Saadiyat Island: the secret history

Long before planners imagined its five-star hotels, luxury villas and museums, Saadiyat was a place to call home until the early 1990s.

TCA archaeologist Abdulla Al Kaabi and NYUAD student Fadhl Al Eryani comb the sands at archaeological site b on Saadiyat Island. Courtesy Dr Robert Parthesius
Powered by automated translation

As he sits in the majlis of his modern suburban villa, Thani Al Remaithi tells stories that transport his daughter, Fatima, and her professor, the Zayed University archaeologist Dr Tim Power, to the years when he lived a very different life on the “island of happiness” the world now knows as Saadiyat.

The most striking thing about Al Remaithi’s recollections are not his powers of recall, which are considerable, but the light they shine on the very different and half-forgotten world of the not-so-distant past.

Al Remaithi spent the first 22 years of his life living with his mother, grandparents and seven siblings in one of 20 houses that then formed the island’s only community, the now-disappeared Sha’biyat Al Saadiyat.

Established in the 1960s as little more than a cluster of fishermen’s huts, the Sha’biyat was established soon after Al Remaithi’s birth, when the original hamlet was replaced by a series of single-storey concrete houses as part of a campaign to provide the first generation of UAE citizens with modern, low-cost ‘Sha’abi’ – or national – housing.


Saadiyat’s secrets uncovered

Podcast — John Dennehy talks to Nick Leech about its hidden history

In pictures — Meet the archaeologists behind uncovering Saadiyat


Despite the immediate architectural improvement, life on Saadiyat in the 1970s continued to be defined by the absence of essential amenities. Food, for example, still came directly from the sea or had to be imported from Abu Dhabi, a short boat ride away across the turquoise waters that form the creek known as the Khor Laffan.

“There was no petrol, no electricity and no water,” says the 44-year-old, remembering an island whose solitary well contained brackish water fit only for camels, 500 of which were kept on a small farm, or ezba, in the heart of the island.

“My mother and grandmother would go to Abu Dhabi to get food and [drinking] water and I would go with them, but nobody used too much [water] because we would clean our clothes and wash in the sea,” says Al Remaithi, remembering a life that, despite its hardships, he still cherishes.

Each summer, as temperatures rose and the fishing season ended, the Al Remaithat would leave Saadiyat for the cooler temperatures of the desert’s interior and it was during one of those annual sojourn’s that Al Remaithi was born in Al Ain.

In the cooler autumn and winter months, daily life on Saadiyat was made possible by the presence of certain basic facilities.

“As well as the Sha’biyat, there was a school house, a small police station and a hospital,” Al Remaithi remembers. “But this was only open for two hours at a time and was only for first aid.”

Until his daughter Fatima embarked on Zayed University’s Emirati Studies programme, the undergraduate regarded her father’s memories as little more than the baggage that accompanies any family history, but as the senior student explains, her opinions have changed.

“[The course] made me appreciate the stories more and allowed me to see them from a different point of view,” says the 22-year-old. “[I now see that they contain] information that is part of the oral history and archaeology of Saadiyat.”

Fatima’s tutor agrees with her assessment. Working with Abu Dhabi’s National Archives, Power recently worked on an oral history of Jazirat Al Hamra, an historic but abandoned pearling village in Ras Al Khaimah, and he hopes to achieve something similar for Saadiyat by conducting interviews with members of each of the original households.

The result, he says, would be an important “micro-history that investigates Emirati society at a key moment in its transition”.

For the past 18 months, Power and the female students in his Emirati Studies class have also been collaborating in an Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA) initiative that aims to use a blend of archaeology, oral history and heritage management to uncover what its founder, Dr Mark Beech, describes as “the secret history of Saadiyat”.

“We call it the Saadiyat Coastal Heritage Project and the main aim is to make sure that the history of Saadiyat Island isn’t forgotten,” explains Beech, TCA’s head of coastal heritage and palaeontology.

“The idea is to have Emiratis involved with discovering their own heritage by involving students from Zayed University but also from NYUAD [New York University Abu Dhabi] whose campus is less than a kilometre away from one of the island’s main archaeological sites.”

Beech, who has been working in the UAE for 22 years, was one of the first people to realise Saadiyat’s potential when he worked as part of the team that surveyed the island for the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey (Adias) in 2005.

“We found 15 or 16 locations where there was archaeological remains that were mostly in the form of pottery scatters, shell middens – clusters of discarded shells that had been processed – and we also found some settlement traces, clusters of stones and cooking areas where there were ancient hearths,” says the archaeologist.

“We collected as much of the archaeological material as we could, because we knew that a lot of the sites would be destroyed [by development], but we recommended that two areas should be protected.”

The areas Beech describes as sites ‘a’ and ‘b’ are both are on the eastern, mangrove-facing side of Saadiyat Island and the larger site, ‘b’, has been fenced by the island’s master developer, Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC).

Further north, site ‘a’ is a 40 metre-wide rocky outcrop that juts into the island’s lagoon-like inter-tidal zone where the daily movement of the tides, which frequently surround the outcrop with water, make the erection of a fence almost impossible.

“We didn’t find large stone houses on Saadiyat, but we did find clusters of stones possibly indicating tents or arish [palm] structures; we also have cooking places where people are cooking and processing fish and shellfish; and we have some small cairns and temporary mosque-type arrangements showing qibla,” says Beech.

Both sites are now listed for protection but the results of the earlier 2004-2005 Adias surveys, conducted by Beech and his former colleagues Heiko Kallweit and Richard Cutler, were never published and the thousands of pottery sherds and shells collected by the archaeologists were never processed in detail.

“The pottery scatter at site ‘b’ is quite large; we collected between 2,000 and 3,000 pottery sherds distributed over an area of around 200 by 50-60 metres and we have a cluster of around 10 hearths that show repeated cooking activity, which looks quite organised.”

It was with the idea of processing this material in mind that Beech approached Power a decade after the material had been archived, and in 2014 the idea of the Saadiyat Island Coastal Heritage Project started to become a reality.

“We made an agreement with Tim that the students would study and quantify the pottery but there was also 10 years of material eroding on the surface, so we thought we should go back and map the remaining material,” explains Beech.

“It’s an ideal job for introducing students to archaeological survey and pottery collection” says the TCA archaeologist Dr Anjana Lingareddy, who worked with Power to help train his students in the collection, mapping and processing of potsherds, a new batch of which were collected by Power’s students on a day-long field trip in March last year.

“We taught them how to collect pottery from the site in a systematic manner, to map it using differential GPS and to collect it in clusters so it was recorded properly, and then to put it in bags, carefully labelling each one.”

A specialist with a research background in late-Islamic archaeology, Power has been working in the Gulf since 2009 and has used the findings from his excavations in the oases of Al Ain to establish one of the first detailed chronologies for late-Islamic ceramics.

“The work I did in Al Ain was based on excavations and this gave us a vertical sequence, like the layers in a cake, with the earliest [pottery] at the bottom and the latest at the top,” the Englishman explains.


Saadiyat’s secrets uncovered

Podcast — John Dennehy talks to Nick Leech about its hidden history

In pictures — Meet the archaeologists behind uncovering Saadiyat


“Because the pottery came from multiple sites it allowed us, for the first time, to reconstruct the late Islamic sequence from around 1650 to 1950.”

Back at Zayed University, Lingareddy and Power then taught the students how to handle, recognise and categorise the finds in their care.

“It’s research-led teaching that encourages the students to think about the city in which they live and gets them involved in actual research,” explains Power.

“We counted the different types of pottery, put them into a spreadsheet and when we look at the data and process it, that allows us to date the period of occupation on the principal that fashions in pottery change over time just as they do in fashion.

“Not all of the periods are the same length, but we’re now able to divide the period between 1650 and 1950 into six periods, of not equal length, but of between 30 and 70 years.”

After many weeks of processing, the Zayed University team produced a series of results that not only revealed the likely date of Saadiyat’s occupation but which also sheds light on the island’s trade relationships in the region.

“Although this is a coastal site, it’s not a very cosmopolitan one. It’s plugged into local rather than international trade routes and 90 per cent of it is a type of cooking pottery known as Julfar Ware which comes from Ras Al Khaimah,” says Power.

“But what is interesting about the site is that it’s transitional and appears to date from the late 18th or early 19th century. It’s definitely pre-1820s or 1830s because there are no refined, European white wares that were being exported to India from places like Stoke-on-Trent and then being re-exported to the Gulf and are ubiquitous.”

Despite the evidence pointing to temporary, small-scale and very humble forms of occupation, much like the life Al Remaithi’s family lived on Saadiyat 200 years later, the date of the pottery is something that gets all of the members of the heritage project excited. “If we have that date, then the site becomes very interesting when we put it into its historical context, because that is when Abu Dhabi was established,” says Power.

For Beech and Power, the evidence from Saadiyat not only corresponds with the finds that have been made on other islands in the Abu Dhabi embayment, but also suggests that a more nuanced understanding of Abu Dhabi’s origins is required.

“What we find on Saadiyat is very similar to what we find on the other islands around Abu Dhabi and it comes from a similar time period,” says Beech.

“We have evidence of pottery scatters on Saadiyat Island and Ramhan Island and also on Yas, and even the remains of some stone mosques, which suggests that it’s a slightly romantic idea that people came to Abu Dhabi following the gazelle, discovered water, built the first watchtower and that there was only Abu Dhabi.”

For Power, some of the clues to understanding the wider Abu Dhabi area at this time lie not just in the archaeology, but also in the environment and in the patterns of life that persisted into living memory. “Today we think of Abu Dhabi as a city, but we’re dealing with a whole series of islands and sandbars that may not have been occupied constantly throughout the year, but which have communities that are trying to maximise the exploitation of what is, after all, a very marginal environment.

“But back in the day, the mangrove was a source of food, fuel and building materials, and that’s what I think these settlements are all about. We’re finding lots of shells of a particular type of shellfish that’s growing in the mangrove and we’re finding middens where these shells have been processed and so, arguably, these guys are collecting the shellfish and taking them to market in downtown Abu Dhabi or they’re coppicing the mangrove, collecting the poles and selling those.”

For NYUAD’s Dr Robert Parthesius, a maritime archaeologist who describes himself as “the new kid on the block” on Saadiyat, one of the most exciting prospects is the potential the project has to help to develop a distinctively local approach to Abu Dhabi’s history and heritage.

“Tim has firmly established the archaeology, but we would like to approach the subject a little more widely,” the Dutchman explains.

“When you see that development on Saadiyat Island is focused so firmly on the future, then you have to find ways to make links with the past.”

To achieve this, Parthesius has established a programme, “Meeting the Neighbours”, that is designed to not only give his students an introduction to the basic principles of archaeological fieldwork and heritage management, but to take advantage of the archaeological site and expertise that sit on NYUAD’s doorstep.

In December, Parthesius and his students worked with Beech and Lingareddy on a three-day excavation of site ‘b’, which sits between the NYUAD campus and a TDIC nursery that was established to grow palms and plants for Saadiyat’s modern landscape.

Next year he hopes to return with a more detailed excavation and to mount a Saadiyat Island Coastal Heritage Project exhibition at NYUAD that will present the findings to the public.

“I hope that, by running my course, the students will be able to look ahead to 2030, when development on Saadiyat will be well on its way, and dream up plans to include those heritage sites and a heritage trail within that development,” he says.

Although the archaeologist’s class is mixed, most of his students are Emirati and, as with the students at Zayed University, their studies have also inspired them to discuss the past with their parents and grandparents.

“The class is about heritage issues from a global and a local perspective, and more specifically, looking at how the UAE has changed over the last 40 years and the role that heritage has played in that,” explains Parthesius.

“Everybody is keen to find a pathway to preserve that heritage, not just in a physical sense, but to make the proper connections with the stories and the life that now only survives in festivals.”

Parthesius has spent most of his professional career working with local communities in island states such as Sri Lanka and Zanzibar, to understand what they want from their heritage and to develop models of heritage management that work, not just according to international criteria defined by bodies such as Unesco, but in ways that make sense to local populations.

“World heritage sites are often criticised for suppressing local notions of heritage, so I work to provide platforms for people to express their own vision about their own heritage,” he explains, citing his experience on the island of Mozambique as a case in point.

“It’s inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage Site. It has a big Portuguese fort, a stone town and a small African settlement which is the most active part [of the island], while all of the heritage areas are deserted,” says the archaeologist.

“So we worked with the local community to help set up their own heritage places and the local tour guides now say that people no longer go to straight to the stone town to look at the empty buildings but go to the African village and listen to the local stories instead.”

The importance, for Parthesius, in developing alternative heritage models and bodies of knowledge, is not just to create jobs but to develop a sense of heritage that local people can benefit from and invest in emotionally, as well as economically.

His approach has particular resonance on Saadiyat, where the world’s most prestigious museum brands have been employed to create a cultural district that combines European notions of universalism with a perspective that is locally nuanced.

For Beech and his colleague Lingareddy however, the most immediate goal is to disabuse decision-makers of the notion that the island is a terra nullius where the only constraints on development are those dictated by the imaginations of architects and finance.

“Everybody has ignored the archaeology and the recent economic history of Saadiyat which is why we need to talk about it,” says Beech. “So our plan is to publish and to mount an exhibition, hopefully at NYUAD, where we can capture and present some of the archaeological evidence and the oral histories that we’ve found and I think that it’s important for that to happen on Saadiyat.

“We want to make people more aware and to educate people that this island is, and never has been, a blank canvas.”

Nick Leech is a feature writer at The National.

Read more from The National

Has a lost Arab capital been found on the UAE-Oman border?

Stealing from history: The looting and destruction of Iraqi and Syrian heritage

History hides in a diamond that has long lost its sheen

The mystery falcon of Tanker Mai: a softer symbol from simpler times