Sharjah’s Mleiha Archaeological Centre - a step back in time

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It's believed that when important figures died in Mleiha, they took with them their most cherished treasures – pottery, swords and jewellery – for the after life. Sometimes they took their camel, horse – or even both.

Once inside the grave, their loyal, unsuspecting animal companions were killed.

“First, the pit was dug, and then the camel was guided into the grave, wearing its bridle and saddle and with a pilgrim flask, a sword and a quiver of arrows. The camel was then made to kneel down, its head pulled back, and it was killed,” explains Ajmal Hasan, the education manager at the recently opened Mleiha ­Archaeological Centre in Sharjah.

Pieces of charcoal found in one camel’s mouth gives a radio­carbon date of between AD74 and AD125.

Known as “baliya” practice, it was a custom in the late pre-­Islamic period that involved the immolation of camels and horses in a grave associated with the grave of their owner. A life-size model of a camel and a horse inside a grave can be seen at the centre, but what makes the trip to Mleiha Archaeological Centre especially interesting is that you can go to the real graves of 17 camels and two horses and see what they were like 1,700 to 1,800 years ago.

One baliya includes the offering of an Arabian horse (complete with a gold disc bridle on it) and a bukht hybrid camel, which is a cross between the one-humped dromedary and the two-humped bakhtrian camel).

“It must have been a particularly important person who died to take down with him or her these animals in their prime years, and with all that gold on the horse,” Hasan explains.

This is just one of the rituals of the UAE’s ancestors that can be discovered at Mleiha (pronounced “mm-lay-ha”).

“Mleiha allows you to step back in time and learn about the settlers here during the ­Palaeolithic, Neolithic, Bronze, Iron and pre-Islamic periods by actually visiting some of the sites where they lived and died,” Hasan says.

While the discoveries were made more than 30 years ago, the Mleiha archaeological and eco-tourism venture was launched by Shurooq (Sharjah ­Investment and Development ­Authority) in January this year, with new activities slowly being added to the project.

Currently focusing on the archaeological sites, trekking across the sand dunes, gravel plains and limestone mountain landscape of Mleiha, it’s best to call to book your activities in advance. Trekking through the mountainous terrain – such as the “Valley of the Caves”, where visitors, if they’re lucky and vigilant, can find pieces of flint dating to the Stone Age – is subject to weather conditions.

“Mleiha, one of Sharjah’s central region cities, connects ­Sharjah’s east coast to its west coast, and is the perfect destination for tourists and residents who seek adventure, exploration and historical information,” says Mahmoud Rashid Deemas, the Mleiha Archaeological Centre’s manager.

Mleiha suits all target audiences, he says. “Outdoor enthusiasts, history seekers, families, explorers and those simply seeking relaxation will find what they are looking for in Mleiha,” he says. “Archaeological tourism, eco-tourism, adventure tourism are all available in Mleiha, and very soon spa and resort ­tourism.”

The journey begins with an informative tour that includes everything from a short video explaining how the landscape was in ancient times (greener and wetter) to the artefacts discovered over the years.

Among the artefacts is a piece of gypsum with an ancient Arabian inscription on it, dating to the 2nd century BC. The language is Hasaitic, a north-east Arabian dialect, and is found on tomb slabs, bronze funerary plaques and copper vessels and pottery items in Mleiha.

The centre is built around one of the circular, mid-Bronze Age (known as Umm an-Nar) tombs. Constructed in about 2,300BC, the burial site was used for about 200 years. Measuring 13.9 metres in diameter, the tomb is the second largest in the UAE from the Umm an-Nar period. The chamber is separated into an eastern and western half, both of which are further subdivided into four units with doorways connecting one chamber to another.

“They had even built a stone gutter at the top of the tomb, so that there was a proper drainage system to drain out the rainwater,” says Hasan, who also points out a key-like figure carved on a stone just below the opening of the tomb.

While mostly looted by grave robbers, archaeologists managed to uncover some incomplete human skeletons and bones, as well as a number of personal adornments from this time period, including necklaces, bracelets, beads, copper pins, rings, tools and weapons. These findings suggest the people buried here ­during this period had connections to Mesopotamia and the whole Gulf region.

The team of experts from the centre takes visitors towards the Jebel Faya site to see a complex of three Bronze Age tombs. Named FAY-NE 20, 21 and 22, these sites were excavated in 2005 by the team at the Sharjah Directorate of Antiquities. Each of the three tombs was constructed during different phases of the Bronze Age.

More than 120 human burial chambers have been found at Mleiha. Besides those from the Bronze Age, there are graves from the Iron Age and Pre-Islamic periods, with some Pre-Islamic graves of the subterranean type, featuring mud-brick towers built over them. The order is significant – each faces north, with the largest often in the middle, perhaps indicative of a family, where the highest-ranked one will be in the middle.

One grave dating from AD27 to AD78 is of an infant found on its left side in a shallow pit close to a house in the central part of the ancient city. The baby was between 6 to 9 months old when it died, and was adorned with a necklace made of various stone beads, including etched carnelian.

“How people lived is of great interest to visitors, and so we like to show them how the richest lived, by visiting the structure we named ‘The Palace’ to [compare it with] the ‘Farmhouse Complex’ to see how the common people lived,” Hasan says.

Seven archaeological sites, including the horse and camel cemetery, can only be reached by four-wheel drive. The most impressive, thanks to its sheer size, is known as MLH-8. This compound occupies an area of 5,068 square metres, and is situated 500 metres east of the Mleiha fort and 950 metres north of the large MLH-5 cemetery. It dates to between the 1st and the mid-3rd centuries BC.

Here visitors will find The ­Palace, a fortified central building built around an inner courtyard. Given the scale of its architecture, it could have been the palace of a ruler or chief.

“We left some of the broken pottery as we found it, to give the visitors a real feel for what it must have been like here,” Hasan explains. “It is believed it was completely burnt down, based on evidence found and that it came under attack.” Archaeologists are unsure who attacked, though.

A number of valuables and personal effects found in and around the corner entrance could indicate people fleeing quickly and dropping some of their possessions as they tried to escape.

In another site, known as MLH-6, there are 16 rooms, and a centre courtyard where there are eight large irregular blocks of white stone in a circular ­arrangement with a black stone in the middle.

“It is believed that people sat on these white stones using them as seats next to the grinding stones to make the flour for their bread,” Hasan says. The round pit ovens, or “tanoor” are some of the interesting finds inside a semi-­subterranean kitchen. A five-step spiral staircase leads to a kitchen of two tanoor ovens, and a grinder. An incense burner of white stone with a cylindrical base was discovered just outside the ­kitchen.

“You see that several modern traditions have ancient origins,” Hasan says.

One of the best activities to try is the trekking, and given Hasan’s background in natural history and his interest in flora and fauna, visitors will learn more about the plants and living creatures of the area as well as the sites.

Trekkers can enjoy spectacular views from the peak of Fossil Rock mountain and Camel Rock (where part of the mountain looks like the head of a camel), and visits to caves that date back to early and late Stone Age periods.

Besides a lot of walking, exploring and learning, there’s also something for thrillseekers – a heart-pumping ride through the Sharjah desert on a Polaris buggy. There’s something for everyone at Mleiha.

Don’t miss these attractions

• Ancient currency

Coin moulds were found at the site, together with a large quantity of bronze slag inside the fort, suggesting that coins were being minted here. More than 300 coins (pictured right) were also found. These are in denomination of tetradrachms, drachmas and obols, which may have been introduced into eastern Arabia and Mesopotamia by Alexander the Great, and continued to be minted by his successors, the Seleucids, as well as by Arab rulers. On the obverse, the coins bear the head of the Greek god Hercules wearing the scalp of the Nemean lion, while the reverse shows an image probably of the god Zeus or “Shamsh” sitting on a stool holding a sceptre with a palm tree behind him. Some coins bear the name Abi’el. Abi’el is thought to have been a south-east Arabian ruler of the late 3rd or early 2nd century BC, although some scholars now think the word may refer to a series of female rulers, which suggests a dynasty of queens could have ruled Mleiha.

• Oldest site in Arabia

One of the important sites is in Jebel Faya, which provides valuable information on the early history of mankind. At present, anthropologists consider it one of the earliest site outside of Africa where stone tools produced by “anatomically modern humans” have been found. The stone tools found at FAY-NE1 dated from about 125,000 years ago, suggesting that humans may have left East Africa earlier than previously thought. Visitors can see these stone tools on display at the entrance to Mleiha Archaeological Centre.

• Refreshment with a view

Enjoying a coffee or tea with the desert and mountains in the background is a must after a few hours of exploration. Relax at the Bystro Café to enjoy the landscape and natural views of the area. There’s also an I Love Sharjah gift shop.