The challenge for today's architects: match those of 300BC

Driving along Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai the other day I was struck - and not for the first time - by some of the rather remarkable architecture

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Driving along Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai the other day (well, crawling along, as it happens), I was struck - and not for the first time - by some of the rather remarkable architecture: the Burj al-Arab hotel, surely one of the most immediately-recognisable buildings in the world, the Emirates Towers, Burj Dubai, and my personal favourite, the Jumeirah Beach Hotel. And while I am no fan of The Palms, and find the assurances that they have enhanced, rather than damaged, the marine environment a little difficult to accept, there's no doubt that these, too, are impressive architectural feats, quite apart from their status as compendia of engineering mega-statistics.

The new Abu Dhabi is no slouch when it comes to modern architecture, either - or won't be by the time some of the current projects are completed: the new Empire Tower, or Sorouh's Sky Tower, both on Reem Island, for example, while the Emirates Palace is in a class of its own, like it or hate it. To describe many of these structures, it is almost valid to employ that much over-used term "iconic". It's little wonder, then, that the world's top architects are coming to the UAE.

The list of famous names who have won major contracts for the museums in the Cultural District on Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Island gives a flavour of it. Britain's Norman Foster for the Sheikh Zayed National Museum; Japan's Tadao Ando for the Maritime Museum; France's Jean Nouvel for the Desert Louvre; Iraqi-British Zaha Hadid for the performing arts complex, and Frank Gehry for the Guggenheim - Abu Dhabi: all should contribute significantly in making the capital one of the showcases of modern architecture. There will, of course, be both fans and critics of the end-results, and that is exactly how it should be.

We don't yet have anything equivalent to the Sydney Harbour Bridge or the Empire State Building in New York, the Eiffel Tower in Paris or Big Ben in London - internationally recognisable symbols of the city - although the Burj al-Arab is well on the way. But there's no reason why some of the best buildings in Abu Dhabi and Dubai should not achieve that status, and quickly. I look forward to that day - and am confident that it will come about faster, perhaps, than we can now imagine.

As new cities, in historical terms, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and the other major UAE population centres - many of which are building their own architectural marvels - will win their recognition, whether in terms of the buildings themselves or for their overall design concept, such as Abu Dhabi's Masdar zero-carbon city, very much something of the future. But in pondering on this future of the UAE as a global architectural showplace, I am reminded of another part of the country's architecture, recently identified by archaeologists working in Fujairah. There they have found the remains of a solidly-constructed stone building that dates back to the latter part of the Iron Age, which ended around 300 BC. Some time in the centuries following, as the building fell into disrepair, one of its walls was partly dis-assembled and the stones used to build a couple of pre-Islamic tombs.

The building is, purely coincidentally, perfectly aligned so that one of its walls faces Mecca, and sometime after 650 AD, when Islam first reached the Emirates, the building seems still to have been in a fairly good state of preservation. Sufficiently so that the newly-Muslim inhabitants appear to have decided to remove a few stones from the Mecca-facing wall and insert a small mihrab, the prayer niche, in its centre, with the building then taking on a new function as a mosque. Those, at any rate, are the preliminary conclusions from an excavation that is, as yet, not fully-completed.

Provided that the hypothesis is finally proven, it would appear that this building, first erected more than 2,300 years ago, was still sufficiently solid around a 1,000 years later for it to take on a new lease of life as a religious centre. Its outline survives today, battered, with only the lower parts of its walls remaining, but still, recognisably, a building of substance and importance. I wonder whether, a few hundred years, or a thousand, from now, some of our modern masterpieces will still be in sufficiently good condition to take on a new lease of life. Will they be the Pyramids of the future, or a Petra - testaments to the building skills of those long gone? Or will they simply be wonders of the modern world that have vanished, like many of the seven wonders of the ancient world? Sic transit gloria mundi? Perhaps, though it will not be for us to see.

Peter Hellyer is a writer and consultant specialising in the UAE's history, heritage and environment. A resident of Abu Dhabi for over 30 years, he has also written extensively on the country's social, political and economic development