Fujairah Fort and Old City
A handful of tourists leave as I arrive. The guard hands me a map of Fujairah. There is no fee. Just a welcoming smile. What I presume to be a guide that speaks no English, points towards a small, dark room. “Prison. Prison.” They hover around, attempt conversation, and then silently retreat to the entrance, leaving me to explore at my own pace without interruption.
Fujairah Fort, once the focus of the old town, has witnessed times of conflict and times of peace. People disagree as to when it was built, and there is a wide disparity between the claimed dates. Some authorities, including the official pamphlet for the fort, date it back to the 16th century, and the period in which the Portuguese dominated parts of the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Gulf. Another study, which made use of carbon dating, puts it around 1800. And then there is a letter from Seyyid Turki bin Said of Oman who wrote to the British Political Agent in Muscat in 1879 stating that the fort had been built by his ancestor, Imam Sultan bin Ahmed (1792-1804), and given to the local population. What is know for certain is that it was built prior to 1808, as it was, together with other forts on the East Coast, occupied for roughly two years by the Wahhabis.
What remains is a majestic fort that was abandoned after a 1925 British Naval attack destroyed the seaward faces of three of its towers. Left to crumble away under the relentless desert sun for the better part of a century, a renovation programme, initiated in 1997, brought it back to life and restored it to its former irregular beauty. Built to fit the natural outcrop it perches on, it resembles the forts of Oman more than the ones on the West Coast of the UAE.
The courtyard, demarcated by three round and one square tower, now quiet and devoid of activity, once hosted wedding celebrations and executions. The fort contains a unique feature in the form of a madbasa or date processing area on the ground floor of the southern tower. It is said that the window of this room was originally closed to create the required heat and humidity necessary to produce sweet, sticky dibs (date syrup).
The early morning sun is hot enough to make me find respite in the many welcoming pools of shade offered as gifts from the sprawling complex of mudbrick buildings that humbly bow to Fujairah Fort sitting regally on its rocky mound. Still watching; still observing the comings and goings of daily life, albeit lived in structures made from concrete, glass and steel, instead of mudbrick, sarooj, and palm trunks and fronds.
There are no signs, and most gates and doors of the restored houses are locked. Silence and peace join me in my curious meandering. The crunch of my footsteps and click of the camera shutter echo in the stillness and disturb the early morning heat. I feel like I am trespassing.
The voices of unseen workers float disjointedly through the air. A lone figure picks up bits of rubbish that either floated in on the breath of the wind, or were dropped by careless hands. Otherwise I am alone. It is a place stuck somewhere between the past and the present, and I allow my imagination to roam free, trying to imagine a time when it was imbued with the struggles of a different life.
The birdsong provide a welcome layered wall of sound, buffering the drone of traffic and intrusion of modern life. Crows and roosters vie for attention, while the soft cooing of doves and cheerful chirps of bull-bulls soothe the ear.
The towering Hajar mountains look like they’ve just slid off a canvass. Different tones of grey, black, and brown enhance their stark splendour. Towards the other side of the remains of the old city, the dusty green crowns of date palms peek over the surrounding wall*, where bigger date palm gardens once nourished the local inhabitants.
I find a large gate that is unlocked, and gently give it a push. It creaks open, and I quietly slip through the gap. The huge courtyard contains several separate buildings. This is Bayt Sheikh Mohammad bin Hamad al-Sharqi. I learn this fact only much later when I stumble upon a research article**. Built by Sheikh Mohammad’s father, Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah al-Sharqi, it has a watchtower set into the south-eastern corner of the courtyard wall that was used as a family room by Sheikh Mohammad who ruled from 1942 until his death on 18 September 1975.
On the far side of the complex I slip through an open gate, and cross a dusty street. The grounds of the Fujairah Museum looks a tad worn and tired, but the staff is friendly. The air-conditioned space provides interesting glimpses of Fujairah’s past, and although not worth a separate visit, I enjoy my stroll through it anyway.
As I leave the past, I glance towards the minarets of the new Sheikh Zayed Mosque that seem to reach towards the heavens. Framed by shiny, modern buildings with glass outer coats, it provides a soothing moment of rest for my eyes before I, once more, rejoin the rushing stream of modern life.
* None of the people interviewed for the below research could remember a wall surrounding the fort and village, nor any remains of one previously built.
** Fujairah Fort and its Associated Settlement: A study based on historical, archaeological and ethnographic information – MC Ziolkowski & AS al-Sharqi
*** GPS Co-ordinates: N25° 08′ 06.5″ E56° 20′ 19.3″