world – Morocco to Iraq. On long-term loan by the prestigious Barjeel Art Foundation, the exhibit includes often politically charged pieces by such seminal artists as Kadhim Hayder, Ibrahim El Salahi and Inji Efflatoun as well as the UAE’s own Hassan Sharif and Abdul Qader Al Rais.

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An antique car parked outside of the Sharjah Classic Cars Museum. Image courtesy of Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority.

Tracking down the roots of transportation

When Al Mahatta Airport opened in 1932, it marked not only a milestone for Sharjah but for the entire Gulf region. The modest landing strip was the first airport in these parts, built in just two months by the British who needed a refueling stop for flights between Britain and India. A model of the first plane to land, a British-made Hanno H42 four-propeller biplane operated by Imperial Airways, is among the star exhibits of what is now the Al Mahatta Museum in the airport’s old terminal building. The small presentation also includes vintage footage about the early days at the airport which remained in operation until 1977 when the Sharjah International Airport opened 10km away. In 2017, a carmine red Mercedes 1985 that served as the first ever ambulance at the modern airport joined the collection of exhibits at the museum.

Those who prefer wheels to wings should make a beeline to the Sharjah Classic Cars Museum which showcases around a hundred vintage gems. The oldest model is a 1915 Dodge touring car, a wooden-wheeled vehicle with a three-speed manual transmission that could propel it to an impressive 80kph. Also part of the collection are a Model T Ford, a Rolls Royce 25/30 and other vehicles built before WWII. Another striking specimen is a 1969 Mercedes-Benz 600 Pullman donated by a Sharjah’s current ruler, Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi.

Lonely Planet has produced this article for Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority. All editorial views are those of Lonely Planet alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.

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