x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Hidden village gives up its secrets

University students are forging a link with the past through research at what used to be a tribal village built in a remote landscape.

Students from Zayed University in Dubai take measurements of an abandoned stone house  during a visit to an old tribal mountain village in Ras Al Khaimah.
Students from Zayed University in Dubai take measurements of an abandoned stone house during a visit to an old tribal mountain village in Ras Al Khaimah.

RAS AL KHAIMAH // The track to the village gave nothing away until 50 houses suddenly appeared around a corner, built into the mountainside from blocks of orange and grey limestone. A sur, or watch post, overlooked clusters of the tiny homes.

The women filed out from the bus and split into teams. Two teams mapped the structures with GPS equipment. Two others made measured drawings. One team went to talk to nearby residents. "How did they live here? It's so small," said Moza Ahmed, 21, of Dubai, as she manoeuvred through a stone doorway. "I really like it but I can't imagine how they lived," said Thuraiya Hassan, 22, a visual-arts student from Sharjah.

A group of 21 students from the Dubai campus of Zayed University had trekked into the mountains to document a village in Wadi Muwailah that is thought to date to the 17th century. "I didn't know this area, even though I'm from here," said Ghaya Juma, 23, an interior design student. "There's nothing here, just rocks." That's exactly what its original inhabitants might have wanted visitors to believe. Like other settlements that dot the Hajjar mountains, the village is designed for defence and survival in a harsh environment.

Old as it looks, the village was lived in until just a few decades ago. The village not only reveals clues to the past, for former inhabitants it is still their land and part of their identity. The documentation is part of an ongoing project organised by Dr Ronald Hawker, the professor of a fourth-year art and design class, Material Culture of the UAE. The students have mixed backgrounds in graphic design, fine arts, interior design and animation. They had come for some hands-on experience.

In recent years, Prof Hawker has worked with students on projects at the abandoned coastal village of Jazirat al Hamra and made a three-dimensional model of the village of Ghalilah, on the north coast of RAK. He said many of the students were beginning to think about how to "take more control" of their culture and "give it our voice". Which was, he said, one of his goals for them. The women quickly spread throughout the village, marching over stones and ducking under doorways.

"It's very important for any art major that we go out and see these sites," said Fatima Yousif, 21, an interior design student from Sharjah. "It makes us wonder what their past life was, how they were living and where their grandchildren are now." These were the questions on everyone's lips: who lived here, and how? RAK's resident archaeologists, Christian Velde and Ahmad Hilal, were there to help answer the questions.

Mr Velde suggested that, during times of upheaval in the 17th and 18th centuries, "people left their gardens and moved into the villages in the mountains". In the mountains, it is common to find small groups of houses and terraced fields, usually seasonal homes for farmers who came to grow wheat and barley. By contrast, the houses of this village, built strategically at the foot of the mountains and near the date gardens of Falayya, are believed to have been built as permanent homes.

Still, there was no year-round water supply. Cisterns and fields could catch the flow of gushing rain water from the wadis but people may have relied on wells, about five metres deep, found near the entrance to nearby wadis. By the 18th or 19th century, Mr Velde believes, the village was used solely as a seasonal home. Although mountain villages were dispersed, a very strong sense of community survived. Movement between the date gardens and the mountains was essential. "They cannot survive without each other," Mr Velde said.

The houses, about 12.5 square metres, were built with mud and blocks of limestone. Ceilings were supported by boughs of acacia and ghaff wood. When first built, they were probably covered with mud. To the untrained eye, the houses look identical but on closure inspection there are clues to their age. "The oldest houses were built with the largest stones," Mr Velde said. "That give us a little hint they also tend to be slightly larger."

Tightly-built granaries were erected on rocks. "You have one enemy of barley who cannot get from below," said Mr Velde. "Mice and rats." In addition to the nutrients from wheat and barley, he said, people ate "anything you could do with dates, anything you could do with goats, and fish, fish, fish". In these mountains, archaeology is a race against time, and the students play a valuable role. People reuse blocks from the houses in new construction. The damage to the original structures is lamentable, but the modern stone houses blend beautifully into the mountainside.

"It's unique," said Mr Velde. "It's really an appreciation of the old methods and the old style. I love this wadi more than any of the others." "They love to keep their old houses," said Mr Hilal. "They feel proud in a sense to keep their heritage and these old buildings." As Mr Velde said this, another group of students were deep in conversation with Umm Rashed, a woman who moved to the village about 40 years ago when she married at the age of 13.

Even in the 1970s, life here was not easy, she said. Her first three children were born without modern medical care. It was a four-hour trip to collect water, she said, pointing to nearby mountains. Umm Rashed moved to the city about 25 years ago, but returned three months ago to a modern house built of stone around the corner. "It's better than life in the city," she said. "I am proud that I belong to this area.

"I want this area to be preserved. Humdullilah, it's from God." azacharias@thenational.ae