Shadowed by tower blocks and partly obscured by walls, Qasr Al Hosn - the "Old Fort" of Abu Dhabi - is a mystery to many. Driving near Hamdan and Airport roads it's easy to miss the history that sits hidden behind the temporary screens.
But before rapid development began in the early 1970s, Qasr Al Hosn was the centrepiece of this city. It was the residence of Abu Dhabi's Ruler until only a few years earlier, and was the focal point for the entire emirate. From small beginnings, it became a centre of political power throughout the southern Arabian Gulf.
There is archaeological evidence of previous occupation of Abu Dhabi island, in the Bateen area, dating to perhaps a couple of thousand years ago, but there was no permanent settlement on the island until just more than 250 years ago, in 1761.
When supplies of drinkable water were found, Sheikh Dhiyab bin Isa Al Nahyan, then chief of the Bani Yas tribal confederation deep in the Liwa desert, promptly gave instructions for the founding of a small village. Before that, according to a report written by a British officer, Samuel Hennell, in 1831, the island "was sometimes visited by the Beniyas fishermen as a place well adapted for the prosecution of their employment; but on these occasions they were under the necessity of taking their supplies of water with them".
The new village grew rapidly. Hennell noted: "The first establishment … consisted of 20 houses. The intelligence of water having been found quickly spread through the tribe, and before two years had elapsed, the place had increased to 400 houses."
The oldest tower of the fort probably wasn't built until about 1795, when Sheikh Dhiyab's son and successor, Sheikh Shakhbut, moved his headquarters to Abu Dhabi. The fort's rapid growth, however, is testimony to the wisdom of Sheikh Dhiyab in deciding to take possession of the island.
Besides the supplies of water, several other factors contributed to its growth. The inhabitants of Abu Dhabi's deserts, coast and islands had been harvesting fish and pearls from the Gulf for more than 7,000 years. Yet there was not a single town along the lengthy stretch of coast that extended from Sila'a in the west, to Dubai in the north. There was only the small fishing village of Mirfa.
The new town of Abu Dhabi was strategically situated towards the eastern end of the great pearl fishing grounds that stretched all the way to Qatar. Any leader who could establish a strong presence here, with the support of allies from other sections of the Bani Yas such as the Rumaithat, Qemzan, Qubaisat and Maharibah, was well placed to exert influence over the pearling fleets.
As time passed, the town on the island grew, to become the capital of the largest emirate in the southern Gulf, a political power within the region. Oil and gas replaced pearling wealth, and Abu Dhabi's influence continues to grow.
Qasr Al Hosn and the small settlement that it dominated more than two centuries ago represent the beginning of that process. The Old Fort well deserves its status as one of the most important symbols of Abu Dhabi's history.
Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture