ABU DHABI // The white plaster walls are the only modern part of Qasr Al Hosn fort, which has stood in the middle of the capital for 250 years.
Foreign contractors commissioned to preserve the site in the 1980s painted it white and layered the walls with modern materials, protecting the fort's walls from the elements but also concealing the delicate layers of history lying beneath.
"Qasr Al Hosn is of immense historical and cultural importance," said Faisal Al Sheikh, director of the Qasr Al Hosn Festival that begins tomorrow, and director of the events bureau at Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority.
"Standing here for more than two and a half centuries, Qasr Al Hosn is the symbolic birthplace of Abu Dhabi. The fort played a fundamental role in the capital's past."
In the mid-1700s, Sheikh Dhiyab bin Isa, leader of the Bani Yas tribes, discovered fresh water on Abu Dhabi island and built a watchtower in 1761 to protect the spring from intruders.
With the tower in place, new settlements began to emerge and the community expanded.
For political and strategic reasons, the Bani Yas tribe decided to move to the coast and the tower in its original form struggled to meet the needs of the growing population.
That is why Sheikh Dhiyab's son, Sheikh Shakhbut, decided to turn the watchtower into an impenetrable fort, intent on updating its defences.
At the time, the Arabian Gulf was an ancient centre of commerce and Qasr Al Hosn conveyed an image of power, instilling confidence in the hearts of residents.
Given the substantial security the island now offered, the official residence of the Royal Family was transferred from Liwa to the fort, the name of which is Arabic for "palace fort".
In the early 1800s it was enlarged and Abu Dhabi went from a small village of palm dwellings into a town of more than 5,000 residents.
By now, Qasr Al Hosn was the seat of power in Abu Dhabi.
It was used as a mosque during Eid and other religious festivities, offered shelter to those in need and even acted as a majlis for resolving disputes within the community.
Every ascending sheikh of Al Nahyan family would make changes to the qasr where necessary, commissioning whatever work was required to strengthen its status.
That continued until the 1970s when Sheikh Zayed, the late President, left the palace and made it the city's centre for arts, culture and heritage.
Mr Al Sheikh said he hoped the festival at the fort would help to make more Emiratis and residents aware of its long and rich history.
"This year's festival is an opportunity for the entire community to come together and celebrate Emirati history, culture and tradition," he said.
For a video of Qasr Al Hosn, visit thenational.ae/multimedia