Bait Al Naboodah opens window on Sharjah’s pearling glory
SHARJAH - Recognised as an architectural masterpiece of its time, Bait Al Naboodah, which reopened after extensive renovation, gives insight into Sharjah’s pearling history.
The two-storey house of 1,100 sq.metres is in the heart of Sharjah close to the Fort of Sharjah, the port and major markets.
Built in 1845, it was owned by Emirati Emir Obaid bin Isa bin Ali al-Shamsi — nicknamed Al Naboodah — one of the most prominent pearl merchants in the Arabian Gulf. His business network extended from the Arabian Gulf to India and Europe. The house is a testament to his success in business and status in society.
Before the discovery of oil in the Gulf region, the pearling industry sustained the UAE economy for decades until its collapse in the 1930s with the rise of cultured pearls in Japan.
The renovated Bait Al Naboodah has been converted to a museum under the Sharjah Museums Authority to showcase the role of pearling industry in forging Sharjah’s international trade links. It showcases materials, construction techniques and architectural styles that made the building the historical centre of the city.
The building’s structure is a traditional Sharjah dwelling with a large courtyard surrounded by walls built with the inventive use of coral. The raw materials were common to coastal homes in Sharjah, with the builders relying on local elements, including coral, gypsum and date palms. Other materials, such as teak wood, were imported.
Bait Al Naboodah incorporates architectural, decorative and cultural features in both plaster and wood from all over the world with an abundance of geometrical and floral patterns across windows, doors and walls.
The ground floor includes a bedroom, a spacious courtyard and a water well. The first floor includes the “summer house” and bedrooms. The display exemplifies the daily family life of a pearl trader of a bygone era.
The entrance to Bait Al Naboodah draws attention to magnificent interior details, including wooden doors and windows and Roman-designed columns in the courtyard. The rooms have been carefully restored by historians from the Sharjah Institute for Heritage, who preserved the building’s frescoes and wooden beams and 24 magnificent teak columns.
The house was equipped with an innovative cooling system designed to flow air along the internal walls to help mitigate high temperatures. This helped the family stay near the sea to tend to business interests throughout the year, even when many people would migrate to interior areas and oases to escape the summer heat.
Tour guide Amna al-Raisi pointed out Al Naboodah’s ledger in which he made careful notes on his pearl dealings. The ledger and the house are the only tangibles directly linked to the merchant. Exhibits include coins from India and the Arabian Gulf, as well as a range of devices and equipment used to measure the weight and size of pearls. There is a collection of beautifully preserved documents that show Al Naboodah’s dealings with various companies, businessmen and prominent members of the community, including the rulers of the era.
Many interactive displays have been installed throughout Bait Al Naboodah to give valuable insight into the importance of the pearl trade in the Gulf region. There is a short film available that details the story of the pearl trade.
Sharjah Emir Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad al-Qasimi began restoring the historic centre of Sharjah in the late 1980s. He created the Department of Culture to help preserve Sharjah’s history. Bait Al Naboodah was one of the first houses to undergo conservation.
The latest restoration of Bait Al Naboodah began in 2016 to ensure its continued use as a museum.
Manal Ataya, director-general of the Sharjah Museums Authority, in a statement at the museum opening, said: “Bait Al Naboodah has been fully restored to its former (glory)… Experts from the Sharjah Institute for Heritage were careful to use a mix of traditional and modern techniques in the renovation work so that the restored building is an authentic representation of its past.”