x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

UAE forts: Bastions that guard our history

The festival to mark the 250th anniversary of Abu Dhabi's Qasr Al Hosn brought the spotlight on other forts that lie throughout the UAE. They tell a lot of the history of the different emirates, being both the seat of government and the centre of culture.

An old cannon stands outside Al Hisn Fort in Al Shuwaiheen, an old neighbourhood in Sharjah. It was built in the 1820s by the Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi. It is now open to the public as a museum. Sarah Dea / The National
An old cannon stands outside Al Hisn Fort in Al Shuwaiheen, an old neighbourhood in Sharjah. It was built in the 1820s by the Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi. It is now open to the public as a museum. Sarah Dea / The National

If last month’s festival to mark the 250th anniversary of Qasr Al Hosn demonstrated anything, it is that for hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years, there has always been a fortress like structure at the heart of the community.

And, beyond the white-walled palace in Abu Dhabi, at least 40 other fort survive to this day, along with more than 30 watchtowers.

“The fort was the heart of the government or the tribe, while the watchtowers were built for defence,” says Dr Hasan Al Naboodah, an Emirati historian and the dean of libraries at the UAE University in Al Ain.

Commonly, watchtowers in the UAE were built facing the open sea or on top of hills, with the forts built nearby or behind the towers. The location would depend on factors as varied as the supply of fresh water, proximity to trade routes and the location of other tribes.

“Often those who moved into an area built their forts on existing older foundations of forts or towers,” says Dr Al Naboodah. “They trusted their ancestors to know what was the best location.”

Khatt, located 35 kilometres south-east of Ras Al Khaimah, has a total of six towers, four of them scattered about the hill side and two within palm gardens. It is taken as evidence of the importance of protecting this area in the past, while today the area today is the refuge for those seeking its “miracle” healing mineral waters.

Abu Dhabi’s Al Maqta’a Tower, is a small watch tower on a tiny island located in the water at the southeastern entrance to the island of Abu Dhabi. It served as the island’s first line of defence in the 19th century and was also important in controlling the entry and exit of convoys and visitors to the island, particularly since it was the only point of entry.

“How the fort or towers were built, and their abundance in an area, tells you a lot about the importance of that place strategically and historically,” says Dr Al Naboodah.

“Whatever their sizes or shapes, forts were built for security during conflict, and for administrative work during peace time.”

In his book, Al Hoson Wa Al Qelaa Fe Al Emirate (The Hosns and forts in the UAE) researcher Ali Mohammed Rashid notes that serious fort construction began in the UAE and neighbouring areas “with the Portuguese presence.”

On example of a structure whose origins date back to the Portuguese is Fujairah Fort which once housed a prison and a date syrup fermenting room but also survived an attack by British naval forces in 1925 and an occupation by the Wahhabis from 1808 to 1810.

According to the Fujairah Tourism and Antiquities Authority, the majestic sandy-coloured fort perched on a rocky hill between the coast and the date palm gardens in the old city of Fujairah, can be dated to the 16th century, as a part of dozens similar forts built by the Portuguese Empire when it occupied territory along the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Gulf to monopolise commerce and the spice trade.

Similar fortresses were built in Dibba, Bidiya, Khor Fakkan, Kalba and in Oman.

Covering an area of 610 square metres, the Fujairah fort encompasses three circular watch towers, facing the sea, the town and the mountains, and one main square-shaped tower, known as Murabaa. Each of the towers aremore than 2 and half meters tall.

The fort itself rise 8.2 meters from the top of the hill. Like other forts, it was built around a well, although this has long dried up.

And like other forts, the structure was more than just a seat of government. In the open square in the middle, special occasions like weddings, religious celebrations and even public executions regularly took place.

“Public announcements, decrees, and even punishments, like chopping off of the hands of thieves, would take place at the fort,” notes Mr Rashid.

At the same time, the term ‘hosn’ is applied to the bigger and more important forts in the UAE, as forts were the only structures around that were ‘Mohasana’ barricaded and protected.

“The guards at the towers would keep an eye out for any strangers. If a stranger appeared, the guard would fire a single shot, known as Tefq. If there is a sign of an attack coming, and the entire town needs to be warned, then the guard fires two shots,” he wrote.

The writer also mentions how besides guarding the fort, the guard was also often the first to announce special occasions, like seeing the crescent of the moon for Ramadan or eid, or when the ruler returned, then he would fire three shots.

“Seven shots into the air means something really important has happened, like someone has been kidnapped or someone’s long absence is over,” he said.

Other distinctions found in UAE forts were that some of the walls would be decorated with verses from the Quran in bold obvious writing, sometimes using coloured gypsum, according to Mr Rashid.

Forts were originally named after the tribe or leader that built them, but over the passage of times, their names have been changed and the origin of their name remains often unknown.

Many of the forts have been renovated and are open to the public as museums.

Some important forts:

Al Jahili Fort, Al Ain

One of the largest forts in the UAE, and a symbol of power as well as a royal summer residence. It was built under Sheikh Zayed the First in 1898, and provided a refuge in times of conflict for the inhabitants of the Al Ain oasis. Members of the ruling family lived in it until the early 1950s, when British forces came to Al Ain and requisitioned the fort as a base for a unit of the Trucial Oman Levies.

The original part of Al Jahili Fort consists of two buildings, a square fort and a separate round tower composed of four concentric tiers.

There is also a mosque attached to it. The fort was renovated in 2007 to 2008, and now houses a museum and an exhibition centre. It won the 2010 International Architecture Award for its distinct architecture.

Al Fahidi Fort, Dubai

Located in the heart of Dubai, in what is now Bur Dubai. It was built around 1787 by the ruling family of Dubai and is considered the oldest building in Dubai. Its watch towers were used for defence, with guards to monitor the entrance to the main town.

It was renovated in 1971 for use as a museum, and currently houses the national Dubai Museum. Exhibitions and displays depicting pre-oil Dubai life were set up in the central square of the fort, with rooms of the former majlis and living quarters transformed into distinct decades of the emirate.

There are also galleries recreating scenes from the Dubai Creek, traditional Emirati houses, mosques, souqs, date farms, desert and marine life.

One of the old rooms was transformed into an exhibition portraying the pearl diving industry, including sets of pearl-merchants’ weights, scales and sieves.

Al Hisn Sharjah Fort, Sharjah

Located in the centre of Sharjah city, it was built in 1820 by the late Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi. The building was once partially removed as part of some structural changes the city of Sharjah had undergone during the 1969 period.

However, the building was later rebuilt, exactly to its original shape and style by the current Ruler of Sharjah, Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi.

Open to the public as a museum, it was the residence of the ruling family in Sharjah for about 200 years. It includes a weapons’ storage room where swords and daggers are exhibited, private rooms of the sheikhs that lived there as well as pearl trade and heritage rooms.

rghazal@thenational.ae