Legend has it that sometime in the 1761 Bedouin hunters followed a deer all the way from Liwa to the shores of what was to become Abu Dhabi which, in translation, means the “father of the deer”.
When they got here, a couple of kilometers inland from the coast, they discovered something more precious than gold, something that allowed them to settle down: water!
It is said that it was Shaikh Dhiyab bin Isa who first moved to the island, although he would only reside here during the pearling seasons in summer time. To start with, there were only 20 barasti settlements, but news of water travelled fast and the barren coast was soon to become a small fishing village.
One of the first thing Shaikh Dhiyab did was to protect the newly dug well, so a small, round watch tower made of mud was built near the water source. This is believed to have happened in 1763, marking the birth of Qasr Al Hosn, Abu Dhabi’s only historical building still standing, home to the ruling Al Nahyan family for two centuries.
To celebrate its 250th year, the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (ADTCA) is planning a festival on the grounds of the fort from February 28 to March 9, a heritage feast of all that the Emiratis hold dear: pearl diving, falconry, crafts from the desert, the oasis and the coast.
“All that we know about Qasr Al Hosn is based on oral history and we are still looking out for people with facts about the fort that they learnt from their fathers and grandfathers. For this purpose, we will have a book of records during the festival for such people to write down their memories and stories of Qasr Al Hosn,” said Faisal Al Sheikh, Qasr Al Hosn festival director and director of events bureau at the ADTCA.
For several years now, teams of researchers have been employed by the Authority to back up — or not — the beliefs, the folklore and the oral history with actual facts.
One such belief is that the location of the fort was geologically chosen. The discovery of ground water was not pinned to just one spot, so the initial watch tower could have been built anywhere around the area, but possibly it stands where it does because of a bedrock.
“Such a structure could not have been built directly on soft sand since, in those days, people did not have the means to drill until they reached solid ground to lay foundation, so it is very possible the fort was built of gypsum and rock,” thought Al Sheikh.
As its population grew, Abu Dhabi had not one, but three watch towers — the Qasr Al Hosn one, another at Maqta Bridge, where people used to cross between the island and the mainland at low tide and a recently discovered third one, at Al Bateen, said to be among the first populated areas of Abu Dhabi by Al Suwaidi fishermen.
“My theory is that the purpose of these three towers was to help people navigate around the island, since there was nothing but bare, shifting sands around,” points out Al Sheikh.
For nearly a hundred years, the watch tower of Qasr Al Hosn stood alone above the water source of the island, until the end of the 18th century, when a small fort was built and a second tower, a square one this time, known as a “muraba”, its architecture being influenced by the Portugese, who were in the region back then.
It all happened under Shaikh Shakhbut, the son of Abu Dhabi’s first inhabitant, Shaikh Dhiyab bin Isa, who was the first to set up permanent residence on the island and move the tribal headquarters from Liwa to Abu Dhabi. Thus, Shaikh Shakhbut bin Dhiyab became the first ruler of Abu Dhabi and with him the history of Bani Yas tribe became intertwined with that of Qasr Al Hosn, as every ruler up to Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan run the western emirate from this very fort, later to become a palace.
With the fort a community was built as well, but these were not entirely peaceful times so the walls of the fort went higher and they became “adorned” with canons. The intial watch tower was rebuilt, this time using corals and sea stones, materials also used in the fort’s construction.
Despite political disputes, these were happy times for Abu Dhabi economically. The pearl industry was at its peak, and trade and fishing brought good income too.
“Then came 1939. This is when oil companies start coming to Abu Dhabi, asking permission to look for oil. Shaikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who was the ruler of Abu Dhabi, penned an agreement with the oil companies in January 1939 for 300,000 Indian rupees, a like for like equivalent with dirhams at the time; 100,000 rupees yearly during the exploration phase, then 200,000 rupees yearly once oil was found in commercial quantities and an additional three rupees on every tonne that was exported. The agreement covered 75 years. He used this money to build a palace around the fort,” explained Al Sheikh.
By 1939, times have already changed for the worse. The pearl industry was declining due to the fresh water pearl cultivation and World War II was breaking out. In such economicaly dire times, building a palace may sound vain, but it actually helped the population with much-needed paid jobs. Divers used their skill to dive for corals needed in construction and fishermen used their boats to transport sea materials.
“The coral stone used for the palace all came from Ras Al Ghurab, an island near Abu Dhabi,” pointed out Al Sheikh.
Although it was now a palace fit for a king, the “reign” of Qasr Al Hosn ended with Shaikh Shakhbut. When his brother, Shaikh Zayed, took over the ruling of Abu Dhabi in 1966, he moved his residence from Al Ain to Al Manhal Palace in the capital.
Yet, Shaikh Zayed did not abandon Qasr Al Hosn and in 1979 he asked for the inner fort to be restored, which had completely dissapeared, with only the original watch tower still standing.
“He instructed the remodelling to be done as in 1904. We don’t know why particularly 1904, but it might be because the only photograph we have of the fort is from 1904, taken by Hermann Burchardt,” said Al Sheikh.
After the restoration, the Centre for Documentation and Research had its headquarters at Qasr Al Hosn, until 2005, when the fort was closed to the public.
While research into the fort’s history continues, the ADTCA plans to “soon” reveal its plans for the building’s future.
Silvia Radan / 16 February 2013