Qasr Al Hosn: A witness to change, testament to progress

Frauke Heard-Bey worked for almost 30 years in Qasr Al Hosn as a historian, researcher and archivist. As the fort, Abu Dhabi's oldest building, hosts a unique heritage festival, she returns for a nostalgic visit.

The Qasr Al Hosn fort was the permanent resident of Shakhbut Bin Sultan Al Nahyan for many years. It is currently being redeveloped and renovated to be open to the public. Razan Alzayani / The National
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UPDATE December 05, 2018: Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed reopens Qasr Al Hosn in Abu Dhabi

ABU DHABI // After crossing a zigzag of wires and negotiating a maze of generators and fences, Dr Frauke Heard-Bey finally arrives at the front gateway of Qasr Al Hosn only to encounter a security guard standing behind a locked gate.

With the key to the padlock swirling from his hand, and "security" embroidered on his shirt, the man demands her name and business before opening the gate.

"I got lost trying to figure out the way between the fences and generators," explains Dr Heard-Bey with a laugh.

The historian, archivist, researcher and author is laughing because she spent nearly 30 years of her life going back and forth between her home and Qasr Al Hosn, at a time when the guards wore national dress and knew her so well that they saluted her on arrival.

"The guards and I were good friends," she recalls. Those encounters were also a chance to practise her Arabic on the men, as they stood to attention at the gates, rifles at their shoulders.

Now she is back at Qasr Al Hosn to give The National a tour of the white fortress and highlight its most important rooms and memories.

"I have mixed feelings coming back here. It makes me sad to see the state it is in now," she says, looking at the empty halls and rooms filled with construction tools, floors covered with boards, and warning signs along the more vulnerable parts of the structure.

"It was so alive. We had beautiful carpets, bookshelves filled with historical treasures, we had different people coming in and out, all seeking knowledge and researching history."

Dr Heard-Bey worked at the Centre for Documentation and Research from the earliest days when it was set up at the Qasr Al Hosn in the late 1960s. It moved out of the fortress in 1998 to offices next to the Sharia Court.

The palace has stood empty ever since, with construction and renovation plans in the works to revive its former glory and eventually give the building museum status.

"We were writing and documenting history in a historical place. It was so fitting," says Dr Heard-Bey. "I can't help but feel nostalgic about every corner of the Qasr."

The centre itself moved to several different parts of the fort to make way for renovations and improvements. By the end, Dr Heard-Bey had worked in almost every corner of the Qasr.

For our tour, she is wearing a golden ribbonlike brooch on her sweater. "The Abu Dhabi Awards," she acknowledges with a smile. Established in 2005, the prestigious awards honour residents of the capital for acts of charity and community service. Dr Heard-Bey was a recipient in 2007 for her work in documenting the history of Abu Dhabi and her contribution in establishing a state-of-the-art documentation and archives centre.

Frauke Heard-Bey stands behind Sheikh Zayed in 1980. Her husband, David, is on the left, along with her two kids. Photo courtesy of Frauke Heard-Bey.
Frauke Heard-Bey stands behind Sheikh Zayed in 1980. Her husband, David, is on the left, along with her two kids. Photo courtesy of Frauke Heard-Bey.

"The late Sheikh Zayed had the foresight to set up this centre and we started documenting and keeping records at a time when people weren't much concerned with that area," she says. "It is only now that people are interested in researching history. They are realising just how important the centre's work was and is."

As Dr Heard-Bey makes her way through the oldest building in Abu Dhabi, she observes that the bare garden, with little more than palm trees, is truer to Qasr Al Hosn's history than the flowers and bushes that were planted later.

"It feels like how a palace in the middle of the desert would look," she says.

She explains how the fort is actually more of palace than a traditional Emirati fort.

"Compared to the big forts in Ras Al Khaimah and Ajman, the Abu Dhabi fort is special, as it is more of a royal residence built as a palace for its ruler and his family with all their needs, from a kitchen to various majlises."

Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan, the last ruler to live at Qasr Al Hosn, built the largest part of the structure in 1939, turning it into a palace rather than a fortress.

"Not many built a palace around an old fort, it is an interesting social and architectural aspect of Qasr Al Hosn," says Dr Heard-Bey.

Since then there have been many memorable incidents inside the Qasr.


Learn more about Qasr Al Hosn

In 2013, The National's History Project went beyond the walls to see what life was like living in Abu Dhabi's fabled fort:


Once, walking along the roof of the south wing, Dr Heard-Bey spotted a large stuffed brown bear on the roof on one of the villas added by Sheikh Shakhbut in the early 1960s.

"There sitting on the roof of the villa housing the Diwan, was a forgotten stuffed Persian brown bear that I was told was a gift from the Shah of Persia to Sheikh Shakhbut," she says.

Other peculiarities of wildlife in the fort included beetles falling out of the wooden roofs on to the tables of some of the researchers at the documentation centre.

"Every June we would have beetles breeding and popping out of the imported South Korean wood used in 1980s renovation of some of the roofs of the Hosn," said Dr Heard-Bey. The insects were tested and turned out to be South-east Asian black beetles that must have arrived as stowaways in the beams,

"These little beasts would eat into the wood and even the plaster, causing holes throughout the place," she recalls.

Her workmates included the palace falconers, who she chatted with as they walked around with their birds.

Visitors from across the world would stop at the centre after they came to visit the Diwan.

One regular visitor was Margaret McKay, a British MP with interests in the Arab world, who had retired and moved to Abu Dhabi. She died in 1996. "She was always coming over to the centre, borrowing books, and unlike many who ended up taking and never returning our books, like certain Lebanese professors, she returned them after a couple of years of taking them out," Dr Heard-Bey remembers.

Fawaz Al Qudsi, the son of Nazim Al Qudsi, president of Syria from 1961 to 1963, worked at the centre before moving to the foreign affairs office next door.

The renowned Emirati calligrapher, Mohammad Mandi, also had a desk at the centre. Wives of ambassadors and other officials often worked there, taking care of Portuguese and Dutch archive materials such maps and letters.

Before the centre took over the rooms they were used by different members of the ruling family. After they left, the rooms were used as offices or for storage.

"The rooms on the ground floor, which had been used by the Ruler's extended family during the winter, had become store rooms. On one occasion I witnessed an entire lorry-load of sacks of dates being stacked below our offices," Dr Heard-Bey says.

But perhaps one of the memorable stories about Qasr Al Hosn was before Dr Heard-Bey even came to Abu Dhabi.

"It was some time in 1964, and my husband, David, was driving back to Abu Dhabi island from Tarif, where he was searching for oil, when he saw Qasr Al Hosn beautifully illuminated with light bulbs," she says. "It was the single bright object in the middle of nowhere, and then, suddenly, it went black."

What caused that blackout so many years ago, she never discovered, but the incident is an example of just how much the building has been through.

"Every occasion and every generation added something to Qasr Al Hosn. The structure is a witness to change and it stands as an important reminder of progress and what marks it leaves behind," she says.

"You can study Qasr Al Hosn for ever. It is a story that never ends."