x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Fort regains former glory for public

Al Ain aims to become cultural and heritage site as extensive conservation programme recaptures historical building's noble past.

The Al Jahili Fort in Al Ain, main entrance above, has had a chequered history, and has been a royal residence and a barracks.
The Al Jahili Fort in Al Ain, main entrance above, has had a chequered history, and has been a royal residence and a barracks.

Al Jahili Fort, one of the biggest forts in the country and one of the oldest buildings in Al Ain, will reopen on Wednesday after being closed for 18 months to allow for renovation. The former summer residence of the Abu Dhabi royal family, built by Sheikh Zayed the First in 1898, will open to the public after an evening ceremony celebrating the UAE's 37th anniversary. The rehabilitation project has been carried out by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach), whose director general Mohammed al Mazrouei welcomed the reopening.

"Al Jahili Fort has now returned to its rightful place as one of the most significant historic buildings in Al Ain. As in the past, the fort will once again become a meeting and gathering place for the whole community to enjoy," Mr Mazrouei said. The fort has an inner square fortress surrounded by an outer wall and a large, distinctive corner turret with four concentric levels or terraces. The original entrance is a gate in the south wall over which a poem is inscribed naming Sheikh Zayed as its founder.

It was built as a home to the ruling Al Nahyan family and was a symbol of their power and control as well as a royal summer residence. Abu Dhabi's leaders customarily escaped the intense coastal humidity in summer for the drier climate of Al Ain. The fort also provided a refuge in times of attack for the inhabitants of the oasis. Sheikh Zayed's choice of location may have been influenced by the availability of water and the fertile land in the area, where he owned a farm.

After his death in 1909, his elder son Sheikh Khalifa continued to live in the fort with his family and farm the area. In the 1950s it was used by the British forces who came to Al Ain and were known as the Trucial Scouts. The army requisitioned the fort as a base for the Trucial Oman Levies. They restored the dilapidated building and added barracks within a new enclosure incorporating the earlier fort and tower.

Attached to the fort is a mosque which was also renovated during the reoccupation in the 1950s. The structure has been left largely untouched since then and has been a tourist attraction in the garden city of Al Ain. However, Adach decided in 2006 to begin conservation work to preserve its historical significance while making it a modern cultural centre and tourist destination. Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon, the chairman of Adach, said: "The project of developing Al Jahili fort is one of the most important projects which were launched by Adach in Al Ain to transform the city to a cultural and heritage site."

The fort now houses a visitor information centre, a temporary exhibition gallery and a permanent exhibition on Wilfred Thesiger, the prominent British explorer, travel writer and photographer, who twice crossed the Empty Quarter in the 1940s. There will be a bookshop and a small lounge and next May a walk-through audio-visual installation will be opened in the round tower focusing on the history and development of Al Ain city.

The reconstruction has altered the fort's original structure as little as possible while equipping it with the requirements of a modern visitor facility. This was achieved with the use of traditional building techniques, such as mud blocks, mud plaster and palm logs. Instead of installing air-conditioning, climate control has been introduced by embedding cold water pipes into the mud plaster walls, which keep the temperature at 22C.

After tomorrow night's grand opening, attended by Sheikh Sultan, the fort will be open to the public without charge between 8am and 6pm. aseaman@thenational.ae