Ras-al-Khaimah’s Old Houses

Ras-al-Khaimah, in the not too distant past, had the largest expanse of date palm gardens in the UAE. Even though most of these gardens contained a house, not many have survived. These houses were either built from arish (palm fronds), mudbrick, or stone and sarooj. Most of the gardens were permanently inhabited, but during the hot, humid summer months, a large part of the coastal population also moved to the shady palm oases where the climate was cooler, and thus more pleasant. The wealthy people from the coastal settlements, who owned large date palm gardens, often built big double storey houses where they would spend their summers.

Old Houses RAK 10-crop

The ruins of one of these houses, the Al-Ghubb Stone House, can be found in a modern-day cemetery. Far removed from its erstwhile place amongst the cool embrace of date palm trees, it looks lonely and out of place. What makes this house special is not its location, but the fact that it contains the oldest inscribed date on a house (1912) known in Ras-al-Khaimah.

Built of wadi stones and sarooj, it had a spacious veranda running along its northern and western side, of which only the pillars have withstood the onslaught of time. Its builders made good use of badkash or wind-catchers, which is essentially a niche in the inside wall closed by two parallel and overlapping walls with a concealed slit between them. These concealed slits would catch the wind, while keeping out the sun, heat and prying eyes.

The similarities between the large summer houses, and architecture of the coast suggests that the wealthy sent their trusted ustad (craftsmen) to supervise the building of these rural retreats.

It is sad to think that this house that once protected its inhabitants from the harsh climate has been left to a slow process of decay, but perhaps it is at least appropriate that it is surrounded by the dead.

When driving around the neighbourhoods of Ras-al-Khaimah one often stumbles upon ruins in various states of deterioration. Most old houses have been destroyed in the 1950s and 1960s when traditional construction methods were replaced by breezeblocks and cement. The ruins that still remain have never been replaced by newer houses, perhaps because they were deserted when the water table fell, and many of the oases were abandoned. It is sad to witness, but at least the past has not completely been bulldozed away to make space for modern houses.

Further reading:

* In the Palm Gardens of Ras-al-Khaimah – A Preliminary Survey of Large Summer Houses by Ahmad Hilal, Christian Velde & Imke Moellering

** Traditional Houses