How Abu Dhabi's Qasr Al Hosn found its place in the early history books of oilmen and explorers

As the oldest building reopens to the public on Friday, we take a look at early encounters with the historic fort

A drove of donkeys make their way past Qasr Al Hosn. Courtesy: John Vale
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RelatedThe historic heart of the Hosn neighbourhood beats again

The sun was setting that November day in 1962 when a Land Rover collected a young man from a dusty airstrip and motored across sand tracks into the town. In the soft evening light, a white fort loomed in the distance.

“I recall how magnificent it looked, glowing in the late afternoon November sun as we got closer to town,” said David Riley, a 22-year-old British banker who had just arrived in Abu Dhabi.

“And how it contrasted so much with the barasti houses and the very few solid buildings, some built of coral.”

Riley was just one of the many bankers, locals, oilmen, writers and explorers to remember their first encounters with the historic fort.

But what we know today as Qasr Al Hosn started life as a small watchtower around 1760 to guard water sources. And forget traditional wells, this was water resting below the sand called a scrape. Often the water had to be dug out by hand.

By the 1790s, the watchtower had become a small fort looking over an Abu Dhabi that was primarily a seasonal town.

Some came in spring to prepare for the summer pearl diving season. Others spent their winters there.

An aerial shot of Abu Dhabi from the early 1960s. Oil had been discovered in 1958 and the town was already expanding. Courtesy: David Riley
An aerial shot of Abu Dhabi from the early 1960s. Oil had been discovered in 1958 and the town was already expanding. Courtesy: David Riley

But it was virtually deserted in the summer when most moved people moved to Al Ain and Liwa for water and shade. Early depictions of the fort appeared on maritime maps.

Qasr Al Hosn then appeared in John Lorimer’s survey. Lorimer was member of the Indian Civil Service and his survey, first published in 1908, became a handbook for diplomats of the British Empire.

“The largest edifice is the fort of the shaikh, at a little distance inland behind the town. Not far from it, on the outskirts of the town proper, is the separate bazaar of the Indian traders,” it noted.

By the 1930s, people suspected that oil lay underneath the sands and waters of the sheikhdom but no one realised yet it was such a vast lake.

When the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Shakhbut, granted an oil concession later that decade, he used the proceeds to expand Qasr Al Hosn. He built a taller perimeter which wrapped itself around the original fort.

“The palace project … took about four years to complete, mobilised the entire workforce and most of the sea-going vessels available in Abu Dhabi,” noted Emirati Mohammed Al Fahim in his book, From Rags to Riches.

The 1940s were tough times for Abu Dhabi. Oil had yet to be found, the pearl diving industry had collapsed and great hardship was endured by its inhabitants. The future looked uncertain.

“The construction of the ruler’s palace had provided a short-term respite from their chronic unemployment and widespread poverty but the early forties found Abu Dhabians worse off than they had ever been,” wrote Al Fahim.

The famed British explorer Wilfred Thesiger arrived in Abu Dhabi a few years later in 1948 after his second epic crossing of the Empty Quarter.

“A large castle dominated the small dilapidated town which stretched along the shore,” he wrote in his classic account of his journeys, Arabian Sands.

HISTORY PROJECT 2013. View inside the Fort after the renovations after the early 1940s. Sir R. Hay was a political agent in the Arabian Gulf.

Date S0016493  Inside the ruler of Alsu Dhalsi's palace  Artist / photographer: Sir R. Hay Date: 1937 Country: United Arab Emirates Eds note, Karen /James Langton* the date 1937 may not be accurate and needs to be verfied
A view from inside Qasr Al Hosn toward the northeast tower, built by Sheikh Shakhbut in the early 1940s. Courtesy: Sir R Hay / Royal Geographical Society

“There were a few palms, and near them was a well were we watered our camels while some Arabs eyed us curiously, wondering who we were.”

But the world that Al Fahim and Thesiger described was about to be swept away for ever. By the 1950s, increasing numbers of oil company representatives were arriving.

Susan Hillyard came in 1954 with her husband who was working with British Petroleum.

Her book, Before The Oil: A Personal Memoir of Abu Dhabi, paints a vivid picture of life inside the fort. “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,” she wrote.

Oil was finally discovered in 1958, and in 1962 the first shipments left Abu Dhabi - 254,544 barrels of crude destined for the Thames in London.

By 1966, Sheikh Zayed had become Ruler of Abu Dhabi, Qasr Al Hosn ceased to be a royal residence and the town was becoming a city. In the years that followed, the fort became a centre of government and would house the National Centre for Documentation and Research. A restoration attempt in the 1980s was not enough to fully salvage the building and by 2008 Qasr Al Hosn was closed.

A decade on and following an extensive restoration, the fort will reopen to the public on Friday, reclaiming its rightful place at the heart of the city. A new generation, worlds apart from old Abu Dhabi, will cross the ancient threshold for the first time and learn about the early pioneers who dedicated their lives to build the country.

Perhaps it was Edward Henderson who put it best of his visit in the late 1940s.

“We walked through the soft sand a half a mile or so to the big fort or palace which then seemed to dominate the town,” he wrote in his memoir Arabian Destiny.

“Now the town … totally dominates it.”


Read more: 

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed reopens Qasr Al Hosn in Abu Dhabi

Neighbourhood Watch: The historic heart of Al Hosn beats again

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