Like the man, Sheikh Zayed's palace in Al Ain is redoubtable on the outside yet simple on the inside. You can see for yourself: the 37-room palace is now a museum and open to the public, providing a true reflection of life before oil.
Stepping inside Sheikh Zayed's palace
AL AIN // Boasting wide, green courtyards, four watchtowers at least 10 metres high, gardens of palm trees against the backdrop of running water, and 37 rooms, Sheikh Zayed's palace in Al Ain, rising next to an oasis, has an impressive architecture.
Yet anyone strolling through the home of the UAE's founding father is quickly struck by the simplicity of its interiors.
All the rooms are basic, with the only source of entertainment an antique radio unit with two dials.
Built when air-conditioning was unknown, the palace was kept cool through broad square verandas that shaded the main rooms, and decorative perforated stone or wooden screens that allowed the breeze to pass through them.
"That was him, that was Sheikh Zayed: simple," said Mohamed al Neyadi, the director of the department of historical environment at the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach).
To walk where one of the greatest figures of local history once lived, ate, and slept may seem unlikely, if not for the fact that this home - including access to the private bedroom he shared with his wife, Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, and even the kitchen - is open to the public.
Covering an area of 15,635 square metres, the red-orange palace was built in 1937. It was Sheikh Zayed's residence in Al Ain between 1937 and 1966 when he was the Ruler's Representative in the Eastern Region of Abu Dhabi before he became the Ruler of Abu Dhabi in August of 1966.
The palace was converted into a museum and opened to the public for free in 2001. It was kept true to the way it was originally built, as decreed by Sheikh Zayed. He wanted to keep the palace an honest reflection of life in the UAE before oil was discovered and before the Emirates united.
"The palace tells the story of how life was back then, and how Sheikh Zayed and his family lived, and how his home was always open to his people and the public," said Mr al Neyadi.
Within the courtyards, the palace is divided into four areas: the private residence, Sheikha Fatima's family court, where members of her family would stay, the VIP and special dignitaries section, and the general public section that was open to everyone.
This year, a library will be added to the palace, and will include books on Sheikh Zayed, as well as topics that were close to his heart. A walk through the palm trees and flower beds, with the running channel of water as a backdrop, gives an insight into what the late ruler cherished most.
Located next to the Al Ain Oasis, which is filled with more than 147,000 date palms and after which the city of Al Ain is named, the palace was often a site of refuge to travellers from across the desert.
"It was a place where anyone could go and meet Sheikh Zayed," Mr al Neyadi said.
The private residence part, as the name suggests, was separated from the public, and included the bedrooms and sitting rooms that once were lived in by Sheikh Zayed, his wife, and their children.
In one of the halls, an elaborate family tree is on the wall, next to oil paintings of the Al Nahyan rulers, including the 19 sons of Sheikh Zayed. The family tree outlines the first Al Nahyan ruler, Sheikh Eissa bin Nahyan in the 18th century, to the 14th ruler, the late Sheikh Zayed. The current President of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa, is the 15th ruler.
Each room in the palace is clearly marked with to whom it once belonged, and has furniture and other items that were typically in use at the time.
All the bedrooms have a wooden bed with colourful designs on them, a two-door cupboard, hand fans made of palm fronds, incense burners made of clay and a few items that helped distinguish the female occupants from the male.
The female rooms have personal additions such as a bottle of khol (traditional eyeliner), hair combs, and in some a baby's cradle made of a wooden box hung by rope from the ceiling.
The male rooms have a grandfather clock, hanging belts with a khanjar or dagger, and combs including smaller ones for beards.
Two rooms, one marked as "school", have a collection of small desks and a blackboard where the royal children received their education from private tutors. The other room is the "Quran room," where they studied religion.
The bedrooms are on the second floor, with the sitting rooms, or majilis, on the main floor. Each majilis has traditional floor seatings made of bright cushions that go along the periphery of the room, which can fit more than 25 people at a time.
In the centre of the palace are tables with coals and traditional metallic coffee pots, dallah that got heated on demand, as coffee was poured and served to visitors. Next to each of the majilis, there is an adjacent "coffee room".
Pottery that once used to hold dates, rugs made of palm fronds and a few traditional artefacts like swords and khanjar are also inside most rooms. To accommodate foreign visitors, one of the majilis had more western-style couches added.
Besides photos of Sheikh Zayed, many with his family, there are photos of two of his favourite camels, al Shaheen and Mosabah.
The kitchen and storage room are near the well, which has long dried up. But the leather sack that was used instead of a bucket to bring up the water is still hanging there.
Also in the kitchen are 12 metallic cooking pots, including one large enough to hold five people.
However, the first and last thing that visitors see at the palace is the grey former military Land Rover, parked near the front gate, symbolic of when Sheikh Zayed would drive out into the desert to meet the tribes of the country.
"Sheikh Zayed always went back to the desert," Mr al Neyadi said.