What makes for a great museum experience, apart from the priceless collection of exhibits, is when it connects the thread between our past and the present, triggering an innate desire to know more. When museums inspire us to ask questions or offer different views rather than a standard narrative, exploring the worlds of the past become more enriching and fulfilling.
One such institution helping reshape our understanding of history here in Dubai is the Crossroads of Civilizations Museum located in the historical quarter of Al Shindagha. As the name suggests, it tells stories of various civilisations around the world whose paths crossed through the UAE over the course of several centuries. This award-winning, private museum houses the personal collection of historic artefacts, rare manuscripts and weapons belonging to one individual – Ahmad Obaid Al Mansoori, a strategy consultant and a former Federal National Council member.
‘Most of these treasured possessions were collected over the course of several decades,’ says Ahmed, whose passion for antiques and rare documents was ignited during his early childhood when he saw several valuable items in his grandfather’s home. ‘Naturally, these were off-limits to us children but that only strengthened my sense of curiosity and as I grew older, I began to appreciate its importance in the UAE’s history and culture, and was keen that these should be preserved.’
Seated at his office, which also doubles up as the Documentation and Reference Centre, Ahmad says that the Museum embodies the spirit of tolerance of the ancient past where civilisations, cultures and religions met. ‘Dubai’s location at the crossroad of global trade routes had seen it interact with leading cultures and civilizations across Europe, Asia and Africa since 3000 BCE,’ he elaborates. ‘Passing through this region, traders often left behind traces of their cultures in the form of artefacts, weapons, coins and more, which they either traded or exchanged as gifts. The Museum pays tribute to this dynamic interaction of culture, art, literature and history while also emphasising Dubai’s historic role as a trading link between the East and the West.’
As such, the Museum represents the universal values of multiculturalism, plurality and respect and tolerance of cultures and religions that has enabled trade to flourish here through the centuries and continues to this day, he adds.
It is therefore fitting that the Museum is located at the tip of the Shindagha peninsula in the former residence of Shaikh Hasher Bin Maktoum Al Maktoum, Director General of Dubai Department of Information, and which originally overlooked three waterfronts – the Arabian Sea, the iconic Dubai Creek and a water causeway that connected the two at the time. Together, these waterways were instrumental in transforming Dubai into a hub for trade.
‘The residence of Shaikh Hasher is an excellent example of a surviving architectural masterpiece of the early 19th century,’ says Ahmad. ‘While the naturally cooling wind towers offer glimpses of Dubai’s traditional past, it is the watchtower – which still exists – that sets this house apart from the others in the area, as it references the maritime trade that turned Dubai into the principal port on the Gulf coast.’
The watchtower served as the vantage point to observe all the ships and boats that plied along the waters carrying goods from distant lands.
As he leads us to the many galleries that make up the Crossroads of Civilizations Museum, Ahmad says, ‘There is a misconception that the history of the UAE is only a couple of centuries old. That is not true. Archaeological excavations are providing increasing evidence that the region played a crucial role in the trade and commerce with several cultures as far back as the Bronze and Iron Ages. As more evidence is revealed, the perspectives we had of this region will undergo a dynamic shift. It is my hope that visiting this museum will initiate that shift in perspective, and challenge previously held notions of the history and strategic importance of the region.’
Following a soft launch in 2013, the Crossroads of Civilizations Museum, consisting of six galleries, was officially inaugurated in January 2014. Two associated museums – The Rare Books, Manuscripts & Prints Museum, and The Armoury Museum – are located just a few yards away in another heritage house.
The first gallery offers a glimpse of local history and gives an insight into the social and political climate of the time as it showcases several early 19th-century treaties between the British Empire and the Rulers of the Trucial States, and some examples of royal correspondence.
The earliest reference to Dubai, recorded in a 1590 CE book published in Italy by a Venetian pearl merchant named Gasparo Balbi, is a highlight here. Voyage to the Oriental Indies also mentions Ajman, Ras Al Khaimah, Umm Al Quwain and islands in Abu Dhabi in their local dialect.
Several personal possessions of Ahmad’s grandfather are also featured, including his passport issued in 1937, some inkwells and pens, and a wooden box in which writing tools and papers were kept while travelling. A collection of traditional gold and silver jewellery, part of the Mansoori family heirloom, is aesthetically arranged on a large fragment of an old oud tree.
An 1871 Martini Henry Rifle, the first purpose-designed rifle of the British Army, bearing the seal of the Sultan of Oman in fine handcrafted silver, is also on display.
Most of the artefacts, manuscripts, battle maps and old prints housed in the Royal Gallery have come from rulers across the Arabian region, kings and political figures from Portugal, the UK, Poland, Egypt, the Ottoman Empire and other diplomats or government officials.
Drawing our attention to an 1869 edition of How to Rule a Kingdom, Ahmad points out that the book laid the foundation on which the rules of governance were to be framed, the code of ethics to be practiced, and had special emphasis on managing human and social behaviour.
Other prized pieces include a 200 BCE Roman torch, obtained from the Levant region, and which was originally given to the victor in games of strengths and skill; a 600-500 BCE Greek tall singlehanded vessel depicting Hercules, crafted in the ‘black figure’ technique; and a group of mace heads made of bronze, used in short distance combat and dating to 1000 BCE from Persia.
As we step into the Travellers and Explorers Gallery, Ahmed explains that whatever may have been the mission of the many explorers that passed through the Arab regions, ‘we cannot overlook the wealth of knowledge they shared about the region and their role in introducing it to the western world through their journals, diaries or books’.
Of particular interest here is the only known copy of the first tourist guide of Italy in Arabic. ‘This was a gift to King Vittorio Emmanuel III of Italy on the occasion of his state visit to Egypt in 1933, reciprocating King Farouk I’s official visit to Italy a few years earlier,’ recounts Al Mansoori. ‘In an ironic twist, the fates of these monarchs were further entwined as King Farouk invited his Italian counterpart to spend his exile in Alexandria upon abdication where he eventually died and was buried (his remains were repatriated to Italy in 2017). King Farouk, on the other hand, was upstaged in a military coup and sought exile in Italy where he died in 1965 in Rome.’
Also of importance are the travelogues written by German and Russian scholars detailing their visits to the Middle East.
Palestine, the birthplace of three monotheist religions, is the focus in the next gallery, which features historical maps, manuscripts and old stamps from Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan, in addition to pottery from the 12th to 13th century CE. An 1873 journal by a British officer featuring drawings of different areas in Palestine is an important highlight here.
First printed book
The tangible results of the fusion and cross-cultural exchange between diverse faiths is evident in the Multi-faith gallery which features among others, the facsimile of the 1454 Gutenberg Bible, one of only 300 copies printed; 500 to 600-year-old manuscripts with Christian prayers in the Geez lwanguage; different Quranic leaves dated between 10th to 13th centuries; and different versions of original Gospel leaves from the Middle Ages.
‘Revered for its design and artistry, the Gutenberg Bible is the first book to have ever been printed,’ explains Ahmed. ‘In the earlier days, manuscripts or books were selected for facsimiles due to their artistic merit or historical importance. The copy we have here is numbered 14 of 300 and the quality of workmanship that went into its making suggests the historical significance of this book, which forever changed the way people would communicate as prior to that, every book was transcribed by hand.’
The Multi-faith Gallery also houses a 1523 CE Booklet of a Common Prayer, which was personally used to recite prayers by Martin Luther, the renowned German leader of the Reformation movement.
Pointing to a Jewish Magic Ball inscribed in Arabic, Aramaic and Hebrew, Ahmed says, ‘Generally, these magic balls - that supposedly give answers to questions of the future - are either in Aramaic or Hebrew. It is the presence of the three Semitic languages that makes this Magic Ball unique.’
A priceless Sitarah
At the Islamic Gallery, we marvel at one of the most prized Islamic artefacts in the world - the 471-year-old sitarah or the door cover of the Kaaba, designed by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566), the 10th and longest-reigning sultan of the Ottoman Empire.
Measuring 2.3 x 4.8 metres in size, this rare sitarah is woven with the finest fabrics and embroidered with gold and silver thread. ‘It is extremely rare to come across an extraordinary work of a prominent monarch anywhere in the world. Providing the cover for the Kaaba is also seen as the highest honour bestowed on any Muslim head of state.’
Elaborately designed with magnificent colours of red and green against black and gold, it is adorned with pomegranate and plum blossoms, tulip decorations and Quranic verses in stylised calligraphy.
The Islamic Gallery also reveals how different cultures across Europe, Persia, the Ottoman Empire, the Subcontinent, Palestine and Brunei have expressed their understanding of Islam through the creation of a variety of Quranic manuscripts and innovative calligraphy. Look out for a copy of The Hamburg Quran (1694 CE), the first printed edition of the Quran in Arabic; an Armenian Bible (989 CE) with a magnificent ivory cover; and a Quran with an inscribed dedication to his daughter by the sixth Mughal ruler, ‘Alamgir’, commonly known as Aurangzeb.
Not to be missed also is a 19th century round copper tray from Yemen with Arabic motifs and corresponding inscriptions that tell the story of Prophet Joseph.
As we enter the Old Prints and Manuscripts section, Ahmed explains that the provenance documentation of every exhibit showcased at the Museum gives it added value as it details its chronology of ownership, and serves as a guide to its authenticity or quality. Where possible, items have been tested and carbon-dated by experts, including the Ottoman sitarah. ‘We feature only original pieces, no replicas or models,’ he asserts.
Valuable old books, prints, autographs and rare manuscripts that document some of the most important global events are housed in the Manuscripts section. A 4th century Hebrew manuscript from the Torah is the oldest piece here. The Museum also hosts the privately printed 1926 edition of Lawrence of Arabia’s classic Seven Pillars of Wisdom detailing the story of the Arab revolt against the Turks in the First World War.
‘Another important document,’ says Al Mansoori, ‘is the Treaty of Lausanne signed in Switzerland in 1923 that marked the end of the conflict between the Ottoman Empire against several European nations, and established the current borders of Turkey.’
A series of miniature books - no bigger than your forefinger, and each containing a play of the Bard of Avon, is certainly a treasured collectible as is an autobiography with a detailed history of eastern Africa by a Princess of Zanzibar in the 19th century, who eloped with a German trader and moved to Germany.
Several manuscripts on geography, medicine and science can be found here, including Aristotle’s book on Physics, a seminal scientific and philosophical text of the 16th century.
One of the most outstanding relics in the Old Manuscripts section is the collection of 26 bound volumes and 11 atlas volumes that provide a comprehensive description of ancient and modern Egypt, and was commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte. It is the collaborative work of about 160 scholars and scientists who accompanied Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt from 1798 to 1801 as part of the French Revolutionary Wars. Around 2,000 artists and technicians later assembled the material.
There are several other manuscripts and correspondence related to Bonaparte, including a bayonet that was used in the Battle of Waterloo.
Pieces of a puzzle
The Weapons Museum is a repository of swords, daggers, saddles, helmets and shields. Prominent exhibits include Turkish curved swords featuring ivory hilts and blades of Damascus steel, Yemeni daggers with Islamic inscriptions, Yemeni swords with Hebrew descriptions, richly decorated Peshkabz or Persian-Afghan knives, and several gem-encrusted push daggers from South Asia.
Many of the blades are of Damascus steel which, explains Ahmed, ‘was made of a mixture of metals - the components of which still remain a mystery. Produced in Iraq and Syria during the 16th and 17th centuries, it is the exposure to high heat during production that gives the sword its characteristic lightness and flexibility.’
The various galleries at the Crossroads of Civilizations Museum brilliantly bring to life the magnificence of different cultures, civilisations and religions. But, says Al Mansoori, ‘History can never be complete; it is like a large mosaic or puzzle where each piece adds to the story. And as we unearth new evidence, the story will continue to evolve, reshaping current perspectives and allowing us to have a better understanding of history.’