Heritage doors displayed at Sharjah's Canal al Qasba

Evil eyes, carved elephants and even coffee pots. Until recently, front doors spoke a language of their own.

SHARJAH // Regardless of time and place, the front door has been the first thing you encounter as you enter a house, and the last thing on your way out. Until 30 years ago, when street names and numbers were not as well developed or known, the front door was the best means of identifying someone's home. Each door had its own marks and stories.

"The traditional Emirati door used to have lots of character, and it was the landmark used in identifying someone's residence, with some families of the same tribe having a distinct mark on their doors," said Abdul Aziz al Musallam, the cultural and heritage affairs director at Sharjah's Department of Culture and Information.

Visitors were able to see for themselves 13 of these "distinct" old traditional doors, lined up in a row, some as old as 100 years, in a free exhibition in Canal al Qasba, Sharjah. The exhibition opened on Thursday and ended last night.

"These days doors are mass produced, and not a lot of thought or character is put into them," said Mr al Musallam, who has been working on heritage projects in Sharjah for 15 years. "We wanted to remind people of the kinds of doors that once existed throughout the UAE," he said. "A door told you a lot about the culture and tradition of the people's homes it guarded."

The doors on display were saved from abandoned traditional homes.

Mostly about two metres high, the different shades of brown wooden doors have various carved designs on them, some with heart-shaped figures, others with the coffee pot dallah. Some of the doors bear the mark of their place of birth, with the ones from India intricately carved with elephants and flowers.

"There is nothing like an original," Mr al Musallam said. "The next time you see an old door, stop and knock on it, in appreciation of its beauty and history."

One popular design, which sprang from local beliefs, is a circle carved within a rhomboid geometric shape, known as the "Ain al Hasoud" (eye of envy).

"They would carve this symbol around the frame of the door as protection against envy and preventing the evil eye from entering the house through the main door," Mr al Musallam said.

The most popular wood was teak from India. Other woods were imported from East Africa and Iran due to the scarcity of trees in the emirates. Massive iron and copper nails kept the wood sturdy and were used to make locks and knockers. The small size of the door, compared with today's standards, was not without its reasons.

"They put thought into every aspect of the door. It was purposely made short and small, so people had to bow when they entered the house," he said. "It was a sign of humility and respect to the place you were entering."

Mosques and schools had even smaller doors, Mr al Musallam said.

Another distinct feature in local and Arab doors was the "mini" door, known as al farkha, within the main door.

"Instead of opening the whole door, residents would open the al farkha, where only a single person could squeeze through or things could be passed on to the residents inside without being intrusive," Mr al Musallam said. "It was a great protection against theft. A thief couldn't carry the objects he stole through the small door, and would have to struggle to open the bigger and heavier main door."

The exhibition included the attendance of a local carpenter who specialises in the renovation and recreation of traditional doors.

"There is renewed interest from Emiratis. I have people coming to me with a picture of an old door that once belonged to their family and asking me to make a replica of it," said the carpenter Ameen Kul, a 45-year-old from Pakistan.

With more than 30 years' experience in wood carving, 15 of those in the UAE, Mr Kul takes four to six days to complete a door, depending on its complexity. Prices range from a few hundred dirhams up to Dh2,000.

But some doors are priceless, like the oldest known door in the Arab world, the door to the "bayet al kaaba" in Mecca, where the holy black rock is kept.