Home to the Al Nahyan dynasty and birthplace of Sheikh Khalifa, the fort is open to share its links with the royal past and the UAE.
For the first time in more than 60 years, a century-old fortress flickered back into life last night as Abu Dhabi notables turned out for a ceremony that was as regal as it was symbolic.
Under the patronage of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, Al Ain’s Qasr Al Muwaiji was inaugurated as the newest cultural destination and an important site of Al Nahyan dynastic prestige.
Present for the occasion last night was Sheikh Tahnoon bin Mohammed, Ruler’s Representative in the Eastern Region.
The new museum recounts the history of the building and its many residents, and the wider history and archaeology of Al Ain.
It also, of course, narrates the life and achievements of Qasr Al Muwaiji’s most famous son, the President Sheikh Khalifa, who was born in the fortress in January 1948.
Sheikh Khalifa’s story is recounted through President of the Nation, an exhibition of photographs and quotes presented in seven chapters that include “Preparing for Leadership” and “Building the Nation”, each of which is dedicated to a different facet of Sheikh Khalifa’s career.
President of the Nation consists of a series of suspended glass screens etched with images and words, on which films and animations are also projected.
It ends with a wooden poem wall inscribed with a qasida, or classical Arabic tribute, written by Sheikh Mohammed in honour of his brother.
Alongside exhibits dedicated to the archaeology of Qasr Al Muwaiji and the generations of Al Nahyans who made Qasr Al Muwaiji their home, President of the Nation is housed in a glass museum building that snakes along two sides of the fortress’s inner courtyard.
The building “floats” on a raft foundation that allows it to sit above the archaeological remains that still lie buried under Qasr Al Muwaiji’s sands.
Visitors walk on transparent floors and raised walkways that provide views of the remains underfoot, and across the courtyard to the towers and ramparts.
On arrival the effect is startling. The museum is an exhibit of two parts. The first is a glass box in which transparency and views out to the surrounding fortress are always prioritised.
The second is a tour through its dark and defensive north-west tower and the rooms created there by the Founding President, Sheikh Zayed.
Sheikh Zayed lived in Qasr Al Muwaiji with his family from 1945, when he was appointed by his brother, Sheikh Shakhbut, as Ruler’s representative in the Eastern Region.
In the early 1960s when he moved to the nearby Al Ain Palace. But it was while the family was using the converted tower as their home that Sheikh Khalifa was born.
Projected images, short films and photographs dominate these displays. They include sections dedicated to Sheikh Khalifa’s childhood, education and favourite pastimes.
“On hunting trips we would have everything we needed with us – dates, coffee, bread and water,” remembers one who knew him then. “Sheikh Khalifa would sit with us under a samar tree where the air was sweet and we would eat together.”
Apart from a display of Sheikh Khalifa’s falconry equipment and a series of coins that were discovered by archaeologists working on the site, the Qasr Al Muwaiji exhibits are almost entirely devoid of objects and display cases.
But as is so often the case with historical sites in the UAE, the ability to appreciate fine details is everything.
In one room, the outline of remains buried beneath the ground is etched on to the floor as a series of hatches, while in another a projection that looks like a line drawing is actually a dynamic architectural model that slowly charts Qasr Al Muwaiji’s development, revealing the demolitions and extensions over time.
Most impressive is a six-panelled “interactive table” display that allows visitors to explore the history of Qasr Al Muwaiji, and the landscape and features that were responsible for winning Al Ain its inclusion as a Unesco World Heritage site.
“We wanted the exhibition design to be suitable for every potential visitor. Some visitors will want to take in the visual content and a few snippets and that will be sufficient for them,” says Ricardo Benn, the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority director responsible for the project.
“Then you might have visitors who want much more detail about the construction of the building and the conservation works, and that content is in the audio guide.”
The English language version of the audio guide is narrated by Peter Sheehan, TCA’s head of historic buildings and landscapes, who has been working in Al Ain for almost a decade.
“This is the first site that has been opened since Al Ain was listed as a World Heritage site. We had Al Jahili and Al Qattara but they opened around the same time as the inscription and so, in a sense, that completely changed things,” the archaeologist says.
“They are no longer individual sites and they now have to be presented, and they’re all much better for it, both in terms of their own story and as a part of a much wider cultural landscape.”
For Mr Sheehan, one of the main aims of the interpreted materials at Qasr Al Muwaiji is to introduce visitors to a completely different way of understanding the history of Al Ain.
“The significance of the World Heritage site is that there are a number of components which may not be of outstanding value individually, but if you put them together – the natural landscape, the oases, the ancient archaeology and the historic buildings – it doesn’t just make a better argument for World Heritage status, they actually go together,” Mr Sheehan says.
“It’s a cultural landscape in which the factors that made things happen were always the same – the provision of water and the exercise of authority – which means that the cycles of history get repeated here.”
Visitors can see that repetition for themselves from the roof of Qasr Al Muwaiji’s north-west tower, a terrace that was probably reserved for Sheikh Zayed’s family and immediate retinue.
From here it becomes clear that the new museum galleries occupy the site of buildings that were originally built as a new diwan by Sheikh Zayed, while not to far away Sheikh Tahnoon’s diwan sits on the other side of the modern Abu Dhabi to Al Ain road.
In the distance, Jebel Hafeet continues to punctuate the horizon, just as it did in 1948 when the English explorer Wilfred Thesiger came to visit Sheikh Zayed, a time before the road and the malls and hotels that now dominate the area.
“As we came out of the red dunes on to a gravel plain I could see his fort, a large square enclosure, of which the mud walls were 10 feet high,” Thesiger writes in his travelogue and memoir, Arabian Sands.
“To the right of the fort, behind a crumbling wall half buried in drifts of sand, was a garden of dusty, ragged palm trees, and beyond the palms the isolated hog’s back of Jebel Hafeet about 10 miles away and 5,000 feet high.”
Today, Thesiger’s dusty garden has been replaced by a manicured landscape of pristine palms, water features and parking spaces that have been designed to service the new museum while evoking Al Ain’s traditional landscape and aflaj, the man-made water channels that have powered agriculture in the oases since the Bronze Age.
“I think that’s the dream, really, that when people come here they are able to navigate and orientate themselves by understanding the landscape,” Mr Sheehan says.
“For the Al Nahyan, Al Ain was this very green place in the 18th century and then it declined before Sheikh Zayed the First came.
“It then greened again at the end of the 19th century and then Sheikh Zayed the Second came back in the middle of the 20th century and, you might say, greened it definitively.”