Qasr Al Hosn: where the past has a future

A team of historians and architects spent six years analysing the design of the UAE heritage site in preparation for the conservation work that is underway.

A team of historians and architects are painstakingly removing parts of the white facade placed over Qasr Al Hosn’s original walls more than 30 years ago. Courtesy Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority

ABU DHABI // Conservation experts are working to stop corrosion destroying the centuries-old coral and sea-stone masonry walls of the capital’s oldest building.

The team of historians and architects are painstakingly removing parts of the white facade that was placed over Qasr Al Hosn’s original walls more than 30 years ago.

The building’s air-conditioning system, installed in the 1980s, traps moisture between the historic walls and the more recent render, made of gypsum and cement. Experts fear the moisture will corrode and ruin the original coral surface.

“The layers of modern render … are suffocating the traditional construction of the historic walls,” said Mark Powell Kyffin, head of architecture at Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority.

Qasr Al Hosn has been closed for several years for comprehensive restoration, but it is hoped that it will be reopened as a historical attraction in the near future.

However, next month it will open to visitors for guided tours of the palace courtyards and former inner fort during the second annual 10-day Qasr Al Hosn Festival Visitors will be able to see renovators working on the restoration.

Qasr Al Hosn is the symbolic birthplace of Abu Dhabi. The Bani Yas tribes of the Liwa Oasis built the original watchtower in the mid-18th century to protect the fresh water source they discovered at the site, and to command the coastal trade routes when pearling was the main industry.

Builders gathered coral and sea stone, and set them in place using mortar made from ground coral and crushed seashells.

Successive generations of the ruling Al Nahyan family added walls, towers, decorative entrances and residential quarters to create their ancestral home, transforming it first into an imposing fort, then a palace.

The building also features a barjeel, a traditional ventilation system that is an ancient form of air conditioning. Recesses in the outside walls redirect cooling breezes into the fort through a network of airways.

The removal of the outer wall is a delicate undertaking because of the fortress's significance and the necessity of preserving the original stonework. Mr Kyffin said in March that the team spent six years analysing the design to prepare for the conservation work.

“It’s a methodical process and we’re working as carefully as we possibly can,” said Peter Sheehan, head of historic buildings at the Tourism & Culture Authority, who investigated the palace’s construction for the conservation planning.

“Our job is to ensure that this building is conserved to the highest possible standards, so that both present and future generations can appreciate the evolution of the fort and its historical and cultural significance.”

Preserving the masonry work on the watchtower has been the most difficult part of the conservation project, he said.

The authority’s chairman, Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon, said the aim of the Qasr Al Hosn project was to strengthen the appreciation of Emirati heritage and identity, and he hoped the fort would become a special place for visitors.

“The project will provide a different experience for every visitor, enabling each of them to have their own personal relationship with Qasr Al Hosn and to gain an understanding of the values and identity of Emirati heritage,” he said.

This year’s Qasr Al Hosn Festival will take place from February 20 until March 1.

Tickets for the Cavalia show, a main attraction at the festival, are on sale now at Dh250 for adults and Dh150 for children. The show, which will feature horses, dancers and acrobats, is being created by Normand Latourelle, a co-founder of Cirque du Soleil.