The pearl merchant Obeid Al Naboodah was one of the most successful traders in 19th century Sharjah. He grew rich by trading pearls with Africa, France, and particularly India, where the maharajas' appetite for the sea jewels would have put Margaret Thatcher to shame – they draped themselves in pearls, sewed them on to headdresses, and wove them into truly fantastical carpets.
Al Naboodah, says Manal Ataya, the director general of the Sharjah Museums Department, was best known for his generosity. "Obeid used to buy merchants' goods at the end of the working day to ensure that they made a profit," she says. "He helped the poor and needy enormously."
Born into one of the most powerful tribes – his full name is Obaid Bin Isa Bin Ali Al Shamsi, and he was given the nickname of Al Naboodah by his fellow traders – he transformed his father's house into a stunning example of Gulf architecture, with ornate carvings by Persian craftspeople, heavy carved wooden doors, and Ionic columns made of teak imported from India.
“The columns add a very special aesthetic quality to Bait Al Naboodah,” says Ataya. “No other homes or buildings in early Sharjah were decorated with this type of wooden column.”
The house, like most in early Sharjah, encloses a spacious courtyard, and it grew with Al Naboodah's family – he had seven children. It eventually reached more than 10,000 metres and is unique among those of its time for having given separate entrances to the areas that were homes to different sections of the family.
Now, the house has been restored, and is operated as a museum in the Heart of Sharjah. Inside there is a reconstruction of the master bedroom, kitchen area, outdoor seating area, and even the bathroom and shower that the house had. Other rooms have been repurposed to tell the history of Sharjah's once lucrative pearl trade.
Al Naboodah, who also kept residences in Mumbai and Paris, was exemplary among pearl merchants, but it was a profitable business for many in what was then the Trucial States. However, in the 1930s, a Japanese researcher called Mikimoto Kokichi developed a method to induce oysters to produce pearls, and the natural pearl market in the Gulf plummeted. Bait Al Naboodah stands as a document, not only of Sharjah's past, but of a particular boom and bust cycle – a good reminder that the UAE's economic history is much longer than the 1960s oil boom and the 2008 crash.
The family lived in the house until the 1970s, but it gradually deteriorated as the years took their toll. It was bequeathed to Sharjah Heritage, which undertook an initial renovation in the 1990s. "Before the first restoration, the site drained poorly and water accumulated on the rooftops and around the base of the building, creating cracks in the walls, ceilings and floors," says Ataya. A termite infestation further damaged the house.
The current renovation team has been careful to preserve the features of the house. When occupied, it would have been full of life. "The courtyard provided an outdoor space for the family to gather," says Ataya, adding that it had trees such as palm and Indian almond. Children would have run noisily up and down the spiral staircases, which are another unusual design feature of the house.
Bait Al Naboodah also placed family and work life in close proximity. "Obaid's majlis was located in a separate building opposite the house," she continues. "It was used for receiving guests and also functioned as an office. Obaid hosted merchants and dignitaries, including sheikhs, who met to discuss trade news and social and political affairs."
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When I visited, on a hot day, the media professionals found themselves lingering upstairs in what is called the "summer rooms", where the family would have lived during the hot months, and maybe others from the neighbourhood too. Bait Al Naboodah reportedly had a better proto-a/c system than most houses of the time.
Air vents upstairs trap the wind and recirculate it throughout the room, cooling it by a number of degrees. The coral walls are porous, meaning air can circulate in and out through those as well.
The house’s innovative cooling system wasn’t just for the family’s comfort – it meant they could remain there during the summer months, and not miss out on any trading.
And even today, though Sharjah Museums has added real air conditioning, the summer rooms are still just a bit cooler.