Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 27 September 2020

Four sites in Ras Al Khaimah added to Unesco tentative world heritage list

From an abandoned pearling village to the remains of a medieval metropolis, the sites span 5,000 years of history

Four sites in Ras Al Khaimah spanning 5,000 years of history have been added to Unesco's tentative list of world heritage sites.

An abandoned pearling village, megalithic stone tombs, the remains of a medieval metropolis and a palm oasis cradled between mangroves and mountains have been submitted for consideration.

Unesco is the UN's cultural arm and its world heritage sites recognise cultural, historic and natural sites of outstanding value to humanity.

Sites around the globe include the Great Wall of China, India's Taj Mahal and the historic old town of Havana, Cuba.

Abu Dhabi is home to the UAE's only world heritage sites at Al Ain, while 12 across the UAE are now on the tentative list.

The UAE's tentative list also includes Dubai Creek, parts of Sharjah, Sir Bu Nair island and Bidya Mosque.

Now these sites will be further assessed by Unesco.

A farmer dips his hands into the falaj at Al Ain Oasis, of the UAE's Unesco world heritage sites. A falaj is an ancient irrigation channel. Chris Whiteoak / The National
A farmer dips his hands into the falaj at Al Ain Oasis, of the UAE's Unesco world heritage sites. A falaj is an ancient irrigation channel. Chris Whiteoak / The National

"I am delighted that these four important sites from Ras Al Khaimah have now been formally added to the UAE’s tentative list of Unesco world heritage sites," said Noura Al Kaabi, Minister of Culture and Youth.

"Together, they represent around 5,000 years of our history, with a particular emphasis on our maritime traditions. Julfar was a key port city for international trade for centuries. Jazirat Al Hamra is the best-preserved pearling town in the Gulf. The sites at Dhayah and Shimal offer a record of our distant past as well as our more recent history."

Archaeologists continue to unearth remarkable discoveries about these ancient sites, many of which are largely unknown outside the emirate. Here is their history.

The pearling town of Jazirat Al Hamra

Believed to have been founded in the 1600s, the pearling village of Jazirat Al Hamra was built at the edge of a desert on an island of red sand that gave the settlement its name, The Red Island.

Its abandonment in the late 1960s led to its accidental preservation. The area is a unique example of an original maritime town in the Gulf, almost untouched by the oil boom and development of the late twentieth century. It has an open air souq, a fort, schools, mosques, courtyard houses, twisting alleyways and watchtowers that protected the town’s wells.

Built of coral stone, fossilised beach rock and palm, as well as modern materials like sand brick and concrete, the village is a unique record of Gulf architecture through the centuries.

Rainfall in 2015 uncovered traces of a mosque, later revealed to be a 20-domed mosque depicted on a British map from 1820.

The lost metropolis of Julfar

The thriving port city of Julfar was the medieval predecessor to Ras Al Khaimah. Located at the entrance to the Gulf, it was a metropolis with a population of 50,000 to 70,000 inhabitants in the 14th to 16th centuries.

As the coastline changed and harbours silted up, Julfar moved and so this entry to the Unesco list includes the four sites of Kush, Mataf, Nudud, and the old town of Ras Al Khaimah.

Julfar was one of the few places in the Gulf inhabited continuously through the Islamic period.

Three large lagoons sheltered Julfar’s ships and the city played an important role in the emerging Indian Ocean trade network. Large amounts of Chinese ceramics unearthed in Nudud are testimony to the city’s expansive trade.

The original city was secured by a five-metre high wall stretching seven kilometres from the lagoon to the mountains. With its many rounded watch towers and deep moat, the wall protected the city’s oasis, port and administrative centre.

Shimal tombs date back to the Umm Al Nar culture (2,600 to 2,000BC). Courtesy: Ras Al Khaimah Government Media Office
Shimal tombs date back to the Umm Al Nar culture (2,600 to 2,000BC). Courtesy: Ras Al Khaimah Government Media Office

The megalithic tombs of Shimal

Shimal’s tombs, prehistoric settlements and medieval palace chart this history of the emirate over more than 4,000 years.

More than 100 megalithic tombs are scattered over three kilometres on the gravel plains and acacia forests at the foot of the Hajar mountains. They stand as impressive relics of a vanished culture, and are exceptional not only for their size but variety.

Two round Umm Al Nar tombs, believed to be up to 4,600 years old, are the largest funerary structures of Southeast Arabia.

Centuries later, between 2,000 to 1,600 BC, people constructed tombs up to 20 metres long with stones that weighed up to one tonne.

The Unesco entry describes these megalithic tombs as "a masterpiece of human creative genius" for their vaulted roofing of enormous, overlapping stone slabs.

Above the plains of Shimal is a medieval Islamic palace perched on a mountain plateau, built between the 13th to 16th century. Popularly known as the Queen of Sheba’s Palace, it was the residence of Julfar’s ruler. Dotted amongst Shimal’s wadis are pottery kilns built between the 17th to 19th centuries.

The oasis of Dhayah

Cradled by limestone mountains, gravel plains, mangroves and a lagoon, Dhayah’s diverse geography is a microcosm for the natural variety that gave rise to distinctive cultures of the northern emirates. Evidence of its earlier inhabitants includes a prehistoric cemetery at the foot of its mountains and settlements on an island dating to the early Islamic period.

Dhayah has the last remaining natural palm orchards watered by rainfall alone. Within the shade of these palms are the remains of a mudbrick fort. A second fort overlooks the oasis from a hill. Overlooking the palms and sea, are stone villages and terraced fields built in the mountains above centuries ago.

Updated: September 9, 2020 09:12 AM

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