Once-ne­glected build­ings bear wit­ness to our past

The National - News - - OPINION - PETER HEL­LYER Peter Hel­lyer is a con­sul­tant spe­cial­is­ing in the UAE’s his­tory and cul­ture

In its cov­er­age this week, The Na­tional re­ported on the restora­tion of Shar­jah’s his­toric Bait Al Na­boodah, say­ing that “while the im­por­tance and his­toric val­ues of such struc­tures are be­ing in­creas­ingly recog­nised, it has not al­ways been that way”.

These pages noted that many of our old build­ings had pre­vi­ously been ne­glected or have nar­rowly es­caped de­mo­li­tion and ar­gued that we should “pre­serve and ex­pe­ri­ence” such relics of the past.

There is more to the story than that. There were cer­tainly times when the peo­ple of these lands were in­deed liv­ing in hard­ship but that was not al­ways ap­pli­ca­ble to all.

Dur­ing the late-19th cen­tury hey­day of the UAE’s 7,000-year-old pearling in­dus­try, there was con­sid­er­able wealth, to which build­ings like Bait Al Na­boodah tes­tify. Fur­ther back, in the early 16th cen­tury, mer­chants from Gu­jarat were ex­port­ing horses from Khor Fakkan to In­dia.

At the same time, how­ever, it is true that much of the coun­try’s ar­chi­tec­tural her­itage has dis­ap­peared over re­cent decades.

The big­ger cas­tles and forts, by and large, have been pre­served and many now per­form new func­tions as mu­se­ums and her­itage cen­tres.

How­ever many other build­ings with non-mil­i­tary func­tions – from the homes of prosperous mer­chants, like Bait Al Na­boodah, to Abu Dhabi’s his­toric great mosque, the Mosque of the Otaibas, to more hum­ble homes – have been de­mol­ished or have been al­lowed to fall into dis­re­pair.

Like the cas­tles and forts, these pro­vide ev­i­dence of a past that is mov­ing grad­u­ally from di­rect mem­ory into his­tory. They dis­play, for ex­am­ple, the abil­ity of ear­lier gen­er­a­tions to make the best use of the re­sources avail­able, re­gard­less of hard­ships, as shown by the fact that these old build­ings, depend­ing on lo­ca­tion, use a va­ri­ety of ma­te­ri­als, such as mud-bricks, coral blocks or rocks and stones from the moun­tains.

Over the years, I have watched many such build­ings, through­out the Emi­rates, suc­cumb to the im­pact of ne­glect and the pass­ing of time.

At the same time, how­ever, the at­ti­tude both of the Govern­ment and of the public to this im­por­tant as­pect of our her­itage has evolved.

Forty years ago, old build­ings were some­thing to be re­moved and re­placed, de­spite the ef­forts of those who fought for their preser­va­tion.

Back in the late 1970s, an ex­pa­tri­ate conservationist in Abu Dhabi, pas­sion­ate to save one build­ing, sat down in protest in front of mu­nic­i­pal­ity bull­doz­ers. She didn’t suc­ceed, be­ing gen­tly and po­litely re­moved, but such a scene is un­likely to hap­pen to­day.

In­stead, in Dubai and Shar­jah, such build­ings are now cher­ished and re­stored.

In Ras Al Khaimah, as I heard at a re­cent ar­chae­o­log­i­cal con­fer­ence, the tra­di­tional vil­lage of Jazi­rat Al Hamra, built of coral blocks, is be­ing lov­ingly recorded and pre­served. In Al Ain, some of the best ex­am­ples of mud-brick houses are be­ing re­stored, while a sim­i­lar process has taken place in the old vil­lage that nes­tles be­neath Fu­jairah’s fort.

This is all to the good. But there is more that can be done. How were these struc­tures used? What was the na­ture of the so­ci­ety of which they formed an in­te­gral part? Is enough be­ing done to col­lect in­for­ma­tion from those who lived in them?

Is there, too, more that we can learn about the ar­chi­tec­ture of the build­ings? Are there for­eign par­al­lels from which we can iden­tify the in­ter­change of cul­tural in­flu­ences?

There is, for ex­am­ple, a sim­i­lar­ity in style be­tween our cir­cu­lar for­ti­fied watch­tow­ers

The at­ti­tude of both the Govern­ment and the public to­wards im­por­tant as­pects of our her­itage has evolved

and a late 18th cen­tury watch­tower de­sign in my home is­land of Jer­sey.

The style of the Jer­sey Martello Tow­ers was de­rived from a 16th cen­tury an­ces­tor built on the is­land of Cor­sica by the Ital­ian city-state of Genoa.

A lit­tle ear­lier, the Ge­noese were ac­tively trad­ing with the Gulf. Was there per­haps an in­ter­change of cul­tural in­flu­ence and, if so, which way did it flow? Per­haps some­where, in a dusty archive, there may be ev­i­dence of that.

The an­swer to this, and to other ques­tions, is for his­to­ri­ans to study. In the mean­time, though, we should ap­plaud the preser­va­tion of the once-ne­glected build­ings that bear mute wit­ness to our past.

Christopher Pike

The Jazi­rat Al Hamra her­itage vil­lage in RAK

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