Shadows of the Past
Al Ain had been an important stop on the many trade routes that criss-crossed this part of the Arabian Peninsula, from when people settled in the area four thousand years ago. With its abundant groundwater it sustained life in the otherwise arid landscape of gravel plains and sand dunes tinged red with iron oxide. To guard over the precious water resources and verdant oases it sustained, many forts and watchtowers were built. Several of these, lucky to have survived the ravages of time, have been restored to stave off further deterioration and serve as tangible reminders of a way of life that has disappeared with the discovery of oil. Because of the traditional building materials of mudbrick, clay, and palm trunks and fronds these buildings are in need of constant care and attention. An accusation of over-restoration is often flung at some of these old buildings, especially when modern materials are used during restoration.
Although the history of some of the forts are well documented, there is mostly no or not much information available at the majority of these sites, but as history was traditionally passed down orally, it comes at no surprise that a lot of factual information was lost in the process. It was only when oil revenues were employed to better the lives of the people that schools were built and the written word started to play a more important role in preserving the past in ways that are more accurate and accessible. To fully appreciate these buildings one should try to place them in context and imagine the way life unfolded for the people who lived in and around them. And if one can see them as the shadows of the original structures, it does not matter how much they have been restored, renovated, or re-imagined, they still contain the essence of what they once were.
The following is a list of forts and watchtowers in and around Al Ain, and is more or less chronological in order from oldest to newest. The buildings of which the construction dates are unknown are listed at the end. Some of these warrant longer visits than others, and although many are similar in design, each holds their own beauty, no matter how small.
Dating from around 1816, Muraijib Fort is the oldest surviving fort in Al Ain. Built during the rule of Sheikh Shakhbut bin Diab, it served as the formal residence for him and his family. What remains is a modest main fort, where the family lived, a smaller square tower, which housed the servants and guards, and a round watchtower that protected the water source and fort. The buildings are restored and preserved within an enclosed park for women and children, which is a lovely place for a stroll or a picnic if you are female.
Entrance: The park is only open from 4 pm, but the buildings themselves are locked and cannot be accessed.
GPS co-ordinates: N 24° 15′ 57.4″ E 55° 44′ 23.2″
Constructed sometime in the 19th century, it is the largest of Al Ain’s fortified buildings at 3600 square metres, and with a watchtower on each corner. Overlooking the gravel plains and set against the majestic backdrop of Jebel Hafeet, it served as a place of shelter for the community during times of turmoil and hostility. Its nearly 40 rooms were used mostly as storerooms for the military forces who were stationed there. These days the courtyard is filled with date palm trees, and there is an air of neglect hanging over the fort. It is a wonderful example of an unrestored fort, and worth the drive to it, where it sits close to the Mezyad border post to Oman. It is not a tourist attraction, so you will have the place to yourself. It sits within a walled farm, where vegetables and date palms are grown.
GPS co-ordinates: N 24° 01′ 33.2″ E 55° 50′ 19.4″ (These co-ordinates will take you to big metal gates at the entrance to the farm, which are often partially closed. Simply open them, and tell the workers you are going to the fort.)
Completed in 1898 by Sheikh Zayed the First it served as the main defense for Al Ain’s precious palm groves, as well as headquarters for the Oman Trucial Scouts. It is here where the ruling family spent their summers, and the founding father of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, was born. With its distinct round watchtower and spacious courtyard, this picturesque fort plays host to open air concerts during the Abu Dhabi Classics Season every year. It holds a small, but excellent permanent photographic exhibition of Wilfred Thesiger’s photographs of his travels through the Empty Quarter, as well as photographs he took of Sheikh Zayed during his visit to Al Ain. Not only was Thesiger an intrepid explorer, but an exceptional photographer, and it is well worth stopping by just to see this exhibition.
GPS co-ordinates: N 24° 12′ 58.35″ E 55° 45′ 07.09″
Built by Sheikh Zayed the First, and passed on to his firstborn son Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Khalifa. His son Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa, in turn, spent time living here, before Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan married Sheikh Mohammed’s daughter Hessah, and they were presented with Qasr al Muwaiji, when he was appointed Ruler’s Representative of the Eastern Region in 1946. It is here that the current ruler Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed was born in 1948, and hence appropriate that the restored fort and exhibition space pay tribute to his life. There is wonderful black-and-white film footage of the early days after the discovery of oil, which gives one a lovely glimpse into that era.
GPS Co-ordinates: N 24° 13′ 30.9″ E 55° 43′ 40.2″
Sultan bin Zayed Fort / Eastern Fort
Built in 1910 it served as a home for Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed. It is on the same grounds as the Al Ain Museum, and is a simple, unadorned structure.
GPS co-ordinates: N 24° 13′ 01.08″ E 55° 46′ 27.26″
Built in 1910 it was later used as a residence by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan when he was Ruler’s Representative in 1946. It consists of several spacious residential quarters and courtyards, which were used for different purposes, such as living quarters for the children, accommodation for guests, and majlis or meeting rooms for local and foreign visitors. The large grounds and beautifully kept gardens provide many nooks and crannies to pause and imagine what life must have been like here. It now serves a museum that casts light on the way people lived before the advent of modern conveniences, and is a great place to gain a better understanding of the practicalities of traditional Emirati life.
GPS co-ordinates: N 24° 12′ 53.4″ E 55° 45′ 36.1″
Built in 1948 by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan as a watchtower, it served various purposes, including headquarters for the Royal Guards, a police station, prison, and space for public activities such as religious functions and weddings. The three-storey building sits close to the northern boundary wall that encloses a wide expanse of empty space. Ducking in through the entrance gate shields one from the the busy downtown area of Al Ain, and climbing onto the roof of the fort, via a ladder, gives one an interesting perspective of the modern city.
GPS co-ordinates: N 24° 13′ 14.8″ E 55° 46′ 27.94″
Situated a short distance outside of Al Ain on the E95 to Al Wagan, it used to guard the southern access to Jebel Hafeet, and from its position one can conclude that it must once have been an important outpost, even if it was a small one.
GPS co-ordinates: N 24° 01′ 14.6″ E 55° 37′ 56.8″
The fort is a large round structure on the edge of Hili oases, but as it is not open to visit, one can only glimpse it from the outside.
GPS co-ordinates: N 24° 16′ 55.13″ E 55° 46′ 01.00″
Built to protect the village of Al Hili, and its precious water source, one of the towers is round, while the other is square. Set only 56 metres apart they look out of place in their modern surroundings at the edge of the oasis. The square tower was built on orders from Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, presumably some time after he took over as Ruler’s Representative in 1946, while it is uncertain when the circular one was constructed.
GPS co-ordinates: N 24° 17′ 14.5″ E 55° 46′ 22.4″
A small walled structure surrounded by modern houses.
GPS co-ordinates: N 24° 17′ 02.3″ E 55° 45′ 49.2″
Jimi Oasis Watchtower and Fort
Just south of the Al Jimi Oasis, tucked behind a row of plastic greenhouses, stands the 14 metre high watchtower of Sheikh Ahmad bin Hilal al Dhaheri. This one, as with the Hili watchtowers, was built to protect the people living here and their precious water supply. Hugging the oasis is a fort of which there is no information available, despite the fact that it was restored. I got the impression that there are workers living there, and is certainly not open to the public. Scattered around the oasis are the remnants of various houses in which the Al Dhaheri family, who still owns the land, once resided.
GPS co-ordinates: N 24° 15′ 06.41″ E 55° 44′ 56.71″
Please note that the forts and museums, as a rule, are closed on a Monday, and only opens late in the afternoon on a Friday, so plan your visit accordingly.