Settlement of the capital began about 250 years ago when a freshwater spring was discovered on the island. Or did it? Recent archaeological finds by a pair of amateur enthusiasts appear to challenge that notion.
Golf course find guided understanding of Abu Dhabi's history
If not for two serendipitous acts of clumsiness 1,000 years apart, a key chapter of Abu Dhabi's history might never have been written.
The first was of an everyday kind of maladroitness, the dropping and breaking a clay pot. The second is a little easier to picture: a mistimed swing in a bunker on one of the first golf courses on the island, which clumsily unearthed long-buried shards of pottery.
The story might still have ended there, if not for a curious expat wife who pocketed the shards in the 1980s and later handed them to those compiling an archaeological history of the emirate. The shards were inspected by a visiting pottery expert in the late 1990s.
Until that moment, nothing had emerged to counter the oft-quoted tale of the origin of Abu Dhabi: that a group of tribesmen visiting from Liwa discovered a gazelle trail and followed it across the shallow strait separating Abu Dhabi island from the mainland, and were eventually led to the site of an undiscovered freshwater spring in what is now the city centre.
The find of that trail was relayed to the head of the Bani Yas federation, Sheikh Dhiyab bin Isa, who realised this provided the ability to settle this part of the coast. Seventy summers after that, the story of how Abu Dhabi - literally the father (or possession) of the gazelle - came to be settled was relayed to Lieutenant Samuel Hennell of the British East India Company.
He recorded the story of the spring "on the island of Aboothabee" in 1831 and counting back from that provided the now-accepted date of 1761 for when the first village of 20 palm-frond huts was created at the spring. A fort to protect the settlement would follow, now known to all in the capital as Al Hosn.
By the time archaeologists began to take a serious look at the human history of Abu Dhabi, 200 years of habitation since that spring's discovery meant pottery shards were hardly rare. On the course at the Abu Dhabi Golf and Equestrian Club, broken pottery was sufficiently common that amateur golfers only really gave them much thought when they found old coins.
Peter Hellyer, one of the principals behind the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey (Adias), said there was nothing to the untrained eye to suggest the shards handed to him by the amateur golfer Cathy Ryan were anything special.
"They were scruffy little bits," he said. "People used to find pottery up to the late 1980s. You'd bash away in a bunker and unearth a bit of pottery."
Despite the unpromising appearance, Hellyer kept hold of the shards handed to him by Ryan, who returned to the United States with her husband when he finished working with the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority.
Robert Carter, a pottery expert from the Institute of Archaeology at University College, London, would later visit Abu Dhabi and was shown some of the golf course shards along with others from many other sites in Abu Dhabi.
Most he was able to dismiss as being of no significance, but those collected by Ryan and from one other site immediately piqued his interest. Closer examination confirmed what he had already suspected: the shards were much, much older than anything else previously seen on the island and predated the discovery of the spring.
Until then, Carter found, the ceramics collected by Adias "appear to confirm the historical record: the pottery dates to the 18th and 19th century and not before. Evidence from two other sites now shows that occupation began considerably earlier.
"Although it was apparently empty at the time of the settlement [by] the Bani Yas, Abu Dhabi island had been inhabited long before."
By then it had been a decade since Ryan had found the shards and, in keeping with the headlong pace of Abu Dhabi's development, the golf course had been renovated in such a way as to prevent further archaeological study.
The other location that had produced much older pottery remnants had suffered a similar fate. At the Bateen site where the UAE Central Bank building now stands, the shards had been collected in the late 1970s by Bish Brown, another expat with an interest in natural history.
Hellyer said that by the time the importance of the site was known, he returned to Bateen and found it had been planted over.
"It was a missed opportunity," he said. "We're lucky we got these. The archaeological evidence was never properly studied and because we didn't get to excavate [either site], it's difficult to date them."
The scant evidence from the site made accurate dating both tricky and potentially faulty. At first blush, however, the Bateen shards seemed to be from the first millennium, with some possibly from the start of the Christian era and consistent with having originated in India. That underscored the importance of Mrs Ryan's curious discoveries at the golf club.
Carter noted that "golf and archaeology make unlikely bedfellows", but said that the UAE owed a debt of thanks to the two "amateur enthusiasts" without whom the earlier occupation might have remained undiscovered. Some of the fragments collected by Ryan originated in either Julfar, in what is now Ras Al Khaimah, or Bahrain and are consistent with the 1761 settling of Abu Dhabi. But another type of fragments identified as sgraffiato, indicated a date range of the 10th to 13th centuries, with an origin outside of the Arabian peninsula.
That in turn demonstrated the significance of a viable village located amid the pearling beds of the southern gulf. Without the gazelle-assisted discovery of the spring, the emirate might never have achieved the prominence it did.
As Hellyer described this week at an Emirates Heritage Club conference to mark the 250th anniversary of the city, while the Bani Yas federation tribesmen might not have been the first to settle on the island, doing so in 1761 "was of crucial importance" to their later success. "The foundation of modern Abu Dhabi provided a focus on the coast, through which the Bani Yas tribal federation and, in particular, the Al Nahyan family could project their power and engage directly with the outside world," he said.
By any account, Abu Dhabi city is the distinct latecomer among the important cities of the southern Gulf. All the other main cities like Dubai, Sharjah, Umm Al Qaiwain and the once-dominant city known as Julfar in Ras Al Khaimah can each trace their establishment back more than 5,000 years ago and some go back up to 7,000 years. Even at that stage, there were trading connections with the countries of the northern Gulf and pearling had established itself as a crucial part of the economies of the emirates in the region. But the difficulty of obtaining drinking water stymied development of the area between Delma Island, where springs had made permanent settlement possible for 7,000 years, and Dubai.
Water was available but sometimes only seasonally in winter, with the source drying up in summer. Such was the inventiveness of those seeking to create a settlement that on islands such as Futaisi, west of Abu Dhabi city, a complex system of channels and cisterns was created to maximise the harvesting of any rain that fell.
Would-be settlers also discovered that freshwater springs emerged below the low-tide line in the sea off Saadiyat. They would dive down to these springs with collapsible bladders to capture the water.
Otherwise it was a case of getting water from a reliable source and towing it to transient settlements on the islands, using wooden casks. These were sealed with bitumen, pieces of which occurred naturally and which hinted at the vast petroleum reserves that would forever change the emirate's fortunes.
Even the fabled spring found in 1761 was "brackish rather than fresh", Hellyer says, but that was good enough to create the settlement.
Within a few years of the spring's discovery, Abu Dhabi city had grown to 400 palm-frond shelters and with a second settlement starting in Bateen, which had the benefit of a harbour sheltered from the shamal winds.
More importantly, it added a crucial fourth location (after the ancient settlements of Al Ain, Liwa and western islands such as Delma) to ensure the emirate's control over most of the pearl beds.
"Pearling started in 5500BC. They were burying people with pearls in the stone age and they were certainly trading with them," he said. "There are references 4,000 years ago to fish eyes - by which most archaeologists think they meant pearls - and we know from a book written by Gasparo Balbi, the court jeweller of the Serene Republic of Venice, in around 1580, that one of the areas in the southern Arabian Gulf that was renowned for its importance to the pearling industry was Cherizan, which has been interpreted as Khor Qirqishan, which lies immediately west of the island of Abu Dhabi."
The scope of the trade was shown by some middens found in the southern Gulf that are up to 100m wide and up to 3km long, comprising millions upon millions of shells.
Abu Dhabi's relative youth and distance from the northern emirates also meant it missed out on the British retribution against Qawasim for alleged piracy at the start of the 19th century.
"Abu Dhabi, unaffected by the conflict, was able to continue its growth," Hellyer explains.
"Over the course of the 19th century, it grew into the most important land power in south-eastern Arabia. It would not have been possible, however, had the new settlement on Abu Dhabi island not been founded in 1761, 250 years ago.
"It was the discovery of fresh water itself, coupled with the immediate recognition by Sheikh Dhiyab bin Isa of the importance - not just of the water but also of its location and the consequent decision to found the new settlement - that marked the beginning of the Abu Dhabi we know today."
John Henzell is a senior features writer at The National.