Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 22 January 2020

Favourite haunt: the royal palace with a ghostly past lifting spirits in Ras Al Khaimah

Al Qasimi Palace was abandoned decades ago amid fears of paranormal activity but has now swung open its doors to the public once more

Abu Yasir was first invited to Al Qasimi Palace in Ras Al Khaimah 20 years ago. But when he saw the towering white palace on the hill, fear overcame him.

He knew the stories of its jinn, the supernatural spirits said to roam its halls. He knew people had heard children’s voices, seen faces in dark windows. He had heard of its abandonment after furniture was inexplicably tossed around inside, like toys.

“I didn’t want to enter,” said Abu Yasir, a Syrian resident of 40 years who did not want to give his full name. “I didn’t want to see anything strange.”

He kept driving.

Today, Abu Yasir sells tickets at the palace gates and the manor is Ras Al Khaimah’s busiest tourist attraction. The mysterious palace opened its doors a few weeks ago for the first time in more than 30 years.

Abu Yasir works in a room with white and blue Moroccan tiles, lit by a French chandelier.

A year ago, the prospect would have sent shivers up his spine.

Today, he sees the palace differently.

That is the point, says the palace’s new owner.

Tareq Al Sharhan wants people to see the four-storey palace as it was originally intended: a spectacular piece of art.

The palace was the dream house of Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Humaid Al Qasimi, a member of the Ras Al Khaimah ruling family who commissioned its construction in 1975.

He had artists decorate its vast hallways in Moroccan tile, adorn bedrooms walls with bucolic paintings of frolicking ghazals, birds and dusky maidens.

They sculpted plaster pigeons and owls into the walls. The manor was a testament to Middle Eastern art and took 15 years to complete.

“Imagine it 40 years ago,” Mr Al Sharhan said. “The original idea was to build a special palace in a special place and the sheikh liked art. In the 1980s, this was something very special.”

Mr Al Sharhan grew up in the neighbourhood and remembers the house “when it was black”. Rumours of it being haunted began before construction was even complete.

“Before it was finished. Yanni, how can it be haunted if it’s not even finished?”

He has little interest in the supernatural.

“I don’t scare and I don’t care. I am a businessman and I like the arts,” Mr Al Sharhan said.

“Everybody knew this place was for ghosts. I thought I could change its story to something better, something cultural, something for tourists.”

Ras Al Khaimah, United Arab Emirates - Reporter: Anna Zacharias: A look inside Al Qasimi Haunted Palace. Thursday, January 2nd, 2020. Ras Al Khaimah. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Boasting strange and unconventional architecture, the palace was abandoned for decades due to its haunted history. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Its paranormal reputation has long attracted thrill seekers from across the country and even inspired an Arabic novel by journalist Rym Tina Ghazal.

Holy men came too, promising to expel unwelcome spirits with incantations. They scratched out the eyes of humans and animals from paintings and beheaded plaster birds, in the belief that the depiction of human-like forms was un-Islamic and would attract jinn.

Mr Al Sharhan bought the property last year, after years of negotiation.

Restoration took six months. Today, it has the air of a polished estate, no speck of dust and no trace of jinn.

The 40 French and Belgian crystal chandeliers dusted and polished, the Moroccan wall tiles repainted and re-stuck, the paintings restored, the heads re-sculpted on plaster birds.

“It was all broken and with no heads, so I brought somebody to build new heads,” Mr Al Sharhan said.

It was all broken and with no heads, so I brought somebody to build new heads

Tareq Al Sharhan

Mr Al Sharhan, a painter in his youth and a collector of antiques, feels it was a worthy investment. He will not divulge what he spent on the palace. “It’s not cheap. But I think it’s a good price for a palace like this. Just sometimes, you have to do crazy things," he said.

Mr Al Sharhan said he would convert the original servants quarters into escape rooms and open cafes and art exhibitions in some of the palace's 38 rooms. He will also, perhaps, build chalets outside.

Consensus on the palace has changed overnight, with the building transforming from spooked manor to a kitsch 1970s architectural wonder.

To some visitors, this is a disappointment.

The palace is open temporarily for feedback. “People already started to think of it in a different way," Mr Al Sharhan said.

"After I started restoration, one guy came to me and said, ‘I can clean the place of jinn’. I told him, ‘I bought this palace because there’ are jinn inside and you want to remove them?'”

Repairmen saw nothing unusual during restoration.

Well, almost nothing.

“There was one man, from India, eating inside on the first floor bathroom when he heard a big sound,” said Mr Abdulrazak Abdulrashid, 47, a member of the maintenance team. “He was frightened and he asked to return to India afterwards.”

Ras Al Khaimah, United Arab Emirates - Reporter: Anna Zacharias: A look inside Al Qasimi Haunted Palace. Thursday, January 2nd, 2020. Ras Al Khaimah. Chris Whiteoak / The National
The restored interior is almost at odds with the unconventional outer facade. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Abu Yasir listened to his tale, unconvinced. “I think he wanted a bigger salary. He left not for fear but because he wanted a bigger salary.”

Mr Abdulrashid nodded. “I think he wanted drama," he said.

They are agreed jinn may have been here once. Jinn are known to hate development. They inhabit abandoned places.

So what happens when a jinn loses its home? Ras Al Khaimah was once a jinn hotspot but favourite haunts have grown crowded and disappeared entirely.

The abandoned the pearling village of Jazirat Al Hamra, a dense settlement of crumbling coral stone and sandbrick houses, is undergoing archaeological excavation. Ras Al Khaimah’s mangroves are steadily shrinking. The desert has been flattened for government housing and far flung wadis are crisscrossed by motorways.

Even the elders from the palace neighbourhood disappear in the late afternoon and travel across town to sit in cafes in a quiet creekside area.

I am sure nobody is there, only history... until the evening comes. Then, maybe

Abu Yasir

“Maybe the jinn have gone to Burj Al Arab,” joked Hamed Sultan, 65, a neighbour of the palace and a creekside cafe regular.

“People talk a lot about the palace but there’s no truth in it,” said Mohammed Ismail, 62, another neighbour at the cafe. “There’s no certainty in truth. In my opinion, there was nothing there.”

Were jinn in the abandoned palace? The consensus in the cafe was that there probably were. Did they remain after visits by exorcists and Quranic recitations? No chance.

Abu Yasir is equally sceptical, although he is careful never to utter the word "jinn". “If you think about ghosts in your head, anything you see will be ghosts,” he said. “Maybe your own breath seems to be a ghost.”

He can now stay inside the palace for hours without fear.

“I am sure nobody is there, only history,” Abu Yasir said. “Until the evening comes. Then, maybe.”

Tickets are available at the gate, daily from 9am-7pm; Dh75 per person; Al Qasimi Palace, Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum Road, Ras Al Khaimah

Updated: January 8, 2020 05:59 PM

SHARE

SHARE