A passion for knowledge
The noted scholar and author Jerry Brotton pays tribute to His Highness
Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah
Now more than ever, the world needs rulers like His Highness,
with his grasp of history and his belief in the importance of
the humanities. His project “Knowledge without Borders” has
circulated 1. 6 million books to families across the Emirate.
He is the author of over 30 books of history and memoir,
most concentrating on the history of Sharjah and the Gulf,
all of them offering impeccable and highly detailed historical
research alongside a dignified insistence on not only situating
the region within the wider world, but also challenging dominant
assumptions about relations between East and West.
Tale of a City, his new book, is a further distinguished
addition to this work. As its title suggests, it is a striking evocation
of Sharjah from the mid 19th century up to the signing of the “Air
Station Agreement” with the British Government in 1932. His
Highness’s vivid descriptions and accompanying illustrations of
Sharjah during this period give us a fascinating glimpse of how
the Emirate has evolved in the intervening years.
“Sharjah in 1925 consisted mainly of an irregular line of
houses overlooking the natural contours of the creek where
dozens of diving boats had been drawn up over time onto the
beach to protect them from the breaking waves. The main road
of the town extended between the boats on one side to the
other, where there were many one-storied houses… all sporting
imposing facades” ( Tale of a City, pp. 54-55).
How times have changed!
But Tale of a City is more than just an evocation of times past.
It is also a scrupulously researched record of the rapidly shifting
political, economic and tribal alliances and divisions between
Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah, as they came together and
separated again during the late 19th and early 20th centuries,
culminating in Ras al-Khaimah’s eventual reincorporation into
Sharjah in 1921. Woven throughout these complex relations is
the story of the British presence in the Gulf, its creation of the
Trucial States and the importance of Sharjah to Britain’s wider
It is to His Highness’s credit that he is very even-handed in
his account of British interference in Sharjah’s political life at this
time, including his description of the threat of bombardment
that was only narrowly averted in 1931. There are no villains in
Tale of a City: competing tribal rulers and imperial administrators
are all judged with the objective, dispassionate gaze of a scholar
who wishes to provide for posterity the most accurate account
possible of the history of his kingdom, and the importance of the
Gulf within the geopolitics of not just the 19th and early 20th
centuries, but perhaps more importantly, today.
The book ends with the progressive initiative that took place
in 1932: to define Sharjah’s international position in the world;
the agreement between the Sultan and the British Government
for the establishment of the air station that would link England
with its Indian dominions. The station was an English imperial
initiative, but as His Highness points out, it also heralded the
opening of Sharjah to the wider world, an opportunity that
throughout his reign has allowed him to establish Sharjah as the
His Highness and I share a passion for writing history
that attempts to understand the reasons for the enduring
misunderstandings that have bedeviled relations between
East and West over many centuries.
While in Tale of a City and in his previous book Under the
Flag of Occupation (2015), His Highness has concentrated on
Sharjah in the 19th century, he has also written important works
on the earlier periods, including Power Struggles and Trade in
the Gulf 1620-1820, and The Gulf in Historic Maps 1478-1861.
Like him, I have an interest in looking into the past to discover
the roots of our current problems. The encounters between
East and West in the past are less familiar to us and more
amicable than we might imagine.
Both His Highness and I love old maps, those remarkable
documents that for centuries put aside religious and sectarian
differences in the pursuit of knowledge without borders (that
evocative phrase again). My own books on the history of maps
have been at pains to show how early Arabic, Ottoman and
North African mapmakers played their role in the history of
cartography. This includes the mapping of the Gulf, which, as
His Highness knows from his own research, was often placed
on their maps at the centre of the world! His Highness is a great
connoisseur of maps, having a collection of some of the finest
in the world.
His Highness is also the author of many distinguished plays,
and I would enjoy talking to him about my most recent book,
This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World,
and its argument that the Elizabethans, including William
Shakespeare, knew far more about the Islamic world than we
in the West have ever realized. Just as His Highness describes
the relations between Sharjah and the British in Tale of a
City, so I show how Queen Elizabeth I established close and
friendly diplomatic relations with the Ottomans, Safavids and
Barbary States. These relations found their way into the plays of
Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
The range of His Highness’s publications reflect his
cultural as well as political achievements over his long and
Jerry Brotton is Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen
Mary, University of London, and the author of books
including A History of the World in 12 Maps, This Orient
Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World, and The
Renaissance Bazaar: From the Silk Road to Michelangelo.