Mleiha Archeological Center
Architect Sumaya Dabbagh’s building design opens a portal to the region’s distant past while providing a space for the cultivation of identity.
Scripted around a 4,000-year-old tomb, the Mleiha Archaeological Center is located in the desert of Sharjah at the foot of Fossil Rock mountain. The center is the architectural heart of a larger eco-tourism development focused on local wildlife, desert activities, and the area’s archaeological riches. Bringing together an indoor museum and a café with outdoor walkways, desert gardens, and contemplation areas, the center is an example of the enriching role that architecture can play when committed consideration for context is taken during the design process.
“When I was a student at Bath University,” award-winning Dubai-based architect Sumaya Dabbagh recalls, “I remember my professor had told us that if you have a site that was a hill and you put your building on top of it, you would lose the hill.” It’s to this memory that Dabbagh attributes the beginnings of her design philosophy—one in which the art of placing a new element into an existing landscape is akin to creating a new chapter in an ongoing story. “In architectural terms, rather than attempting to erase, ignore, or dismiss what already existed, it is the art of enhancing the place and creating dialogue between the new and the old, where the architecture becomes a continuation rather than an abrupt start,” she says.
The heart slows as the quiet of the desert settles around the mysterious circular tomb, the building’s axle. An elegant, minimal stone seating area rings the ancient burial place, allowing visitors to sit, take a deep breath, and let in the silence. Rich, locally sourced sandstone walls meld in tone and texture with the surrounding landscape and gently guide the visitor through the space, suggesting a meditative momentum that works to open the mind to ideas born in the modern halls of the museum— of prehistoric carvings that have yet to be deciphered, communities of people that existed before language was born, and Neolithic stone tools displayed in vitrines as holograms.
Archaeological excavations began in the Mleiha area 30 years ago. The discoveries there expanded the story of local ancestry while bringing the archaeological history of the UAE into a global conversation about early human migration. Signs of human presence in the emirate of Sharjah have been traced back 100,000 years and support the theory that the first Homo sapiens individuals to leave Africa migrated from the tip of Ethiopia to the south of Yemen and then from there up the coast of modern-day Oman across the UAE. This theory disputes an earlier predominating idea that saw the first human beings exiting Africa via the piece of land where the Suez Canal is located today.
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“For Mleiha, what existed when I first visited the site on a scorching-hot July morning in 2012 was a rich and significant story that had not yet been fully told,” says Dabbagh. “The combination of a historic monument in a stunning setting had to be respected, reframed, celebrated, and reclaimed. Reclaimed for the people of that land. The people of Mleiha, the people of Sharjah, the UAE, and the region.”
Today the center sees a variety of visitors engaging with the structure in diverse ways. Families living in the area bring their small children for walks at sunset. Groups of friends get together at the center’s café, which is flooded with natural light during the day and has sweeping views of the surrounding mountains, for social lunches and casual meetings. Archaeology enthusiasts, professionals, and tourists visit the center’s museum and then depart for 4×4 tours of the archaeological sites from which the specimens on display have been sourced.
“The building seeks to create a dialogue between the tomb and the mountains,” Dabbagh thoughtfully concludes. “This connectedness of building to place invites a connectedness between people and place, thus creating a sense of belonging—one of the most important roles that architecture needs to fulfill.”
Nowhere is this aim accomplished more vividly than in the experience of visiting elementary school students who come to participate in the workshops offered in the center, promoting an understanding of archaeology, the surrounding environment, and local history. Unaware of the concepts and intentions that have influenced the architectural design of the building, they are the greatest recipients of what it offers: a sense of connection, to place, to the past, and to one another.