‘From “a square fort of but little apparent strength”, as it was once described by a British resident, Qasr Al Hosn became “an imposing castle” in the eyes of American missionary, Rev. Samuel Zwemer, who visited Abu Dhabi in 1901’
A slow, coming of age smile takes over Obaid Al Mansouri’s face as he remembers the happy days of his early childhood.
“Yes, there was a time when I went with my father to see Sheikh Zayed in the old palace. I think I was about five years old,” says the Emirati, now in his 60s.
“In those days it was pretty much the only building in Abu Dhabi; the rest were palm frond huts and some mud houses. Qasr Al Hosn was also the only building to have electricity, from a generator, so I loved going there.”
Like many Emiratis of his generation, Obaid has fond memories of Qasr Al Hosn, not just because it is the oldest one in the city, but it is also the place where Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan acceded to the ruling seat of Abu Dhabi emirate.
The story of the roughly 250 years old castle, also known as the White Fort, begins sometime in 1761. Legend has it that Bedouin hunters followed a deer all the way from Liwa, some 160 kilometres through the desert, to the shores of what was to become Abu Dhabi, which, in translation, means the “father of the deer”. 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!
These were the days of Al Bu Falah clan, of which Al Nahyan family belongs to, and which is part of the famous Bani Yas tribe. The 11 Al Bu Falah sheikhs, starting with Sheikh Shakhbut bin Dhiyab bin Isa Al Nahyan and ending with Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, established and developed the future capital of UAE, which they ruled from 1793 until 1966, when Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan took over.
It is said that it was Sheikh Dhiyab bin Isa who first moved to the island, although he would only reside here during the six months long pearling season in summer time. To start with, there were only 20 barasti settlements, but news of fresh water travelled fast and the barren coast was soon to become a small fishing village. In just two years, 400 dwellings were recorded.
One of the first things Sheikh Dhiyab did was to protect the newly dug well, so a small, round watchtower 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 Dhabi’s only historical building still standing, home to the ruling Al Nahyan family for two centuries.
Since there is no recorded history about the White Fort, much that is known about it comes from oral history. In fact, Abu Dhabi’s Tourism and Culture Authority still looks out for people with facts about the fort that they learnt from their fathers and grandfathers. For 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 groundwater was not pinned to just one spot, so the initial watchtower 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.
As its population grew, Abu Dhabi had not one, but three watchtowers — 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. Some experts believe that the purpose of these three towers was to help people navigate around the island, since there was nothing but bare, shifting sands around.
For nearly a hundred years, the watchtower 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. This time it was a square tower, known as a “muraba”, its architecture being influenced by the Portuguese, who were in the region back then.
Giving Abu Dhabi’s strategic location, flanked by two creeks, backed by the sea and its sharp coral reefs and facing a vast flat desert, and with threats from Wahhabi tribe increasing in Liwa, the ruler, Sheikh Shakhbut bin Dhiyab, eventually moved the emirate’s capital to the coast.
Apart from the scattered barasti houses inland, the island only had some palm trees close to the seafront. It was among these trees and around the watchtower that the Qasr Al Hosn was built, using whatever materials could be found locally — largely corals and limestones. Its imposing structure stood in sharp contrast with the bare flat sand and the tiny palm frond huts, so for years the fort was used as landmark by the traveling ships.
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 initial mud watchtower was rebuilt, this time using corals and sea stones.
Despite political disputes, these were good times for Abu Dhabi economically. The pearl industry was at its peak, and trade and fishing brought reasonable income too.
Over the next century, as Abu Dhabi’s inhabitants began to prosper from the pearl industry, the fort too saw some notable changes, although it remained the only significant building on the island. From “a square fort of but little apparent strength”, as it was once described by a British resident, it became “an imposing castle” in the eyes of American missionary, Rev. Samuel Zwemer, who visited Abu Dhabi in 1901. Not only that the walls’ structure was consolidated, but the fort was also equipped with eight cast-iron and two brass guns. Indoors decorations remained spartan, with only swords and locally made rifles to be seen in the majlis rooms, as well as the beautiful silver dhalla — the Arabian coffee pot.
By the early 1900s the town’s population too grew into a few thousands, the majority being Bani Yas families. The largest ethnic communities — according to British statistics — were the Persians (500) and the Hindus (100). Few other stone buildings began to appear along the over two kilometres city shoreline, as well as an Indian bazaar of about 70 shops.
Then came 1939. This is when oil companies started coming to Abu Dhabi, asking permission to look for oil. Sheikh 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. Sheikh Shakhbut used the money he received from granting the first oil licenses in Abu Dhabi, and the 115,000 Rupees per year for the rent of Sir Bani Yas aerodrome to the British to enlarge Qasr Al Hosn.
By 1939, times have already changed for the worse. The pearl industry was declining due to the freshwater pearl cultivation and World War II was breaking out. In such economically dire times, building a palace may sound vain, but it somewhat 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, which were brought from the nearby island Ras Al Ghurab.
By 1942 two new wings were built next the existing fort, reserved for sheikh’s immediate family and those of his brothers and sons. The old buildings were turned into storage rooms and accommodation for the palace’s staff. When completed, the new fort, which was kept in its original rectangular shape and Arabian architecture, stretched over 2,600 square meters, becoming one of the largest in the region.
Although it was now a palace fit for a king, the “reign” of Qasr Al Hosn ended with Sheikh Shakhbut. When his brother, Sheikh 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, Sheikh Zayed did not abandon Qasr Al Hosn and in 1979 he asked for the inner fort to be restored, which had completely disappeared, with only the original watch tower still standing. He instructed the remodeling to be done as in 1904. It is not known why particularly 1904, but it might be because the only historic photograph of the fort is from 1904, taken by Hermann Burchardt.
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. What followed was a decade of archaeological research and restoration. The first glimpse into the White Fort was allowed in 2014, during the Qasr Al Hosn Festival. Abu Dhabi’s Tourism and Culture Authority will open a completely restored castle to the public during its annual Qasr Al Hosn Festival in March 2018.