How Sharjah's old buildings tell a human story of the emirate's growth and character

These vintage structures trace the evolution of the city and its embrace of its cosmopolitan residents

Built in the the 1960s, the Sharjah Cinema was the first purpose-built film theatre in Sharjah. Photo: Almulla Family Archive
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Over the course of a century, Sharjah’s buildings have collected their own stories of the emirate’s history and development, according to author and arts patron Sultan Al Qassemi.

Speaking at the Thessaloniki Book Fair on Saturday, where Sharjah is the guest of honour, Al Qassemi discussed the 2021 book Building Sharjah, a co-edited compendium of the emirate's modern architecture.

An Arabic translation is also in the works.

Due to Sharjah’s strategic location for the British Empire prior to the UAE’s formation and its reputation as a regional hub for trade, Al Qassemi, who founded the Barjeel Arts Foundation, said the emirate set the tone for the multiculturalism that would become a hallmark for the entire country.

"The Emirate of Sharjah, it is a microcosm of the Arab world. It is a city that is very globalised even before globalisation became a theme. It is a city that accepted people from the west and east over more than one century," he said.

"Sharjah is a city that also saw the first airport being built on the coast before the UAE was founded and many of the first educational and cultural institutions was established there.”

Featuring 600 images, Building Sharjah traces that development by featuring a combination of the emirate's most famous buildings and hidden gems. These include the Sharjah Post Office, the Airport Mosque with its elaborate facade, the Sheba Hotel where traders and entrepreneurs often met, as well as The Central Souq and Al Qasimia Primary School for Boys.

More than the dazzling designs, some of these forgotten buildings provide commentary on what was happening on the ground.

"The book also has an image of the first purpose-built cinema in Sharjah in the 1960s,” Al Qassemi said.

“What is interesting is that as part of the building is a Chinese restaurant. This tells us that Sharjah had Chinese communities were residing here more 70 years ago.”

Building Sharjah was nearly a decade in the making, with most of time spent collating never seen before photos and testimonies from photographers, architects and former residents of the buildings highlighted in the book.

One of which is the Flying Saucer, a fabulously brutalist structure built in 1978 that became a shopping hub before being renovated and reopened in 2020 as an arts and events space.

"I had a contact in Australia who obtained the images from the engineer who maintained the building,” Al Qassemi said.

Sharjah’s buildings also challenge misconceptions surrounding its environment, he notes, one of which is that the emirate is a desert city.

"It is not true because Sharjah has various landscapes," he said. "There are oases, mountainous areas and there are these large swaths of desert."

The construction method of Sharjah buildings are often dictated by the terrain, Al Qassemi notes.

"In the past, we used to build coastal buildings using corals, which we now preserve as it is a living organism, and clay. “While in the mountainous areas, stone and rocks were used. And because of Sharjah's strong trade with the Indian subcontinent, there was a lot of teak wood imported,” he said.

Sometimes, these disparate materials come together as in Sharjah's former airport, which is now the Al Mahatta Museum.

“This building contains clay and coral, and secondly, cement, aluminium and glass,” Al Qassemi said. “This is the first building in the UAE and perhaps maybe even in the Gulf, where we can see the use of all these materials together.”

Speaking to The National after his session, Al Qassemi states architecture's role should not be ignored in cultural discussions as the story of Sharjah’s buildings is ultimately a human one.

"It is more than just being a technical conversation. You can tell a lot about the city because it shows you its character and reflects the people who live there, who all have their own individual stories," he says.

"You can also tell a lot about the city's embrace of its citizens, as well as migrants across the decades and centuries. So if you think about low-cost housing, whether it's in the city centre or the outskirts, it reflects the embrace of people who come from a different social income class.”

Updated: May 19, 2024, 10:21 PM