Raiders of the lost RAK: exploring the emirate's hidden heritage gems - in a day

Ras Al Khaimah is awash with history and heritage going back many thousands of years

It is a well-known fact that the history and heritage of the UAE stretches back thousands of years.

What you might not know, however, is just how much of it happens to be in the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah.

From ancient pearling villages to hilltop forts, the emirate's major heritage sites tell us stories about the people who lived and thrived in RAK in the past.

Some of the sites are of such significance they have been added to Unesco's tentative list of world heritage sites.

And the best part is that many of them can be experienced in just a day visit to the emirate. Here The National visits five to learn more.

Al Jazira Al Hamra

Al Jazirah al Hamra in Ras Al Khaimah. The once abandoned village has been restored and now stages an annual arts festival. Pawan Singh / The National

The first stop on the tour is Al Jazirah Al Hamra. Believed to have been founded in the 1600s, the pearling village was abandoned in the late 1960s. In the years thereafter it became known as the Ghost Village.

It was given that name because local legend had it that the area was haunted.

“This is a town that has more or less been frozen in time and appears just like it would have during the mid-20th century,” said Christian Velde, chief archaeologist with the Ras Al Khaimah Department of Antiquities and Museums.

“You won’t be able to find anything like it anywhere else in the Gulf."

The site is listed on the Unesco tentative World Heritage Site list, one of four in Ras Al Khaimah.

The decision to maintain Al Jazirah Al Hamra as a heritage site was taken six years ago, Mr Velde said. If his department had not stepped in, the site could have been lost to development.

There was already encroachment during the 1980s and labour accommodation was built there. Now it has been partially restored and is home to the annual Ras Al Khaimah Fine Arts Festival.

One of the most striking features is a tower featuring a cannon port to wade off would-be attackers.

“Until the mid-20th century there were still a lot of attacks from Bedouins,” Mr Velde said.

Visitors will also learn about the date-pressing techniques common at the time.

This involved rooms where bags of dates were piled on top of each other, with juice oozing from those on the bottom and running down a track into a pot where it was collected and then sold as date sugar.

“Europe craved sugar up until the 16th or 17th century and the UAE has had it for thousands of years,” he said.

The village is also the site of a mosque that was probably built some time in the 1960s, according to Mr Velde.

He believes it was the last of several mosques to be built on the site.

“There are several mosques that have been built on this site, the earliest was probably in the 1800s,” Mr Velde said.

“Mosques are rebuilt more often than most buildings. This is because when there was decay found on a mosque somebody would always be happy to pay for it to be rebuilt.”

National Museum of Ras Al Khaimah

The courtyard at the National Museum of  Ras Al Khaimah.  Pawan Singh / The National

The museum was once the home of the ruling family, who lived there as recently as the 1960s.

Before then it served as a fort that had been destroyed and rebuilt after an attack from British forces around 1819, Mr Velde said.

Visitors to the museum can also get a glimpse of an early form of air-conditioning.

Some rooms have a series of beams – which Mr Velde calls “windcatchers” – in the corner beneath an open space in the roof that catch the wind and channels it downwards.

“You can make it colder by placing wet cloths on the beams,” Mr Velde said. There are records of windcatchers being used more than 3,000 years ago, he said.

“It was even known to make ice. All you needed to do was make the tower higher and dig deeper into the earth.

“This is a really old idea that has been transmitted through the centuries but it was also the best air-conditioning system you could have before electricity.”

The team from The National did not need to be asked twice to try out the windcatchers, which blew cool air on to us despite the scorching heat outside.

Another highlight of the tour are the huge pots, made from clay, that were used for cooking and storing foods.

Pottery was a local trade that was very much in demand, from near and far, right up until the Second World War, according to Mr Velde.

“Pottery production began around the 14th century in Julfar, which was one of the biggest trading towns in the Gulf at the time,” he said, referring to the port that preceded modern-day RAK.

“Sadly it stopped in the mid-20th century, around the time of the end of the Second World War.

“The reason for this was because cheaper materials were starting to come in from India and China.”

A demand for metal cooking pots led to a major decrease in the use of pottery in the region, he said.

Al Suwaidi pearl farm

An oyster being checked for pearls at Al Suwaidi pearl farm.  Pawan Singh / The National

The emirate’s pearl farm is out at sea and can be reached only by a short boat ride.

There visitors will get a brief history lesson on an industry that has been a local tradition for thousands of years.

The farm produces tens of thousands of oysters each year, of which 60 per cent create pearls.

“Before the pandemic we produced about 40,000 oysters,” said the farm’s tour guide Bilal Al Khaled.

“That was in 2019. From those we had about 25,000 pearls. It’s hard to put a price on how much they are worth, but you are talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.”

Peak pearl diving season is from mid-May to September, with divers often spending much of the day underwater.

The farm serves an important purpose, according to Mr Al Khaled.

“It’s important to keep the legacy of pearling alive,” he said. “We want to show people how Emiratis used to live before modern times.”

Dhayah Fort

It's a long way to the top of Dhayah Fort – the staircase has 239 steps.  Pawan Singh / The National

Built during the 19th century, Dhayah Fort has only recently opened to the public and visitors need to make sure they take comfortable walking shoes or hiking boots with them.

There are a gruelling 239 steps to be conquered before reaching the fort at the summit.

“The hill fort is really just a wall and two small towers, it has no cistern and no water,” Mr Velde said.

“It was built for defence purposes and you can see a gun platform from the 19th century.”

The fort overlooks palm date gardens and Mr Velde believes they could become part of the region’s attractions sooner rather than later.

“In the future it’s possible you will be able to tour the gardens as well when you buy a ticket for the fort,” he said.

There are also holes in the wall that were used to defend the structure against invading forces brave, or stupid, enough to try to storm the fort.

Shimal

One of the Shimal tombs in Ras Al Khaimah. It is believed dozens of people are buried here.  Pawan Singh / The National

The area known as Shimal is home to a monument on top of a hill that is referred to by locals as the Queen of Sheba's Palace.

Sadly, the rumours of a palace proved to be wide of the mark.

“This was not the fortress of the Queen of Sheba. It was probably built in the 13th century,” Mr Velde said.

The area is still being excavated and Mr Velde and his teams of archaeologists have found several megalithic tombs, which were the burial places of up to 40 people each.

It is also located in what was known as Julfar, which was an important Islamic-era settlement and port.

“There is quite an amazing density of tombs all built in the second millennium BC,” he said.

“That is why the area has to be protected. There are probably more tombs buried underneath the nearby village, which was built in the 1970s. These Shimal tombs are also on the Unesco tentative list.

“Obviously the people in the village wouldn’t have known they were there at the time.”

The site is not yet open to public but Mr Velde believes it will become a major tourist attraction once work is completed in the next five years.

Updated: March 18, 2022, 6:35 PM
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