Discovering Sharjah’s Forgotten Built Heritage

A new series of architecture walking tours offers a step back in time — to the 1970s and ’80s.

Abra water taxis on Sharjah Creek. (Photo: Nicola Chilton)

Before Dubai rose to prominence, Sharjah was the OG of the Trucial States, the precursor to the nation known today as the United Arab Emirates. Home to the region’s first airport, built in 1932 as a staging post for commercial flights between the United Kingdom and India, Sharjah was also the site of the country’s first hotel, the BOAC Rest House, a place for airline passengers to overnight.

But as the skylines of neighboring Dubai and Abu Dhabi started to climb ever higher, Sharjah was eclipsed to the point where today it rarely features on the itineraries of visitors to the UAE. Which is a shame. Just a 20-minute drive from downtown Dubai, the emirate’s eponymous capital is home to the visionary Sharjah Art Foundation, fine museums, and groundbreaking projects such as the Foster + Partners–designed House of Wisdom, which turns the concept of the conventional library on its head.

Built in 1981, Sharjah’s old vegetable souk has been abandoned in favor of a sleek new waterfront facility, though there are plans to preserve it. (Photo: Nicola Chilton)

Thanks to a new series of free walking tours launched by the Sharjah Architecture Triennial, the city also provides a fascinating insight into the region’s architectural heritage. Ancient history this isn’t — precious few buildings in Sharjah are more than five decades old. Instead, the two-hour neighborhood walks, led once a month by architect Sahil Latheef, SAT’s senior public programing coordinator, focus on structures from the early boom years of the 1970s and ’80s.

Though much from that era has been lost, enough survives to fuel thought-provoking discussions about rapid urban growth and the impact it has on communities. And while touring decades-old municipal buildings, bus stations, and vegetable souks may not appeal to everyone, fans of urbex and architecture will find plenty to inspire them.

sharjaharchitecture.org

 

This article originally appeared in the March/May 2022 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Walk This Way”).

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