Al Jahili Fort: the most spe­cial of them all

Friday - - In The Uae -

Be­tween the 19th and 20th cen­tury, over a dozen forts were built in the city, but the most fa­mous re­mains Al Jahili Fort. Its iconic watch tower is now the em­blem of Al Ain Sports Club and it’s the logo of the Al Ain min­eral wa­ter com­pany; even the Dh50 note car­ries a pic­ture of the tower.

Strate­gi­cally lo­cated, Al Jahili is the largest of Al Ain’s forts and one of the UAE’s old­est his­tor­i­cal mon­u­ments, each of its land­lords and oc­cu­pants adding some­thing to the build­ing, hence its unique ar­chi­tec­ture. To­day, the fort houses ex­hi­bi­tions, in­clud­ing a col­lec­tion of pho­to­graphs by the Bri­tish ex­plorer Sir Wil­fred Th­e­siger (af­fec­tion­ately known as ‘Mubarak Bin Lon­don’), taken dur­ing his two cross­ings of the Rub’ al Khali in the 1940s (also known as the Empty Quar­ter, it is the largest con­tin­u­ous sand desert in the world, and cov­ers much of the south­ern Ara­bian Penin­sula.) A doc­u­men­tary film about Th­e­siger’s re­turn to Al Ain in 2007 and his re­union with his two Be­douin guides from his jour­ney is screened here ex­clu­sively.

‘Al Jahili was built in 1891 as a sum­mer res­i­dence for a royal fam­ily by Shaikh Zayed the First [Zayed Bin Khal­ifa 1855-1909]. They lived in Abu Dhabi, by the coast, where the hu­mid­ity is ex­tremely high, and back in those days peo­ple used to take refuge in the sum­mer months in the oases, where the weather was drier,’ says Huda Salem Al Musaabi, from the Fort’s me­dia re­la­tions team.

‘This area was per­fect be­cause less than a kilo­me­tre away is the border with Oman and be­hind us is Al Ain Oa­sis, the big­gest of the seven oases of the city, and in front of us is Al Jahili oa­sis. Nearby is Al Muwaiji oa­sis. The area was also well-known be­cause of the falaj, the un­der­ground wa­ter sys­tem that con­nected the fort all the way to the oa­sis,’ she adds.

Build­ing Al Jahili fort took nearly eight years; a com­mem­o­ra­tive plate placed at the main en­trance records the date of its com­ple­tion (Is­lamic year 1316, 1898) and a short verse of po­etry in praise of Shaikh Zayed the First:

A door of good­ness is opened in glory’s chap­ter, Where joy and hap­pi­ness with high glory re­side, The bless­ings of hon­our said “Mark this house, A house of high stand­ing built by Zayed Bin Khal­ifa’’.

There are two main struc­tures, the square fort and the round tower. The square, walled struc­ture con­sti­tutes the main part of Al Jahili fort, with each side mea­sur­ing 53 me­tres long and fea­tur­ing ri­fle open­ings and tri­an­gu­lar bal­conies. Built be­tween 1891 and 1898, the orig­i­nal square fort fea­tures cir­cu­lar tow­ers in three of its cor­ners, with a ma­jlis hall in the fourth cor­ner, where the ruler would per­form his daily du­ties, re­ceiv­ing visitors and lo­cal cit­i­zens in the

morn­ing and af­ter­noon.

The round tower is a sep­a­rate struc­ture lo­cated 50m to the north-west. Ex­hibit­ing tra­di­tional ar­chi­tec­tural el­e­ments, its four tiers are a de­sign that can be seen in the round tower found at the Hili ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site, also in Al Ain, which dates back thou­sands of years.

The tower is be­lieved to be older than the fort and is thought to have orig­i­nally been de­signed as an ob­ser­va­tion tower that was later for­ti­fied to guard and pro­tect the falaj sys­tems and palm groves from po­ten­tial threats.

Al Jahili Fort’s mosque is be­lieved to have been built at the same time as the fort, be­tween 1891 and 1898. His­tor­i­cal pho­to­graphs show com­mu­ni­ties were liv­ing near the mosque, in an area where the parks are now lo­cated. Dur­ing re­cent ren­o­va­tions, the falaj sys­tem that pro­vided wa­ter for the mosque and sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties was dis­cov­ered.

‘Af­ter Shaikh Zayed The First passed away, in 1909, his son, Shaikh Khal­ifa, con­tin­ued to live here for a while with his fam­ily. Even­tu­ally, the fort was aban­doned. In the 1950s, when the Bri­tish forces came to Al Ain, they req­ui­si­tioned the fort as an army base for a unit of Oman Tru­cial Scouts. They kept the area safe and se­cure, and helped the lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties with med­i­cal ser­vices too. They also used the fort as an army train­ing base un­til the 1970s,’ says Al Musaabi.

‘The Tru­cial Scouts built a new sec­tion, adding kitchens, stores and more rooms for dif­fer­ent pur­poses. They not just trained here, they also lived in­side the fort.’

In the 1970s, Al Jahili Fort be­came even a hol­i­day spot for many UK gen­er­als and toprank­ing Bri­tish army of­fi­cers, who had been sta­tioned there and re­turned with their fam­ily and chil­dren to visit the place, see the changes and re­mem­ber the days of the Tru­cial States.

In 1975, the De­part­ment of His­tor­i­cal Ru­ins and Tourism, now part of TCA Abu Dhabi, be­gan restora­tions on the fort and its use changed once again, as its vast court­yard be­came a lo­ca­tion for cul­tural events by the 1980s. A sec­ond ma­jor restora­tion pro­gramme took place in 2007-2008, when spe­cial­ists took ad­van­tage of the newly dis­cov­ered falaj run­ning un­der the fort to build cold wa­ter pipes in­side the mud-brick walls of the fort as a cool­ing sys­tem. ‘If you touch the walls, they are very cold, so we don’t have to use air con­di­tion­ing, un­less it’s very hot,’ points out Al Musaabi.

Af­ter its sec­ond restora­tion, Al Jahili Fort con­tin­ued its mis­sion as an ex­hi­bi­tion cen­tre and cul­tural venue of Al Ain.

‘In cooler months, we have out­door events, such as the Abu Dhabi Clas­sics [the an­nual clas­si­cal mu­sic fes­ti­val]. One wing of the fort is ded­i­cated to a per­ma­nent pho­tog­ra­phy ex­hi­bi­tion of Sir Wil­fred Th­e­siger’s works. He made a beau­ti­ful pho­to­graphic doc­u­men­tary about this area and about how he met Shaikh Zayed and his brother, Shaikh Shakhboot, who was the Ruler of Abu Dhabi (1928-1966) be­fore Shaikh Zayed. He also took beau­ti­ful pic­tures from his trav­els over the Empty Quar­ters, Oman and Ye­men, and of his­tor­i­cal build­ings in Al Ain, such as Al Muwaiji Palace.

There is also an ex­hi­bi­tion ded­i­cated to Shaikh Zayed the First and his liv­ing quar­ters.

The Al Jahili fort in the 60s, and BE­LOW, now. ABOVE RIGHT: The Free­dom of the Desert per­ma­nent ex­hi­bi­tion at the fort

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