Sharjah is the third-largest (both in population and area) emirate in the United Arab Emirates. Sharjah has a roughly 20km coastline on the Arabian Gulf, where the capital city (of the same name) is located. The emirate extends about 80km inland, to the east, past a desert of large sand dunes, to the farming community of Dhaid, and on to the town of Masafi, in the foothills of the Hajjar Mountains. Sharjah also has several enclaves on the East coast of the UAE (on the Gulf of Oman), where lie the port of Khorfakkan and the towns of Dibba and Kalba. Being the only emirate with ports on both coasts, much shipping trade goes through the ports of Sharjah and Khorfakkan.

The ruling family of Sharjah is from the Al-Qassimi tribe, and the current ruler (September 2001) is Sheikh Sultan ibn Muhammad Al-Qassimi, who has held this position since the UAE was founded in 1971.

Sharjah prides itself on being a great center for the Islamic culture, and has many schools, libraries and museums to further this end. It is also one of the most conservative of the UAE's seven emirates. The city of Sharjah, having a population estimated to be somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000, is bordered by Dubai to the South and Ajman to the north (each also being the capital of their respective emirate). The primary land access to Sharjah is from Dubai (being one of the biggest cities in the UAE).

You would normally enter Sharjah via the main Emirates trunk road (highway E11), which is a freeway extending south through Dubai to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE. Approaching the city center, the freeway ends at the Al-Khan roundabout. From here, you can turn left to go to the Al-Khan district (fittingly enough), and the Corniche, where many large hotels occupy prime beachfront property.

Alternatively, you can continue on, finding yourself on Al-Wahda Street, and passing Khalid Lagoon on the left , which is an inlet separating Al-Khan from the city center (recent high-rise development in this area has rendered the lagoon less visible from the road than it used to be). The next roundabout after Khalid Lagoon is the Mother Cat Roundabout, so-called because of a large neon "Mother Cat" sign which once held prominent position at this intersection. Sadly, this sign is now consigned to the history books.

At the Mother Cat Roundabout, you can turn left down King Faisal Street, which heads toward the city center. A few miles down this street opens out into a large open area, several hectares in size, where Al-Arooba Street crosses. In this area, called Al-Ittihad Square, are many parks (a desire to "turn the desert green" combined with large revenues from oil production combine to mean that millions of gallons of water daily are dumped onto Sharjah's hundreds of parks to keep them perpetually in bloom), as well as Sharjah's large central mosque. On the left, right on the edge of Khalid Lagoon, is a large, and exquisitly decorated building commonly called the Blue Souq. This name is in reference to the brilliant azure tile mosaics that adorn the outside of the building (Souq is also Arabic for market). The Blue Souq is a favourite destination for many tourists (as well as local residents) who want to buy anything from persian rugs to camel saddles, to shishas to cheap electronics. For arabic artifacts especially, the Blue Souq in Sharjah is the place to go.

If you do not want to head downtown, you can turn right at the Mother Cat Roundabout and head into the no-man's land that is Sharjah's vast Industrial Areas. Or you can head straight, and continue along Al-Wahda Street, coming after a few miles to the secondary commercial district of Al-Riqqa. In Al-Riqqa, you will come to Cultural Square, where various schools, museums and mosques exist in close proximity to each other. From here you can head north, towards Ajman, or east, towards Dhaid, Masafi and eventually the East coast.

This road shortly becomes a freeway, which leads past University City. This is an immense sprawling complex on the edge of town that is home to (among others) the Sharjah University, the Sharjah campus of the Higher Colleges of Technology, the Sharjah College for Police Sciences and the American University of Sharjah.

After passing University City, you can see the three white domes of the Sharjah International Airport on the left (Sharjah's airport code is SHJ), before entering the golden sand dunes of the interior desert.

Sharjah was also recently voted the International City of Culture, probably due to the high concentration of museums and traditional architecture. A modest monument (a needle) was built out in the desert on the opposite side of the intersection from the Sharjah Natural History Museum and Breeding Centre... though I'm the only person I know who was ever bored enough to climb up the dune and see what it was all about. I have to say it was in pretty poor repair - the sand had been allowed to blow over and form drifts against the pedestal - I had to kick some out of the way to read the plaque. I'm surprised they hadn't gone for any landscaping and grass-on-life-support, as is usual in these circumstances.

However, I can say that in my opinion at least, the award was well-deserved. While it never struck me as quite as 'polished' as Dubai, Sharjah is an intriguing, captivating city full of unexpected beauty and charm by the bucket.

A word of warning if you ever decide to pay a visit: I recall many frustrating hours in the car trying to find my way to such places as the Science Museum. Obtaining a decent map (or better yet, coercing somebody into acting as your guide) is probably a smart move.

As an afterthought, I feel I should mention that the housing in Sharjah is considerably cheaper than it is in Dubai. As such, a fair few of my friends lived in Sharjah, yet attended school and spent their weekends in Dubai where (they claimed) there was more to do. Sharjah's residential areas also suffer notoriously bad flooding during the one or two days each year when the heavens open, and since most buildings in the United Arab Emirates aren't built to deal with airborne water, everything gets pretty soggy.

Sharjah is the UAE natives pronounciation of Sharqah. Arabs have a variety of accents based on region. Some Arabic words containing Qaf are often pronounced as Jeem by Arab natives of the UAE. In addition, Jeem is pronounced as Ya, so you might hear some one saying yadeed (new) instead of jadeed, or yaddi (grand father) instead of jaddi. The majority of Arabs from Moroco to the oil rich gulf pronounce a Qaf as a Qaf except for natives of the UAE.

In Arabic, the city is written with a Qaf, as can be seen in news papers and street signs, but the locals pronounce it with a Jeem, and it some how made its way into English, a more correct English writing of the city should be Sharqah.

The word Sharqah is taken from the 3 letter root word Sheen Ra Qaf, shrq, meaning east. It also means sun rise, depending on the context of the sentence.

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