x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Qasr Al Hosn: The Time Machine

Qasr Al Hosn is the story of Abu Dhabi and its people, a story of birth, growth and change. On the eve of the fort's 250th anniversary, The National reflects on what the emirate's oldest building says about the country.

A photograph from the BP archive showing Qasr Al Hosn during the 1950-60s. Courtesy of BP Archive
A photograph from the BP archive showing Qasr Al Hosn during the 1950-60s. Courtesy of BP Archive

They had tracked the dhabi across a narrow band of salt water to a maqta, or crossing point, where the sea was shallow enough for men and camels to wade.

Now the herd was almost at the end of the large sand island that lay off the coast. As the hunters watched, the gazelle halted, dipped their heads and drank from a pool of sweet, clean water.

Two centuries and 50 years have passed since Bedouin tribesmen brought the news to their chief of the discovery of a place they would soon call Abu Dhabi, the father of the gazelle. Today a great city stands around the ancient watchtower that the sheikh ordered to guard that most precious of resources in the 1760s.

This weekend sees the start of celebrations to mark what is probably - for the calculations cannot be exact - the 250th anniversary of Qasr Al Hosn, the fortified palace.

In its heyday, Al Hosn dominated the landscape, both literally and as a symbol of the power and authority of the rulers. These days it is something else; a time machine that connects us to centuries of history in a place where everything seems focused on the present or the future.

This is the fourth publication from The National's History Project, but the first to tell the story of a people through a single, iconic building; the first photograph of which, taken in 1901, appears above. In the pages that follow, Qasr Al Hosn emerges from a lone watchtower to the palace that now sits surrounded by towers of glass and steel.

The story we tell is also of those who called the palace home, who worked there or who arrived as travellers from distant lands, to record what they had seen. Uniquely, those voices include several sheikhas from the Al Nahyan family, including Sheikha Osha bint Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who gives us a guided tour of her former home, as well as accounts from Sheikha Mahra bint Khalid bin Sultan Al Nahyan and Sheikha Sabha bint Mohammed Al Khaili, who relive many happy years in Qasr Al Hosn, with the help of Sheikha Osha's granddaughter, Sheikha Osha bint Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan.

For ordinary people, the fortifed palace was also a place to bring your troubles or seek justice. It was home to the magnificent Arabian horses of the royal stables and a place of culture and learning from the court poets to the early days of the National Centre for Documentation and Research, which first found a home there after the fort ceased to be a royal residence in the 1960s.

The Qasr Al Hosn Festival, which runs from February 28 to March 9, is a long-overdue celebration of the city's oldest structure, and a chance for the fort to emerge from behind its hoardings, as complex and long-awaited decisions are made about how to revive a building made for one age, but with so many lessons for another.