Al Jahili Fort: the most special of them all
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