Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 27 October 2020

The UAE's Pompeii: how a Ras Al Khaimah ghost town is being brought back to life

The pearling village of Jazirah Al Hamra is being restored to its former glory - and you can help

Archaeologists and restorers are back at the ghost town of Jazirah Al Hamra.

It is the sixth season of work at the Ras al Khaimah neighbourhood which was recently listed as a potential Unesco World Heritage Site.

And now efforts are increasing to prepare the site for more visitors.

Jazirah Al Hamra - renowned for its pearling fleets and merchant ships - was home to a population of 4,100 by the early 1830s.

Yet centuries of maritime prosperity came to a standstill in the late 1960s when people left for modern neighbourhoods.

But abandonment brought preservation. As other coastal cities were built by oil wealth, Jazirah Al Hamra was largely undisturbed. It stands unique as an original Gulf pearling town with structures built from seashell-speckled sandbricks, steel and cement, and nearly 12 million pieces of sun-dried coral.

Because people moved, everything was frozen in time

Agnieska Dolatowska, archaeologist

“Because people just moved, everything was frozen in time,” said archaeologist Agnieska Dolatowska, standing by the wall of what was once a magnificent Friday mosque.

“Jazirah Al Hamra is a very unique place because you have the buildings from the different times in their original context. It’s kind of like Pompeii, yes? Because it was completely abandoned and you can see all the stages of change in the buildings.”

The town has more than 450 buildings, including 11 mosques, three schools, a fort, a souq and hundreds of courtyard homes connected by winding lanes.

The Jazirah Al Hamra Conservation Project, begun by the RAK Department of Antiquities and Museums in 2015, will restore the town as a national heritage site. Proposed plans include workshops, a museum, a visitors centre, a boutique hotel, cafes serving traditional food and archaeological sites like the Great Mosque.

The mosque stood at the water’s edge and for 150 years it was filled with the prayers of pearlers and sea captains, farmers and fishermen.

Agnieska Dolatowska, an archaeologist with the Jazirah Al Hamra Conservation Project, stands on the floor of a mosque that dates back to at least the early 1800s. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Agnieska Dolatowska, an archaeologist with the Jazirah Al Hamra Conservation Project, stands on the floor of a mosque that dates back to at least the early 1800s. Chris Whiteoak / The National

When the town was abandoned, it was buried by sand and almost forgotten. A reference to a 20-domed mosque in a British survey, recorded following the British attacks of 1819, tipped the archaeologists off.

Just one place fit the description. And after a winter’s rain, its outline became visible in the softened sand.

Archaeologists unearthed the remnants of not only one mosque but six, layered on top of each other and dating from at least the early 1800s.

“During 150 years, the area of the mosque was rebuilt five times,” said Ms Dolatowska. “So this mosque, number 004, is an excellent example of the changes in architecture that can be noticed everywhere in Jazirah Al Hamra.”

Each generation took down and rebuilt the mosque, reusing precious commodities like mangrove poles from Eastern Africa and coral stone. It was perhaps a necessity due to the island’s erosive salinity.

“This is the last layer, the gypsum floor,” said Ms Dolatowska, tapping her foot on a hard gypsum floor near the clear outline of a mihrab - a feature which shows the direction of Makkah.

“The salt has a great impact ... Probably it was easier to rebuild than to repair. The other point is that paying for the mosque showed the community that you were rich. People wanted to rebuild the mosque to show they were wealthy.”

The reuse of materials in successive generations of buildings makes archaeology all the trickier.

“Being an archaeologist here is complicated because you’re not looking for what’s here, you’re looking for what’s absent,” said Ms Dolatowska. “Materials were expensive and were reused.”

The digs support oral histories dating the village back to the 1600s.

Jazirah Al Hamra was home to the Zaab tribe, built on an island against a dramatic backdrop of red dunes that gave the area its name, The Red Island.

With so many layers of history, restorers face hard choices during conservation.

“So we are working now on this pathway,” said Hala Shankhour, the project’s director of restoration, walking through narrow alleyways between high coralstone walls. At the end of the alley are tall piles of fossilised coral, collected from collapsed walls, that will be reused in restoration.

Hala Shankhour, director of restoration for the Jazirah Al Hamra Conservation Project. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Hala Shankhour, director of restoration for the Jazirah Al Hamra Conservation Project. Chris Whiteoak / The National

She stepped into a courtyard villa, one of three currently under restoration that were built in the final period before the town’s abandonment.

“When we start working on any building, it looks like this,” said Ms Shankhour, ducking under a low doorway into a dark two-room house with thick walls and deep niches.

Shankhour's first job is to stabilise the building. She pointed to a crack above an abolution area, then turns her attention to a large tear in the palm frond ceiling. “Like this now, is a bad ceiling,” she said.

Next, Shankhour eyed the crumbling sandbrick of the doorframe. “Also this, we will rebuild.”

It takes three or four months to restore a villa compound like this one, with traditional materials made from the site, including lime, shell, sand or reused coral stone.

In a nearby compound, Dolatowska showed off a mid-twentieth century variation of a wind tower. A shaft in a concrete wall syphons wind into the small room. The opposite wall has gaps between cinderblocks, creating a cross breeze. The room blended new materials with old techniques, a moment in history when cement was common but air conditioning was not.

A winding pathway is expected to open in 2022 will take in the town’s most noted bulidings and 40 courtyard homes. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Jazirah Al Hamra was abandoned by the Zaab tribe in the late 1960s. Chris Whiteoak / The National

The compound’s older main building has great arches moulded over the doorframe and intricate detailing over doorways and windows typical for the village. Each house has its own ornamentation of filigreen screens, arched niches and cinderblocks with crescent and star silhouettes.

“Traditional architecture is quite simple but in Jazirah Al Hamra, you can see how much effort they put into decorating the houses,” said Ms Dolatowska. “Here, you can really feel that there were different types of people with different levels of wealth and you can see the society was quite diverse.”

The Zaab were not only seafarers. They kept camels and donkeys, managed overland transport between the Gulf and the Sea of Oman, participated in a lucrative desert wood trade and had palm orchards in the interior.

The restoration project was started by the Ministry of Presidential Affairs and supported by the Ras Al Khaimah government. It has six archaeologists and about 130 assistants working full time on project.

In the last six months, they have completed excavations on seven buildings, as well as restoration on an additional seven buildings and documentation of 30 structures.

Conservationists have also appealed to former residents to share old photographs. This would guide the restoration.

“We have a very small collection and this is so helpful, to know how it looks,” said Ms Dolatowska. “This is why every photo is so precious.”

We have a very small collection and this is so helpful, to know how it looks. This is why every photo is so precious

So far, 25 buildings have been restored around the town’s two centres, its open air souq and the fort.

These will be connected by a sandy footpath meandering through a warren of 40 courtyard homes.

“Step by step, all of these places will be connected” said Ms Shankhour.

The winding trail will take in the town’s most noted buildings, from the remarkable wind towers of the merchant’s house, Bait Abdulkareem, to a two-storey mosque to Bait Omran, the pearl merchant’s two-storey house.

The pathway is expected to open in 2022.

Jazirah Al Hamra was never wholly abandoned. Low income labourers, taxi drivers and fishermen live on its periphery and the town’s eerie atmosphere made it a popular location for regional film crews. A group of former residents began clearing debris from the ghost town in 2011. A series of tribal parties that followed, hosted by the Zaab tribe, brought the village back to national prominence. Now the next phase of its renaissance is being prepared.

“It’s time to show it to the public because it’s not for us,” said Ms Dolatowska. “It’s for the whole of the Emirates.”

Updated: October 11, 2020 01:53 PM

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