Legend has it that sometime in the 1761 Bedouin hunters followed a gazelle all the way from Liwa to the shores of what was to become Abu Dhabi which, in translation, means the father of the gazelle.
When they got here, a couple of kilometers inland from the coast, they discovered something more precious than gold, something that allowed them to settle down: water!
It is said that it was Shaikh Dhiyab bin Isa who first moved to the island, although he would only reside here during the pearling seasons in summer time. To start with, there were only 20 barasti settlements, but news of water travelled fast and the barren coast was soon to become a small fishing village.
One of the first thing Shaikh Dhiyab did was to protect the newly dug well, so a small, round watch tower made of mud was built near the water source. This is believed to have happened in 1763, marking the birth of Qasr Al Hosn, Abu Dhabis only historical building still standing, home to the ruling Al Nahyan family for two centuries.
To celebrate its 250th?year, the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (ADTCA) is planning a festival on the grounds of the fort from February 28 to March 9, a heritage feast of all that the Emiratis hold dear: pearl diving, falconry, crafts from the desert, the oasis and the coast.
All that we know about Qasr Al Hosn is based on oral history and we are still looking out for people with facts about the fort that they learnt from their fathers and grandfathers. For this purpose, we will have a book of records during the festival for such people to write down their memories and stories of Qasr Al Hosn, said Faisal Al Sheikh, Qasr Al Hosn festival director and director of events bureau at the ADTCA.
For several years now, teams of researchers have been employed by the Authority to back up ? or not ? the beliefs, the folklore and the oral history with actual facts.
One such belief is that the location of the fort was geologically chosen. The discovery of ground water was not pinned to just one spot, so the initial watch tower could have been built anywhere around the area, but possibly it stands where it does because of a bedrock.
Such a structure could not have been built directly on soft sand since, in those days, people did not have the means to drill until they reached solid ground to lay foundation, so it is very possible the fort was built of gypsum and rock, thought Al Sheikh.
As its population grew, Abu Dhabi had not one, but three watch towers ? the Qasr Al Hosn one, another at Maqta Bridge, where people used to cross between the island and the mainland at low tide and a recently discovered third one, at Al Bateen, said to be among the first populated areas of Abu Dhabi by Al Suwaidi fishermen.
My theory is that the purpose of these three towers was to help people navigate around the island, since there was nothing but bare, shifting sands around, points out Al Sheikh.
For nearly a hundred years, the watch tower of Qasr Al Hosn stood alone above the water source of the island, until the end of the 18th?century, when a small fort was built and a second tower, a square one this time, known as a muraba, its architecture being influenced by the Portugese, who were in the region back then.
It all happened under Shaikh Shakhbut, the son of Abu Dhabis first inhabitant, Shaikh Dhiyab bin Isa, who was the first to set up permanent residence on the island and move the tribal headquarters from Liwa to Abu Dhabi. Thus, Shaikh Shakhbut bin Dhiyab became the first ruler of Abu Dhabi and with him the history of Bani Yas tribe became intertwined with that of Qasr Al Hosn, as every ruler up to Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan run the western emirate from this very fort, later to become a palace.
With the fort a community was built as well, but these were not entirely peaceful times so the walls of the fort went higher and they became adorned with canons. The intial watch tower was rebuilt, this time using corals and sea stones, materials also used in the forts construction.
Despite political disputes, these were happy times for Abu Dhabi economically. The pearl industry was at its peak, and trade and fishing brought good income too.
Then came 1939. This is when oil companies start coming to Abu Dhabi, asking permission to look for oil. Shaikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who was the ruler of Abu Dhabi, penned an agreement with the oil companies in January 1939 for 300,000 Indian rupees, a like for like equivalent with dirhams at the time; 100,000 rupees yearly during the exploration phase, then 200,000 rupees yearly once oil was found in commercial quantities and an additional three rupees on every tonne that was exported. The agreement covered 75 years. He used this money to build a palace around the fort, explained Al Sheikh.
By 1939, times have already changed for the worse. The pearl industry was declining due to the fresh water pearl cultivation and World War II was breaking out. In such economicaly dire times, building a palace may sound vain, but it actually helped the population with much-needed paid jobs. Divers used their skill to dive for corals needed in construction and fishermen used their boats to transport sea materials.
The coral stone used for the palace all came from Ras Al Ghurab, an island near Abu Dhabi, pointed out Al Sheikh.
Although it was now a palace fit for a king, the reign of Qasr Al Hosn ended with Shaikh Shakhbut. When his brother, Shaikh Zayed, took over the ruling of Abu Dhabi in 1966, he moved his residence from Al Ain to Al Manhal Palace in the capital.
Yet, Shaikh Zayed did not abandon Qasr Al Hosn and in 1979 he asked for the inner fort to be restored, which had completely dissapeared, with only the original watch tower still standing.
He instructed the remodelling to be done as in 1904. We dont know why particularly 1904, but it might be because the only photograph we have of the fort is from 1904, taken by Hermann Burchardt, said Al Sheikh.
After the restoration, the Centre for Documentation and Research had its headquarters at Qasr Al Hosn, until 2005, when the fort was closed to the public.
While research into the forts history continues, the ADTCA plans to soon reveal its plans for the buildings future.
Abu Dhabi Today
Today, Abu Dhabi is a?miraculous and booming metropolis?which offers tourists an abundance of things to do and see. Luscious parks and forests fraught with greenery are picturesque for visitors to take bicycle rides and hikes and the beaches are lined with quaint cafes.
Travelers can enjoy the nightlife of this cosmopolitan area, visiting some of the pubs and nightclubs while watching a band or listening to a D.J. Enjoy the local oriental fare or any of the International cuisines Abu Dhabi offers.
If arts and culture are more to your tastes, there are plenty of museums to visit, as well as gaming centers, shopping malls and theaters. The?UAE history?is an interesting one with such great stories for a country so young! Learning about UAE history or the Dubai and?Abu Dhabi history?is an important part of being an expat in the region.
What To See
- ?Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Clad in Macedonian marble, the beautiful and absolutely mammoth?Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque?is Abu Dhabi’s landmark building. The mosque fuses Mameluke, Ottoman and Fatamid design elements to create a harmonious and thoroughly modern mosque that celebrates Islamic architecture. Artisans utilised glass-work, mosaic tiling and intricate carvings to spectacular effect on both the interior and exterior. It was opened in 2007 after nearly 20 years of construction.
Able to hold 40,000 worshippers, it is the biggest mosque in the?United Arab Emirates?and, like the?Sheikh Zayed Mosque?in?Fujairah, is dedicated to the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. Non-Muslims are allowed into all areas of the mosque (including the vast library), and there are also guided tours available.
- Heritage Village
Abu Dhabi’s?Heritage Village?is an authentic replica of a typical Bedouin encampment that gives an idea of typical Emirati life before the oil boom. It’s located in a pretty?beach?area of the city, which is a pleasant place to wander after a visit. There are exhibits featuring traditional day-to-day objects, as well as introducing local agriculture and the pearl diving trade – the main economies here. Unfortunately though, information throughout the museum is rather sparse.
Al-Hosn Palace, also known as the Old Fort or the White Fort, is the oldest building in Abu Dhabi. The palace was built in 1793 as the residence of the ruling family and the seat of government. The interior of the Al Hosn Palace has been renovated and modernized, and is now used by the Cultural Foundation to house the Centre for Documentation and Research, which holds a collection of documents on the heritage and history of the United Arab Emirates and the Gulf region. The courtyard and the magnificent tile work over the main northern gate are notable features. Within the palace is a museum of traditional artifacts and historical photographs. Displays include a natural history section featuring animal life from the desert, and a historical section with displays of the history of Abu Dhabi.
- Observation Deck
Abu Dhabi’s answer to?Dubai’s Burj Khalifa?is this?observation deck,?offering skyline views from the Jumeirah at Etihad Towers Hotel, the highest point in the city. There is an entry fee for non-guests of the hotel, but the ticket price can be redeemed for food and drink from the observation deck’s?restaurant. Having high-tea up here, with the city spread below you, is definitely an experience for your Abu Dhabi itinerary.
Hours: Open daily 10am-6pm
- Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital
The Abu Dhabi?Falcon Hospital?is a working veterinary hospital for ill and injured falcons, but it also provides guided tours for interested visitors. The tours allow you to get up close and personal with these birds of prey and if you’re up for the challenge, you may also have the chance to hold one of the birds.
- Liwa Oasis
n the south of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, beautiful?Liwa Oasis?is a great escape from the city. The oasis settlement is noted for its date farming and one of the largest?sand dunes?in the world is just on the outskirts. This makes it a must-visit attraction for anyone wanting to ride dune buggies, try sand surfing or go camel trekking. The other top city escape is the oasis city of?Al Ain, which has the mighty peak of Jebel Hafeet as its backdrop.
- Ferrari World Abu Dhabi
Ferrari World Abu Dhabi is the worlds first Ferrari-themed park and the worlds largest indoor theme park. Offering a world of celebration, inspiration, and innovation, the park was built in 2010 around the legendary Ferrari story. A variety of attractions, thrills, and journeys make the park fit for every member of the family. And a range of dining experiences offer you the best in Italian cuisine while our shops leave you spoiled for choice. Visitors can select amongst a Bronze, Silver, or a Gold entry ticket as they discover all the park has to offer.
Ferrari World Abu Dhabi is located on Yas Island on the northeastern side of Abu Dhabis mainland. Yas Island is one of the UAEs greatest leisure hubs with a wide range of accommodation and spots. The island also holds the Yas Marina Circuit which hosts the Formula One Grand Prix.
Where To Eat
- Al Arish Restaurant
This aged, flamboyant gem, with its fading Arabian decor, barasti ceiling and hand-carved furniture, sports a sumptuous majlis (lounge) that has entertained princes and sheikhs over the decades despite the unlikely harbourside venue. The lunch buffet offers one of the best opportunities in Abu Dhabi to sample local dishes, including ouzi (baked lamb) and majboos (chicken baked in rice).
Al Arish supplies the buffet for the popular Al Dhafra evening dinner cruise.
This is the perfect place to enjoy a lazy lunch. With a patio overlooking the Arabian Sea, accommodating and hospitable staff and a delicious fine-dining menu offering an interesting blend of regional and international cuisine, it’s not surprising reservations are recommended. The Vasco twist to the menu is a good reminder of the early Portuguese influence in the region. Adjacent to Hiltonia Health Club & Spa.
Meaning old door lock, Mezlai delivers a rare chance to enter the world of local flavours. The Emirati food is prepared from organic and locally sourced ingredients. Favourites include hammour mafrook (a whitefish spread served with fresh bread) and lamb medfoun (shoulder of lamb, slow-cooked in a banana leaf). The potato mashed with camel’s milk makes an interesting side dish.
- Beach House
Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner this restaurant, with its emphasis on homely cooked Mediterranean fare, has an enviable location amid the sand dunes on the Saadiyat Island coast. In the cooler months, go up to the Beach House Rooftop (5pm to 1am) for arguably Abu Dhabi’s best views of the sunset.
The best of Abu Dhabi’s Italian restaurants, Prego’s offers up authentic, well-executed Italian fare, including delicious handmade pastas (you can see them being made!) and wonderful wood-fire oven pizza and pasta. The fresh-out-of-the-oven breads and virgin olive oil on arrival is scrumptious, and the staff friendly. But while the interior is buzzy and stylish, there are few better experiences than sitting on the outdoor terrace on a sunny day.
- Living Room Caf
This award-winning, family-run venue started life as a coffee-and-cake experience and has grown by word of mouth into a much-beloved restaurant. With an emphasis on family-friendly fare (including a VIP children’s menu and kid’s corner), the home-baked cakes, all-day breakfasts, toasted sandwiches and healthy salads will especially please those with a craving for something out of mum’s kitchen. It’s inside the Sarouh Compound.