x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

14. Block of coral from an Abu Dhabi house

To mark the nation's 40th anniversary, we feature 40 historic objects.

A piece of coral wall from a demolished house in the Bateen area of Abu Dhabi.
A piece of coral wall from a demolished house in the Bateen area of Abu Dhabi.
Aerial photographs of Abu Dhabi taken before 1960 show that most of the community lived in palm frond arish dwellings scattered around Qasr Al Hosn, the Ruler's fortified palace.

Those who could afford them, though, were able to construct more substantial dwellings. Several were built facing the sea, between what are now the Old and New Airport Roads. They included the old custom house, which had previously been used as offices by Khalaf bin Abdulla Al Otaiba, a wealthy merchant known locally as "the king of pearls".

For those with the money to build bigger houses, nature had provided the perfect building material. The shallow waters of the island included a huge coral reef, chunks of which could easily be brought ashore.

Coral was light and easily shaped. Best of all, because it made naturally porous walls, it acted as a natural air conditioner in the oppressive heat of the summer.

That this particular piece of coral wall survives is thanks to David Heard and his wife Frauke Heard-Bey, who have lived in the city since the early 1960s.

It comes from an old house in the Bateen district that was finally demolished in the early 1980s. The couple first noticed the bulldozers around the building. "The next time we came it was all in pieces," Hear-Bey recalls. "This was the biggest piece still left."

Abu Dhabi's old sea front coral buildings were destroyed in the late 1960s to make way for the modern high-rise city and the new Corniche. Examples of coral buildings survive elsewhere, especially in the Northern Emirates, with notable examples in the abandoned village of Al Jazirah Al Hamra in Ras Al Khaimah.

Coral buildings also survive on Dalma Island off the coast of Abu Dhabi and once a centre for pearl gathering.

The example shown here has been rendered on the interior side with mud and marked in a distinct pattern. So distinctive, in fact, that Heard-Bey says she wonders "if anyone remembers, 'oh that was the majlis of my father'".