A look inside Sharjah’s newly restored Bait Al Naboodah museum
Dating back to 1845, Bait Al Naboodah is a historic home that sits along Sharjah’s coastline. Originally belonging to the emirate’s most prominent pearl merchant, Emir Obaid bin Isa bin Ali Al Shamsi – nicknamed Obaid Al Naboodah – the house was built during the UAE’s pearl trade heyday, and reflects Indian, Iranian and European influences in its original architectural design.
Restored twice – the first time in the early 1990s – by various teams of historians and archaeologists, the house’s preservation required structural and architectural maintenance. Before the first restoration, the site drained poorly and water accumulated on the rooftops as well as around the base of the building, which created cracks in the walls, ceilings and floors. Later, a termite infestation further damaged the house. Restoration teams excavated the surrounding land, and uncovered the original foundations, which were key to restoring the building.
“The foundations were waterproofed and gypsum was used to rebuild the walls with new coral,” explained Amna Al Raeesi, a tour guide at Bait Al Naboodah. “Wood and palm fronds replaced the damaged ceilings and wooden columns and doors were recreated to match the originals. Other decorative elements were repaired with plaster.”
It was one of the largest houses in the emirate’s Hai Al Souq neighbourhood at the time of its construction – a popular area for wealthy merchants like Ibrahim bin Mohamed Al Midfa, Humaid bin Ali bin Kamel, as well as members of the ruling Al Qasimi family.
Located near the Fort of Sharjah, the home’s close proximity to the harbour and markets proved beneficial for Al Naboodah, who often hosted merchants, dignitaries and intellectuals in his majlis, which sat just opposite the home. Adjacent to the house, too, is Souq al Arsa, once a hub for pearl trade. Ships coming from Persia, India, Yemen and Iraq regularly stopped by Sharjah, bringing food and fabric.
During the late 1880s and early 1990s, most of the Gulf’s pearls were exported to India, as jewellers there prized Gulf pearls for their lustre, shape, size and colour. During England’s colonial rule in India, Gulf pearls were traded throughout Europe. Images of influential individuals from the Maharajas in India to Queen Elizabeth sporting strings of pearls around their neck illustrate the strength of the gulf’s pearl trade.
Al Naboodah, who was at the top of the region’s pearl trade, used his wealth to build mosques and schools across the emirate. His familiarity with other cultures also inspired the decoration of his home, which can still be seen in the design details today. Teak wood imported from India was used to create the 24 columns that border the courtyard. Styled as ‘Roman Iconic’, the columns were unique to Bait Al Naboodah, as were the spiral staircases.
Throughout the home, screen panels made of gypsum feature floral patterns and help filter sunlight and tunnel through wind currents. The doors, also made of teak wood, feature Indian-inspired patterns, while insets on the walls feature geometric borders.
“The rooms have been carefully restored by historians from the Sharjah Institute for Heritage,” said Al Raeesi. “They worked to preserve the building’s frescoes, wooden beams and teak columns.”
The recent renovation repaired or replaced many of the gypsum ornaments, as well as treated some of the wooden pieces for humidity and termite damage. And because construction with locally-sourced coral is prohibited, the restoration used coral stone that was salvaged from nearby heritage sites.
The renovation has transformed Bait Al Naboodah into an exhibition space of the Naboodah family’s holdings. Exhibitions include coins from India and the Gulf, as well as a range of devices and equipment used to measure the weight and size of pearls brought to Sharjah.
One room also features the preserved financial ledgers that tell of Al Naboodah’s dealings with various companies, businessmen and prominent members of the community, including those of the ruling Al Qasimi family.