x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Qasr Al Hosn: The fabric of history

Qasr Al Hosn offers a unique insight into the social and economic growth and development of the emirate.

A woman collecting water outside the fort. Ronald Codrai © TCA Abu Dhabi
A woman collecting water outside the fort. Ronald Codrai © TCA Abu Dhabi

How many places are there where you can go and touch the building that founded a nation?"

When Mark Kyffin talks about Qasr Al Hosn, he does so with a mixture of affection and awe. An architect working for the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, Kyffin is part of the team responsible for the conservation of the building he describes as his "third child", and a painstaking, five-year process of architectural, archaeological and historical research, analysis and assessment.

"This building is nothing less than a physical timeline of the development of Abu Dhabi."

As we stand in the narrow gap between Al Hosn's inner and outer walls, it's easy to see what Kyffin means. Under his expert guidance, layers of history reveal themselves as material memories, and the convoluted narrative of Qasr Al Hosn and its relationship with both the city and the nation unfolds. It is the story of how the seeds of the Abu Dhabi we know today were sown around 1760 with the construction of a small round watchtower, or burj, built at the order of Sheikh Dhiyab bin Isa, then leader of the Bani Yas.

After his successor Sheikh Shakhbut bin Dhiyab Al Nahyan moved the Bani Yas from Liwa to Abu Dhabi, the original burj became the north-east tower of a compound that developed, during the 19th century, into Qasr Al Hosn, a dynastic seat, a symbol of power and a refuge in times of strife.

In the early 1940s, Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan used funds raised from the signing of the first oil concessions to transform a pragmatic defensive structure into a palatial royal residence, and the crumbling walls of the old fort, now obsolete, were enveloped within the eight-metre high perimeter that stands today.

Finally, in the 1980s, Qasr Al Hosn underwent extensive rebuilding, renovation and reuse as the building became home to the offices and archive of the organisation now known as the National Centre for Documentation and Research. By this time, petrodollars had begun to make their mark beyond Qasr Al Hosn's walls, and the whole compound became enveloped by the modern city we know today.

The role of the very first burj was to protect that most vital resource, drinkable water, from external raiders and while it has always been understood that the relationship between the source of that water and Qasr Al Hosn was straightforward, Kyffin's experience suggests that the reality may be more complex.

"The water here wasn't a solitary well, it was a series of scrapes. I've spoken to local people who can recall going as far from Qasr Al Hosn as where the Etisalat building is now on Airport Road to fetch water. How did that water become potable? Was it seawater filtered through a series of limestone or gypsum fissures in the ground? It's possible that the building is also built on a hard crop of stone which might explain why it has been able to stand here for so long without the need for modern forms of technology."

While Kyffin's hypothesis about the bedrock may be just that, modern technology does afford him a degree of certainty in other areas. Thanks to a network of sensors across the compound and a laser, he receives an SMS whenever there is any vertical or horizontal movement in the building. There is surprisingly little, which is a very good thing considering the purported age of Qasr Al Hosn's oldest structure.

For Kyffin and his team, there is convincing evidence that the north-east tower of the inner fort is the original burj dating from 1760/61, the heart around which all later development at Qasr Al Hosn has taken place. Their assessment based on the analysis of subtle architectural details, materials and photographs taken by the German explorer Hermann Burchardt during his tour of the Arabian Gulf in the winter of 1903/4.

As Kyffin explains: "If you look at the photographs, you'll see that the watchtower, which is the same one that we have today has kasm, or murder-holes, that extend all the way around."

The kasm -beak-shaped projections that extend out from the top of the burj - would have allowed defenders inside the tower to fire bullets or other projectiles down onto any attackers below. Crucial for Kyffin are their size - later towers also have them but they are purely decorative, being too small to have ever been useful - and their location.

"If it hadn't been a stand-alone structure, why would you have kasm over an area that didn't need to be defended?" he asks.

Some of the earliest depictions of Qasr Al Hosn appear on maritime charts and date from a time when the fort was one of the most recognisable landmarks on what was then known as the Trucial Coast. In part, this was due to the fort's size - it dominated the modest arish huts and compounds built near it - but also to its startling colour. According to Reem Tariq El Mutwalli, who wrote a detailed architectural history of the fort in the late 1990s, Qasr Al Hosn was known as the "White Fort" because of its cladding in a locally made material called juss. Made from a mixture of ground coral, seashells and sand, the juss was then burnt, crushed and mixed into a paste before being used as both mortar and render.

It is this intimate knowledge of locally available materials and their properties that marks the oldest parts of Qasr Al Hosn as such an important example of the vernacular architecture of the region. Roof beams were made from local trees such as mangrove and their size, rarely larger than 3.6 metres in length, dictated the size of the original rooms throughout Qasr Al Hosn.

According to Kyffin, oral histories also relate how coral stones were cut from the seabed before being cured on the beach so that they became hard enough to build with. Not only was this an intelligent use of local materials, but the porous nature of the coral stone also meant that it was ideally suited as a building material in Abu Dhabi's harsh climate. During the day, the coral stone absorbed the sun's heat, stored it in the wall and effectively insulated the interiors of the fort while the juss mortar, made of the same materials, allowed the walls to expand, contract and breathe. At night, when the temperature dropped, the coral stone released its stored heat back in the building, acting almost as an early form of central heating. Remarkably, contemporary architects use similar principles in sustainable building practices today.

The overall effect of Qasr Al Hosn's many historical changes, adaptations and modifications is a bewildering palimpsest, but nowhere is this layering of materials, construction and history more evident than at the north-east corner of the palace's curtain wall. Here, a vertical strip of the modern white concrete render that replaced the original juss, as part of the renovations of the 1980s, has been removed in what Kyffin describes as a "biopsy". Not only has this exposed the original masonry underneath, it has also revealed a series of later repairs and modifications that provide important insights into how the changes witnessed by the city in the 20th century have expressed themselves in its urban fabric.

"Our investigations show how the changes made to the building over time mirror the evolution of Abu Dhabi. We see the introduction of coral stone, mangrove wood and arish in the very early stages, then after the discovery of oil, concrete becomes available and we see the introduction of this into the fabric of Qasr Al Hosn. We are able to parallel the social and economic development of this part of the world with the architecture of the building."

For Faisl Al Sheikh, the director of the Qasr Al Hosn Festival of the events bureau at Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, it's that coming together of architecture, history and society that makes the forthcoming festival so exciting. "Qasr Al Hosn Fort is of immense historical and cultural importance to Abu Dhabi and has played a fundamental role in the capital's past while at the same time safeguarding its prosperous future," he says.

"The Qasr Al Hosn Festival is an opportunity for the entire community to come together and celebrate Emirati history, culture and tradition at the site of Abu Dhabi's symbolic birthplace."