Sharjah makes capital out of its culture
SHARJAH // Pulling a dusty, overflowing folder entitled “Renovated heritage mosques” from his file cabinet, Dr Abdul Sattar al Azzawi finally has a reason to assemble these documents and photos in an elaborate booklet.
He has time to be thorough. Until 2014, to be exact, when Sharjah takes over the title as the Capital of Islamic Culture.
“Finally, the world will see why Sharjah deserves this title,” said Dr al Azzawi, the Islamic archaeology expert at the emirate’s Directorate of Heritage.
“It is not because we have beautiful mosques, as most countries have mosques, but because the emirate put great effort in maintaining and renovating mosques that are hundreds of years old.”
The Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) last week chose Sharjah as the Capital of Islamic Culture five years hence, a decision widely hailed as recognition of the emirate’s efforts in establishing itself as a cultural centre for the region.
Culture ministers from the OIC’s 57 member states met in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, to mark the start of its tenure as Capital of Islamic Culture for 2009, and declared that Sharjah would assume the mantle in 2014.
And culture is not hard to find in Sharjah. The emirate has areas dedicated to art, with more than 90 buildings and institutions in the “heritage” area alone. There, one can find displays dedicated to Emirati achievements in poetry, theatre, music and calligraphy.
The building that houses the Heritage Directorate is 200 years old. It was formerly a royal house, with massive open spaces and a majlis, intact wind towers and sections of the original “Sharjah wall” that once protected the emirate.
Not all the government buildings are that old, but most are visually compelling; some modern ones are covered in layers of Arabesque and Islamic designs along the interiors and tall arches recapturing various periods of Islamic civilisation.
The emirate also has 24 museums, including the Museum of Islamic Civilisation, a structure that stands as a testament to the various Islamic periods, with its golden dome in the style of Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque and extended arches that recall the Abbasid period, between the eighth and 13th centuries AD, decorated in colourful glass mosaics.
Among its many artefacts, the museum houses pages of a Quran that dates from the 7th-century migration of the Prophet Mohammed and his followers to Medina.
“Culture is a real job here,” said Dr al Azzawi, “and people with specialisation in any aspect of it, whether Islamic or performance or contemporary, will be supported here and will bloom. It is a way of life here.”
He has overseen the renovation of more than 10 mosques, using original building materials such as coral, while attempting to stay true to the original designs. He said they were just “one reason” why Sharjah was being recognised.
“A mosque is more than a building, it is the reflection of the community around it,” he said, adding that they were “a place of meeting for all the walks of life and, in essence, is the cultural heart of a society.” He is now looking for another mosque to renovate by 2014.
This is not the first recognition of Sharjah’s cultural clout. In 1998, it was named the Cultural Capital of the Arab World by Unesco. The latest title is viewed in the emirate as a reinforcement of that reputation.
“You just have to come to Sharjah and you will know why it is considered a cultural capital,” said Abdulaziz al Musallam, the emirate’s director of heritage and cultural affairs.
Sharjah, which translates to “rising sun”, dates back more than 6,000 years. In the second-century AD, it was marked on a map by the Greek geographer Ptolemy.
The modern Sharjah, considered to be the most conservative emirate, embraces its traditional Arabic and Islamic roots in every aspect of life, from the artistic and architectural to the spiritual and social.
“Everywhere you look in Sharjah, there is bit of culture captured either in its buildings or the way of life as Islamic culture is part of our Arabic culture,” said Mr al Musallam.
He said the emirate’s love affair with culture could be traced back to the 1920s, when it opened its first cultural forum.
That forum was revived in the 1980s by Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed, the Ruler of Sharjah, who set out an ambitious cultural programme.
“The Ruler ordered the establishment of a wide range of cultural and educational venues,” said Mr al Musallam, “from museums to theatres to encouraging literature through book fairs, and so much more.
“All serve as the foundation of a larger remarkable vision that conserves our heritage and enriches our culture through interactions with other cultures.” In 2001, in recognition of his efforts, Sheikh Sultan received the King Faisal Prize for Service to Islam.
“Culture is the most peaceful means of dialogue with other nations and that is His Highness’s way of strengthening relations with others,” Mr al Musallam said.
The emirate also hosts numerous cultural events. “We try our best to reach out to our community and turn our museums into a more active process that cultivate culture within the people themselves,” said Aisha Dimas, a curator at the Museum of Islamic Civilisation.
“There is a focus on developing the intellect and on encouraging people to seek knowledge in all forms as that is part of Islam and part of our heritage.”http://www.thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20091021/NATIONAL/710209826/1040