Sheba’s Palace, sometimes also called Zenobia’s Palace, actually has nothing to do with either one of these queens. They certainly were powerful and although rumour would like them to have visited here, they lived long before this 16th century Islamic Palace was ever built: Sheba around 1000 BC and most likely in Marib, Yemen, while Zenobia lived in the 3rd century AD in Palmyra, Syria. The remains of this palace, which most probably served as a summer residence for the ruler of Julfar, is the only construction of its type and period that is preserved in the UAE. Not that much of it remains, and the barbed wire surrounding it is certainly not keeping out any graffiti artists. It was not so much the history or even the state of the ruins that drew me to the place, as it was the promise of impressive views.
My only prerequisite for visiting Sheba’s Palace was that it should be early one morning, as there is a quiet beauty at dawn that I just love. In the UAE the breaking dawn takes its time and I can pretend that I am in a bubble where time is suspended during that magical hour. Little did we know that the morning we chose for our visit would follow a night of noisy celebration, so when the alarm clock’s shrill ring rudely plucked me from the comfort of my dreams, I was very tempted to roll over and ignore my wish of an early morning visit to the area. But standing on top of the hill, after a short steep climb, mostly by way of a modern stairway, I felt grateful that we didn’t choose sleep.
The early morning light bathed our surroundings in a soft pink, while wisps of smoke first curled upwards before lazily drifting through the crisp morning air. Candy floss clouds added interest to the otherwise expansive sky before it met up on the horizon with the stretched-out calmness of the ocean. In between us and Ras-Al-Khaimah with its landmark Julphar Towers in the distance, farmland created a sense of peace that is hard to find in the constant movement of a city. The only movement here, apart from wisps of smoke, came from the goats looking for juicy morsels of food. Date palm farms, interspersed with clumps of houses and mosques, stretched as far as the eye could see. The green of the palm trees stand in sharp contrast with the almost barren mountains, and is proof that water is to be found in the area, albeit mostly underground.
The locals say that as recent as only a couple of years ago, the number of date palms in the area far exceeded the current numbers. As the UAE is the largest consumer of water per individual in the world it is inevitable that the water table will drop and become more saline. Although certain varieties of date palms can tolerate high salinity it affects their growth and yield, and when the salinity in the soil becomes too high, the palms simply die. In an area where water is a precious commodity it is vital for farmers to know how much and when to irrigate their crops. According to an Arab saying date palms should grow with their feet in the water and their heads in the fire of the sky. Here in Ras-Al-Khaimah a variety of crops are often grown in an area immediately surrounded by date palms that create a special microclimate that can support crops like maize.
Evidence of the cultivation of date palms stretches as far back as 4000 BC in Ur, Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). Date palms are some of the oldest fruit trees on the Arabian Peninsula and has always played an important role in the lives of its people. A mature, productive tree can yield 8-10 bunches of dates weighing up to 100 kg. It is only the female date palm that produces fruit, and as most palms are female, farmers often pollinate them manually or keep one male palm for every hundred female palms in their groves.
Dates are extremely nutritious and rich in sugars, protein, fibre, potassium, iron and calcium. Traditionally dates provided much-needed nutrition to the people who made their home in this harsh environment where not much else grows naturally. Before the advent of oil and the riches it brought people lived in simple barasti or arish houses made from palm fronds, while many of their household items such as baskets and mats were also woven from these. During the hot summer months these houses did not only provide privacy, but it also allowed the much welcome breeze to filter through the house. Although people don’t live in these houses anymore, the date palm still forms an integral part of the identity of the people in this arid landscape.
GPS co-ordinates: N25o 49’ 07.40” E56o 02’ 01.80”