x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Conservationists work to protect 40 Al Ain homes

Experts work to protect 40 homes in Al Ain that have been damaged by the weather.

The Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage conservator, Benjamin Marcus, stands outside the 100-year-old fort.
The Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage conservator, Benjamin Marcus, stands outside the 100-year-old fort. "There's a lot of heritage in the Emirates. Every piece of it is important," he said. Amy Leang / The National

AL AIN  // Hidden behind palm trees on a farm in the Qattara Oasis, Mohammed bin Badowah al Darmaki's house was once owned by the wealthy mother of a sheikh, conservation experts believe.

However, as with so much of the area's history, no one knows for sure.

Six conservators from the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage are talking to residents to build the best picture they can of the past of the building, which was once a fort.

"We talked to al Darmaki family members, to the farmer here, and some people's parents," said Benjamin Marcus, one of the restoration team members. "Just basically looking for anyone who would know the history."

Many residents have yet fully to grasp the importance of preserving the eroded, century-old mud-brick building. But others have taken a close interest in the five-year project.

"They appreciate care given to buildings now, and people notice other buildings and start telling us about them," Mr Marcus said.

"The history of the UAE is important to preserve, there is a lot of heritage in the Emirates … Every piece is important to understand traditional life."

Mr al Darmaki's house is one of 40 in Al Ain that needed emergency work after being all but destroyed by rain and wind damage caused by surrounding trees. So far, the first phase of work has been completed on 23 of the houses.

"We try to keep interventions to a minimum," Mr Marcus said.

In 2009, his team cut down palm trees that were harming the building. With most of the work now done, their main concern is slippage, despite bracing poles having been placed in doorways to keep the structure stable.

The building has been marked with red target points to allow the team to check with a laser for any signs of movement.

The eight-metre-tall edifice consists of a courtyard, three rooms, an eroded gate and a square tower with two spiral staircases, window slits and other holes that could have been gun slots, according to Mr Marcus.

"It was used for defence against other tribes and invasions," he said. "It just seemed like an unfriendly time."

The first phase of conservation revealed that the building went two metres beneath sand level on one side. That wall was in such poor condition that it had to be replaced with new mud bricks.

"Maybe it was on a slope, because it doesn't go as deep on the other side, but we don't know," Mr Marcus said.

Other stand-alone walls, possibly part of other buildings, are also being preserved.

Amer Abu Kuhail, a private tour guide and a member of the Emirates Natural History Group in Al Ain, said the tower was always the first thing to be built.

"The monitoring of the oasis was done from the watchtower. Usually people attack fighting for food, ladies, but mainly for food."

After remedial work on all 40 buildings has been completed, the next phase, preservation, will start.

It is, according to Mr Abu Kuhail, essential.

"A whole life was raised in the courtyard of the fort, that is where they used to stay and live. Cooking, staying, playing, chit-chatting was all done in the courtyard."

That kind of social focus, said Ibrahim Obaid, the undersecretary of the Emirates Sociological Association, is largely missing today.

"Residence forms the basis of a family," he said. "In the past the houses used to bring families together.

"Today with the villas, no one knows who's coming and who's going - no one knows what's going on.

"Before there were no family problems because they were close, which built love and respect."

osalem@thenational.ae