150 years of thoughts and reflections

From its earliest days, Abu Dhabi attracted writers, explorers and businessmen who recorded their impressions of the desert and its inhabitants in books and journals.

Samuel Zwemer (1901)

"Abu Thabi is the first town on the so-called Pirate Coast, and was settled some hundred years ago by the great Bani Yas Tribe.

"The town is under an independent ruler, Sheikh Zeid, and his influence is wide and strong over all the tribe inland as far as Jebel Akhdar.

"The sheikh is a well-preserved old man; although his years are over three score, he has 12 sons and the full number of wives that Moslem law allows. We found him genial, hospitable … and very intelligent.

"We were assigned to a large room in one of his stone-built houses and all our wants were supplied from his beneficence. Huge dishes piled with rice, steeped in gravy and crowned with several pounds of prime roast mutton, the whole surrounded with dates and bread-loves on a large mat, and washed down with perfumed water! We were never hungry … everywhere this hospitality was repeated.

"The population of Abu Thabi is not over 10,000 … With the exception of a dozen houses and an imposing castle, the whole town is built of date mats and extends along the seashore for nearly two miles."

Samuel Zwemmer (1887-1952) was an American missionary who first visited the Arabian Gulf in the 1890s. His attempt to convert the local population from Islam was a complete failure, but he was received with politeness and hospitality. His photograph of Qasr Al Hosn, taken on his visit to Abu Dhabi in 1901, is the earliest known image of the fort. During his stay he was entertained by Sheikh Zayed bin Khalifa Al Nahyan (1855-1909), known as Zayed the Great. The photo was published along with an account of his voyage in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1902.

T E Williamson (1936)

"We arrived at Abu Dhabi just before a four-day holiday … our forenoons were usually spent in rather solemn visitations to important people … innumerable cups of coffee were drunk on these visits.

"Next day, we offered to put up the money for a camel race to be run on the outskirts of the town, and several hundreds of the inhabitants of the town gathered. The competitors were lined up at the airstrip, and thence had a straight run of a little over a mile to the finishing post where Sheikh Shakhbut himself was seated.

"That evening, someone mentioned that one of our workmen was an excellent musician … we invited him to bring his friends to play to us.

"Next day at the appointed time, we looked out to see a crowd of at least a thousand people gathered around 10 different bands. It was by far the biggest band contest that Abu Dhabi had ever seen.

"The scene was extremely colourful … and we were astounded to see the weight of gold ornaments being worn by many who were obviously servant girls. We learnt on such occasions their mistresses, who remained in seclusion, dressed the girls in the brightest of clothing and decked them out with jewellery."

TE Williamson was a member of a British oil exploration party in the 1930s. The location of the camel race he mentions is generally believed to be near the Etisalat building on Airport Road, close to the junction of Al Falah Street and about half a kilometre from Qasr Al Hosn. This account can be found in From Pearls to Oil by David Heard.

Wilfred Thesiger (1948)

"The castle gates were shut and barred and no one was about. We unloaded our camels and lay down to sleep in the shadow of the wall. Near us some small cannons were half buried in the sand.

"The ground around was dirty, covered with the refuse of sedentary humanity. The Arabs who had watched us watering had disappeared. Kites wheeled against a yellow sky above a clump of tattered palms.

"In the evening a young Arab came out of the postern gate, walked a little way across the sand … Muhammad called to him and asked if the Sheikhs were 'sitting' - an Arab expression for giving audience. The boy answered: 'No, not yet,' and Muhammad told him to tell them that an Englishman had arrived from the Hadramaut and was waiting to see them.

"The boy answered: 'Where is the Englishman' and Muhammad pointed to me and said: 'That's him.'

"Half an hour later a grey-bearded Arab came out, asked us a few questions, and went back into the castle. He came out again a little later and invited us in. He led us up some stairs where Shakhbut, the ruler of Abu Dhabi, and his brothers Hiza and Khalid were sitting."

Wilfred Thesiger - "Mubarak bin London" - arrived in Abu Dhabi in March 1948, after making his second crossing of the Empty Quarter. This extract is taken from Arabian Sands, his account of this expedition and others.

Ronald Codrai (1950s)

"The fort drew you towards it, for apart from the palms, there was nothing else on the horizon to break the skyline … On the final stretch of the fort, your preoccupation was less with the destination than with the deepening powdery soft white sand that tugged at the wheels.

"It was deepest at the nearest corner of the fort, where it served effectively as a natural moat. It had to be taken at speed until firmer ground was suddenly reached in front of the fort where surplus coral stone left by the builders had sunk in the sand to form a useful platform.

"The front of the fort was distinguishable by its large doorway and an untidy assortment of ancient cannons mounted on rickety wooden carriages or strewn around in the sand. Depending on the time of the year, varying numbers of armed Bedu would be gathered at the doorway, their camels hobbled or tethered to cannons.

"Once in Abu Dhabi, it was an opportunity to call on the sheikhs. Others might be there to seek the adjudication … in some dispute or other.

"It was a majlis outside a majlis. Sometimes, instead of being allowed into the main majlis inside the fort, they would be joined at the doorway by the Ruler, or one of his brothers, who would hold court."

Ronald Codrai (1924-2000) was a representative of British Petroleum who lived and worked in what is now the UAE from 1948 to 1955. A skilled photographer, his images are a unique record of life here during that time. This account is taken from Abu Dhabi: An Arabian Album, republished by Motivate in 2011.

Susan Hillyard (1954)

"We piled into the Land Rover and made our way to the palace. I had passed it a few times when we had gone on an outing to the mukhtar, the guard post at the end of the island. Nowadays it has been totally rebuilt … then it was a large, plain but imposing building, four-square with turrets at the corners, of two storeys round two courtyards. Constructed of coral blocks and whitewashed, it dominated the town.

"We were escorted through a wicket gate in the door and along a passage to the main diwan, which was both a sitting room for the sheikh and his male entourage and, twice a day, a council chamber where he dispensed justice and received reports of what was going on in other parts of the sheikhdom.

"These always began with the same formula. After the greetings, the Ruler would ask: 'What is the news?' To which the reply would come: 'There is no news.' And then as if in an afterthought: 'London has been destroyed by an atom bomb.' If this sounds more than improbable, I can vouch for its truth having been gently chided by Sheikh Shakhbut for not using the correct formula."

Susan Hillyard arrived in Abu Dhabi in 1954, joining her husband Tim, who was working on the offshore oil exploration concession, and bringing their infant daughter, Deborah. They were the first expatriate family to live in Abu Dhabi, and Susan became firm friends with many members of the ruling family during her stay here. This extract is taken from Before the Oil: A Personal Memoir of Abu Dhabi 1954-1958, her account of the family's time in the city.

Roderic Owen (1955)

"Next day we were to go to the Palace, that huge honey-coloured fort I'd seen from the distance. Over the soft-rutted sand roared the Land Rover, stopping outside a high door with a small door inset.

"A guard outside thumped it, the smaller door opened and a bearded face peered out, then words were muttered and both doors, small and big, shook while a bolt was drawn back.

"We went into an open space, sand-floored (it changed later when Sheikh Shakhbut built a new majlis and a roofed approach) out of which rose a tapering tower.

"Some soldiers with cartridge belts and rifles were sitting on a high bench; they got up, salaaming, and one of them led us to one side of the tower up a narrow outdoor staircase, over a low parapet and across a long flat roof.

"At the far corner of the roof perched a room with arched windows all around, an airy and intimate majlis which Sheikh Shakhbut used in summer when he withdrew from a larger reception room on the ground floor. Its floor was covered in carpets; a few armchairs, the kind with wooden arms and tapestried upholstery, stood around the walls.

Roderic Owen (1921-2011) was an English writer who visited Abu Dhabi in the mid 1950s, establishing a friendship with the ruler that included writing a number of poems and a book, The Golden Bubble of Arabia, from, which this extract was taken.

Claud Morris 1976

"Sheikh Sultan … occupied a Palace he built of crushed sandstone. called Al Husson, the fortress in Abu Dhabi. It was here in Abu Dhabi, an Arab town that literally translated should be called 'Father of the Gazelle', that Zayed was born, the fourth son …

"The Sheikh's duties were clear cut. He sat in his Majlis and answered problems. He helped the needy from whatever he had in his purse. He served coffee, tea and food to callers … He often had immediate need (as is the case today) to provide hospitality, refuge and friendship on a large scale.

"Whenever they came, whether out of the desert or down the Gulf, then as now teeming with ships, the welcome to visitors was warm. The carpets and pillows were waiting for tired bodies. The food was there in plenty. There was no chilly, judicially toned response to requests for advice or help. Here in the Majlis all formality dropped away.

"Al Husson in Abu Dhabi was not in many senses so much a palace as an open house, a consultative centre point, a grand hotel. Whether the visitors were five or 50, they were accepted."

Claud Morris (1920-2000) was a journalist and publisher who befriended Sheikh Zayed in the early years of the UAE. This extract is taken from his biography of Sheikh Zayed, The Desert Falcon.