Timeframe: Qasr Al Hosn and 260 years of Abu Dhabi history

The capital's oldest stone building will become the site of the annual Al Hosn Festival this weekend.

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Abu Dhabi’s annual Al Hosn Festival is returning to the open-air area in front of Qasr Al Hosn this Friday.

Organised by the Department of Culture and Tourism — Abu Dhabi, the family-friendly festival will feature an expansive programme, providing an insight into what life was like in Abu Dhabi before the discovery of oil. The festival, which will run until January 22, was established in 2013 and is a staple in the cultural calendar of Al Hosn District.

For an event that celebrates UAE history and tradition, there could not be a more apt venue than beside the capital’s oldest stone building and one of its most important landmarks — a fort that dates back to 1761.

Qasr Al Hosn in the early days of Abu Dhabi. Hermann Burchardt / Berlin Museum of Ethnography

Qasr Al Hosn was initially built as a single watchtower. It was intended to defend the sole freshwater well in Abu Dhabi. The watchtower was then expanded into a small fort in 1793 by Shakhbut bin Dhiyab Al Nahyan in his first year as Ruler of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, a title he would retain until 1816. The fort served as the home of the ruling sheikh.

The Ruler’s Palace that we see today, with its shimmering white walls and parapets, is the result of a major expansion in the 1940s. By the 1950s, Qasr Al Hosn was no longer a defensive structure, but the seat of government, a role it retained until 1966. After a spell as the home of the National Archives, it underwent major renovation in the past decade.

The Abu Dhabi government restored the fort and in 2018 it was reopened to the public as a museum.

 QASR AL HOSN HISTORY PROJECT 2013. Undated BP photograph of Qasr Al Hosn. A photograph from the BP archive showing the Trucial States during the 1950-60s. A photograph from the BP archive showing the Trucial States during the 1950-60s. * *** Local Caption ***  2519.jpg

The Al Hosn Festival was largely conceived as a way to celebrate the fort and its embodiment of Abu Dhabi history. In its inaugural year in 2013, Faisal Al Sheikh, the festival’s director, told The National that the fort, standing for more than two and a half centuries, was the “symbolic birthplace of Abu Dhabi”.

“This festival is an opportunity for the entire community to come together and celebrate Emirati history, culture and tradition.

“The fort was once a ‘gate of glory’. Celebrating the UAE’s history through this great festival will take us back to our roots and remind us of our artistic and intellectual legacy.”

The festival has grown considerably in the past decade, with arts and crafts workshops, gahwa championships, Emirati cuisine as well as a chance to walk through Al Freej, a recreation of an Emirati village that comes with its own market, blacksmith, palm-weaving stations and goat pen.

This year, the festival will include a live re-creation of an Emirati wedding, an expanded food area dedicated to local cuisine as well as a retail district.

In addition to the activities and performances surrounding the palace fort, the interior of Qasr Al Hosn will house two exhibitions.

In Memories of the Palace, visitors can learn about the history of everyday life spent in the regal venue, from the cultural festivities to colourful anecdotes recorded by early generations.

Meanwhile, the Music and Crafts exhibition captures the atmosphere of the palace through historic field recordings and vintage photographs.

Scroll through photos from our guide to this year's Al Hosn Festival below

Updated: January 13, 2023, 6:01 PM