The rejuvenation of an abandoned pearling village is progressing in Ras Al Khaimah.
Restoration of as many as 20 traditional buildings is set to be finished by early June – the first batch to be completed by conservation experts.
And in about six months’ time, information boards, signage, car parking, washrooms and other basic facilities will be ready for tourists. This will be followed by a boutique hotel and shops by 2023.
The latest updates came on the sidelines of Archaeology/18, a conference in Al Ain attended by top archaeologists from the UAE and across the globe to document the latest finds and conservation work in the country.
Ahmed Hilal is manager of the restoration project and director of the RAK archaeology department.
“It will be more welcoming. And the site will be more protected and well organised,” he told The National on Wednesday.
“We’re also working on a plan to create paths with information to lead visitors to important structures and areas. These will be ready in six to nine months’ time.”
Mr Hilal detailed the complex rejuvenation project of Jazirat Al Hamra in one of the talks at the conference. It was once an important pearling, trading and fishing town, dating back to the late 17th century. The village spans 54 hectares with hundreds of traditional compounds, a fort, 11 mosques and a souq.
“These buildings are rich in traditional elements,” said Mr Hilal. “It’s very unique and important.”
Mr Hilal also outlined plans to turn Jazirat Al Hamra into a tourist destination. By 2023, it is expected that a visitor centre, museum, boutique hotel and souq will open to be followed by a restaurant serving traditional food. Pupils from local schools are already visiting and public events will be held there. “We want to breathe new life into it and restore it,” said Mr Hilal.
Initial rescue work was done in the early 2000s. But the project began in earnest in 2015 and is a collaboration between Abu Dhabi and RAK. A workforce of 135 are on site every day including about seven archaeologists. During the excavations around 35,000 pottery shards have been unearthed. The buildings are made of coral, beach stone, concrete and steel. Many were in danger of collapse because of the different material used and need to be carefully restored. Some are winter houses without any ventilation, while summer houses have also been built with traditional features such as wind towers. Fifty structures have been comprehensively surveyed so far.
So consuming is the work that Mr Hilal has not taken a holiday for past three years and has been working weekends. “But at the same time I don’t feel tired and the reason is because of the importance of Jazirat al Hamra. There is no other example of creating such infrastructure, dealing with these areas and connecting them to each other. This makes me really happy and excited.”
The village was mainly occupied by the Zaabi tribe until it was abandoned in the 1960s as they left to live and work elsewhere. The compounds are still owned by the families and will remain so. “We are conserving these houses for them. The government of RAK made it clear – it will stay their property," said Mr Hilal. "The locals are involved in the whole process.”
The conference on Wednesday also heard about the excavation of the Christian monastery on Sir Bani Yas island. Dr Joseph Elders, who oversaw conservation work there from 1993 to 2012, showed how the monastery existed within Islamic Arabia for about a century from the mid-7th century to the mid-8th century. Dr Elders said the Christian presence there ended slowly and “with a whimper, not a bang, probably through conversion and lack of support.”
Other talks on Wednesday reflected on the traditional architecture of the houses of Al Ain, the multi-layered history of Saadiyat Island and efforts to understand the cultural landscapes of the Western Region of Abu Dhabi.
A significant amount of archaeological research has been undertaken across the UAE since the first digs were initiated by the late President Sheikh Zayed in the 1950s. There is a perception among some that nothing much happened in modern-day UAE before the 20th century. But the work of archaeologists has overturned this and uncovered webs of active and advanced communities that lived across what in now the UAE for thousands of years.