Al Jahili Fort

Al Jahili Fort in Al Ain is a beautifully restored fort in which one can linger for a happy hour or two. I visited it during the week when it was almost deserted. A small group of Emirati students on an excursion, a lone tourist with a map and a deadline, and two Emirati ladies sharing their morning exercise and some gossip, were the only other visitors enjoying this vast space with me. Everywhere workers in neat uniforms were cleaning nooks and crannies with an efficiency that is appropriate in a place that speaks of power and control.

It is one of the largest forts in the UAE and work on it began in 1891 under Sheikh Zayed the First. When it was completed in 1898 it served as a royal summer residence when the family would exchange the intense coastal humidity for the drier climate of Al Ain. The fort lies a stone-throw away from the fertile Al Ain Oasis where the Sheikh owned a farm. For some unknown reason the fort, over the next couple of decades, fell into disrepair.

In the early 1950s the fort was enlarged when it became home for a unit of the Trucial Oman Levies. The new enclosure incorporated the earlier fort and tower with newly built barracks and other buildings. This wide open courtyard is now utilised as a venue for the Al Ain Classics Festival that is held yearly.

It also houses a wonderful exhibition of photographs documenting Wilfred Thesiger’s travels in the area. Known by the bedu as Mubarak bin London, he crossed the desolate Empty Quarter (Rub’ Al Khali) twice in the 1940s. Although he spent his entire life travelling and living amongst many different indigenous people, he is mostly known for the time he spent on the Arabian Peninsula, and this exhibition pays homage to the footprints left by a man who earned the respect and friendship of his close bedu companions who shared the hardships of life in this desert environment with him.

In the prologue to his book Desert Sands that documents this part of his life, Thesiger writes: “In the deserts of Southern Arabia there is no rhythm of the seasons . . . It is a bitter desiccated land which knows nothing of gentleness or ease. . . Men lived there because it is the world in which they were born; the life they lead is the life their forefathers lead before them; they accept hardships and privations; they know no other way . . . No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him the yearning to return . . . For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.”

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Visit the following website to catch a glimpse of the photographs of Wilfred Thesiger that captured a time that is now almost forgotten.

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