Mleiha: Sharjah’s secret history

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Just a short ride from Dubai, Mleiha is a world away from the urban modernity of the city. Discovered in the 1980s, the site opened to the public as a museum,  archaeological site and eco0-tourism project in 2016 by the Ruler of Sharjah, Dr. Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi.

When you visit Mleiha you can expect an interesting, educational, and above all, fun, day out for all the family.

This ancient city was an important regional hub from around the third century BCE to the middle of the third century CE. This long, fruitful period saw a city that produced soft stone, copper and iron ore goods, and traded them across Arabia, India, Iran, Egypt and even as far as the Mediterranean.

Built around a preserved Umm al Nar (Bronze Age) era tomb, the Centre details excavations and discoveries made in the last four decades at Mileiha, particularly the important Faya North East find –  which provides evidence that ‘anatomically modern humans’ were in the Mleiha area between 130,000 and 120,000 years ago.

As you drive up to the site, you are confronted with a stylish building which houses the main museum collection – a collection which, based on local finds, catalogues elements of the fascinating pre-Muslim era in the region.

Tools found on the site prove that early settlers came from, or traded with Africans, so the argument goes that the Middle East is as much “the cradle of civilisation” as Africa.  We now know that settlers came from  Africa to the Gulf Peninsula, and onward to populate the world through Iran, India, Europe and Asia.

You can view jewellery, pottery, coins, tools and weapons. There are scale models of how people lived, but the most information gleaned is from a number of burial mounds found in the area, with a recreation of these sites – including a horse, an example of ‘baliya’, the tradition of burying animals with the dead.

Coins give an indication of the level of sophistication of society at that time, with displays of locally-minted coins featuring the head of a leader, alongside foreign coins, indicating trade and travel.

You are taken through the geology of the area, and the hydrology, which explains how the region changed from more greenery to desert. Seeing how life was a half a million years ago is brought to life in a short film, which explains how early settlers arrived in Arabia.

As life developed in the region, so did the ability to make and use tools, and even trade. You can see Bronze and Iron Age tools from other regions – and it’s fascinating to see trade routes from thousands of years ago. We are told camels, goats and sheep provided meat, milk and clothing for these pre-Islamic people.

There are some examples of writing – in Aramaic and early South Arabian scripts. Later discoveries in the form of tombs, vessels and pottery, underline the region’s trade connections with distant Rome and India.

Tour the museum and you might have worked up an appetite. There’s a very welcome branch of Bystro, the Dubai-headquartered restaurant, which serves great coffee and healthy food all day, allowing you to view the expansive desert surrounding you, in complete comfort.

There’s also a small gift shop to keep the kids entertained and the relatives happy, and it’s a very friendly and interactive space.

The areas which have been excavated by teams of archaeologists can be visited. You can visit the Fort, discovered in the early 90s under the old road from Mleiha to Al Madam. Take in ‘The Palace’ and you’ll discover a place where the people lived on fish, seeds, and fruits, and enjoyed foreign ornaments.

It’s advisable to visit the area’s sites with one of Mleiha’s guides, for a couple of good reasons. Firstly, you won’t get lost. Secondly, they can describe what you are looking at.

There’s a team of tour guides, and we opted to do the version which involved taking an open-air dune buggy out for an hour, with our guide keen to show us all the natural wonders of the region, including the 65-million-year-old Fossil Rock (Jebel Mleiha, after which the centre is named), and Camel Rock.

More sedate tours take in some of the burial grounds and housing. Having done a tour, there are some other extremely cool options worth hanging around for. The venue offers hosted camping, evening barbeques and even astronomy sessions, with a huge telescope and Mleiha’s resident astronomy expert. There’s less light pollution out here, so it’s a wonderful opportunity to see the night sky at its clearest.

What Mleiha offers is a fantastic day out, with a mix of awe for the discoveries made, and excitement, if you choose the high-speed buggy ride.

DID YOU KNOW? The pre-Islamic city of Mleiha represents the peak of the area’s ancient civilisation. During the last centuries BCE and after, an important caravan town flourished there – part of the network of Arabian overland trade that linked the shores of the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean worlds in antiquity. Mleiha issued its own coinage, and its rulers and merchants were wealthy enough to acquire the finest camels and horses, and to build monumental tower tombs that expressed their status. The archaeological evidence of the Mleiha area reaches back as far as the Palaeolithic period 130,000 years ago. Later, as the last Ice Age gave way to a warming climate, graveyards and adjacent settlements shed light on the lives of the Neolithic communities who lived there from 11,000 years ago. Civilisation evolved during the succeeding Bronze Age from 3000 BCE onward, evidenced by elaborate communal tombs. The centuries that followed witnessed the introduction of the underground falaj irrigation system. Domestication of the camel enabled extensive trans-regional trade connections. There is evidence for all of these developments in the Mleiha area.

Mleiha location:

Author: Will

I write stuff about things and things about stuff. I live in Dubai, and I like it.

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