Al Jahili Fort exhibition strips mud and straw to reveal charm of earthen architecture

Building with Earth reveals the resourcefulness that led to the building and rehabilitation of the UAE landmark

Al Jahili Fort is one of Al Ain’s most awe-inspiring and conspicuous sights, with its circular towers and arrowhead parapets that loom over a lush park.

The fort is the 130-year-old heart of Abu Dhabi’s garden city and its stateliness is, in large part, thanks to how seamlessly the structure blends with its surroundings.

Its pale ochre colour is indistinguishable from the ground it stands upon, making it seem as if the edifice is a natural extension of the earth, instead of an imposition.

A new exhibition at the fort, Building with Earth – An Architectural Tradition in the UAE and Around the World, unpacks the concord between fort and terrain, stripping back the earthen walls and levelled courtyards to reveal the resourcefulness that led to the building and rehabilitation of the landmark.

Launched on September 1, the exhibition will continue until Saturday, December 31, and features photographs, videos and diagrams that trace the fort’s development.

The exhibition details how the fort began as a sole circular watchtower built in 1861 on an elevated mound. The tower was used to guard Al Ain Oasis as well as the underground water system. The inner square fort, the mosque and the courtyard were then built in 1897 by Sheikh Zayed bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, also known as Zayed the First, to defend Al Ain from enemy forces. It also served as a home to members of the ruling Al Nahyan family.

Over the next 50 years, the fort gradually fell into disrepair and in the 1950s, Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan, ruler of Abu Dhabi, offered it to the Trucial Oman Levies, a British-raised paramilitary force. The unit was stationed at the fort until 1971.

In the late 1980s, the now-defunct Department of Antiquities and Tourism carried out restoration work on the fort, adding an entrance and arcaded gallery, as well as the large courtyard.

However, it wouldn’t be until decades later that the fort would be reconstructed with the public in mind.

In a video seen at the Building with Earth exhibition, Sami El Masri, director-in-charge of the Strategic Planning Office at the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach), says the idea for developing the fort into a major cultural destination began as early as 2003 with the implementation of the Unesco management strategy of Abu Dhabi’s cultural resources.

“Al Jahili Fort is one of the most important cultural resources in Al Ain,” he says in the video. “We wanted the fort to be the first point of contact for visitors as well as a place of congregation for the inhabitants of Al Ain."

In 2008, the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi began the conservation project, preserving the fort’s exterior but transforming its arcaded gallery into a visitor and exhibition centre.

The centre features a permanent exhibition on British military officer and writer Wilfred Thesiger, who was known in the country as Mubarak bin London. The exhibition, which is currently closed for renovations, will reopen in October and features several photographs the explorer took while travelling through the region in the late 1940s. These include portraits of the Al Nahyan family before the founding of the UAE in 1971.

To make sure Al Jahili Fort could accommodate visitors even in the most sweltering months, renovators adopted innovative cooling and ventilation techniques different from the ones used in modern buildings.

“We applied a new cooling system in the building that differs from the classic air conditioning that we find all over the country,” Axel Huhn, construction manager at Roswag and Jankowski Architekten, says in a video at Building with Earth.

Chilled water, cooled by an elaborate underground system, passes through pipes lined inside the fort’s walls, effectively maintaining comfortable temperatures within the building.

“We are cooling the building itself and we can expect from that a lower energy consumption,” Huhn says.

To make sure the fort is properly ventilated, chilled air passes through its closed spaces. The air blows at a languid rate as it is only meant to facilitate airflow, not cool the building.

One of the most important concerns during the fort’s restoration was using the same natural materials that were used in the original construction.

Portions of the original building were torn down and their raw materials recycled and used in the restoration process.

The mud was remixed with straw and water, eventually becoming sticky enough to be applied on the walls of the fort. The cooling pipes were first covered by a two centimetre-thick layer of mud, then coated again once the base plaster had dried. Meanwhile, the rammed earth that makes up the floors of the fort were mixed with sand.

“All the materials used in Al Jahili Fort are natural raw materials derived from earth and palm trees,” Jaber Saleh Al Merri, administrator of the Historic Environment Department at the Adach, says in a video at the Building with Earth exhibition.

“We faced some difficulties in bringing the palm trunks from oases and cutting them into equal lengths. The second problem lay in drying the palm trunks for six months after cutting, because they had to be totally dry before being used.”

The palm fronds were soaked in an anti-termite solution for 30 minutes then dried in the sun for three days. Treated palm trunks were lined on top of the walls and covered with the fronds. “Next was the installation of the electrical system followed by the application of a layer of mud,” Al Merri explains.

The restoration of Al Jahili Fort won the coveted Terra Award for internal design and layout in 2016. The project has also spearheaded conservation efforts for the earthen buildings found across Al Ain, such as the Souq Al Qattara and the Abdullah bin Salem Al Darmaki House.

While the building and restoration work of Al Jahili Fort is the highlight of Building with Earth, the exhibition also shows how earthen architecture can be found all over the world. Earthen building practices declined in popularity at the end of the 19th century as industrial materials such as steel and cement were developed. However, earthen architecture has witnessed a revival in the past four decades because of an increased interest in sustainable architecture.

From the Oaxaca School of Plastic Arts in Mexico, built in 2008 using a rammed earth technique, to the New Gourna Village in Egypt – Hassan Fathy’s unfinished architectural masterpiece of earthen blocks – the exhibition lists dozens of examples of modern earthen architecture from around the wall, featuring photographs and descriptions that make up a sprawling wall in the gallery.

By the time you finish touring the gallery, you’ll find yourself admiring earthen construction techniques from both a historical and contemporary standpoint.

You’ll want to walk listlessly around the fort, admiring the tousled straw-ends peeking out of the textured walls and the palm trunks that line the ceiling. You’ll want to climb the earthen stairs of the watchtower, to take in Al Ain from a century-old vantage point.

Building with Earth – An Architectural Tradition in the UAE and Around the World is free to attend. Al Jahili Fort is open from 9am to 5pm. For more, visit abudhabiculture.ae

Updated: September 12th 2021, 10:39 AM