Sir Wilfred Thesiger spent five years exploring the Arabian Peninsula, but it was only in 1948, after his second crossing of the Empty Quarter, that he rode to Al Ain and met Sheikh Zayed for the first time.
The sheikh and the explorer – or Mubarak bin London, as he was known to the Bedouin – soon became friends and Thesiger stayed for almost a month, hunting, riding and attending the daily “sittings” during which the sheikh, who was then the ruler’s representative in the eastern region, would arbitrate over local disputes.
Thesiger recorded the experience in a series of remarkable black-and-white photographs that form part of the 71-volume Thesiger Collection in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. One of those photographs, picture 75 from volume 13, is a picturesque but seemingly unremarkable view of Al Ain’s Al Jahili fort, surrounded by rolling dunes and arching ghaf trees.
The view of Al Jahili is one that any contemporary visitor would recognise, but that is largely thanks to 14 months of archaeological detective work that have led to the reinstatement of the fort’s north gate, a small but historically important architectural feature that has been missing for 60 years.
Historians believe that Al Jahili was constructed by Sheikh Zayed the First (1855-1909) as a new estate that started with an underground irrigation system, or falaj, and a round watchtower but which was soon followed by a fort and walled orchards. However, by the time Thesiger visited in 1948, the site had been abandoned.
The north gate was demolished in the mid-1950s by the Trucial Oman Scouts, the precursors of the UAE’s modern Union Defence Force, who were stationed at Al Jahili from the 1955 to 1971. At the time, the north gate was still the only point of access into the fort, and the scouts widened it to allow vehicle access.
The team at Al Jahili have used a wide range of evidence to support the reconstruction – archaeology, oral history, and the analysis of similar gates elsewhere – but without Thesiger’s photograph, the reconstruction would have been all but impossible. It is the only visual record of the gate’s appearance to have survived from its 117-year history.
“The project may be small, but there may not be many more like this,” explains Aqeel Ahmed Aqeel, a historic building conservator with the Tourism and Culture Authority Abu Dhabi (TCA) who oversaw the design and reconstruction of the north gate.
Aqeel and his colleague, Omar Salem Alkaabi, a historic buildings researcher with TCA, took Thesiger’s photograph and, using the available archaeological evidence as a benchmark, modified the image to create a scale drawing that formed the basis of the design for the reconstructed gate. Thanks to an analysis of the shadows in Thesiger’s original photograph, they not only discovered the relationship between the gate and the surrounding walls, but the shape of the original arch as well. When the findings were compared with the dimensions of a gate from the fort’s southern wall, the results were surprising.
“When we compared drawings, the arch itself was almost identical,” Alkaabi explains. “This means that it was either built in the same period [as the southern gateway] or that it was built by the same craftsmen.”
Thanks to archaeological evidence and an inscription above the door of the old fort, that places the north gate at a date of somewhere close to 1897 or 1898. There are, however, limits to the clues that Thesiger’s photograph was able to provide.
“We had the photographic evidence for the outside, but there is only so much you can know from the archaeology and the photographs,” Aqeel explains. When it came to the gate’s materials and construction techniques, the evidence provided by existing buildings, the oral testimony of local people who still remember the fort and the expertise of the master craftsmen involved in the project proved invaluable.
Remarkably, TCA’s experts in mud brick construction come from a family, the Al Qayeds, who have been building in Abu Dhabi for almost a hundred years. Not only were they employed by Sheikh Zayed to reconstruct Al Ain’s Sultan bin Zayed fort in the 1980s, but Al Qayeds were also employed by Sheikh Shakhbut to enlarge Abu Dhabi’s Qasr Al Hosn in the 1940s. Their involvement in the reconstruction of Al Jahili’s north gate transforms the project from the realm of mere architecture into a matter of living tradition, providing a very human link with some of the most important monuments and figures from Abu Dhabi’s past.
Now that construction of the north gate is finished, the matter of telling these stories and interpreting Al Jahili’s heritage in a way that brings the monuments to life is an even greater challenge, but Omar Salem Alkaabi is confident.
“It is important for visitors to understand all of the stages in the fort’s history, from the beginning to the present time. The north gate acts as a timeline for the whole of Al Jahili so it is good to have it recreated for the public once again.”