A new tourist attraction in the heart of modern Abu Dhabi is offering visitors a glimpse of the Emirate's storied past and historic legacy. Considered the first structure to be built on the island, the reopened Qasr Al Hosn fort has been transformed into a museum and cultural space narrating the centuries-old story of the UAE's capital.
Widely regarded as the birthplace of Abu Dhabi, the newly renovated area now comprises the historic Qasr Al Hosn fort, the National Consultative building, the Cultural Foundation and the House of Artisans.
Speaking about the importance of the site, H.E. Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, Chairman of Abu Dhabi's Department of Culture and Tourism, said, "Qasr Al Hosn embodies the heritage of Abu Dhabi, and a poignant witness to the historic and fundamental milestones in the development of our country.
"The cultural significance is quite immense. It speaks to the DNA of every Emirati living in the UAE. It is a major part of his or her history. This fort will tell the story of the land, it will tell the story of the people, and I think the significance of having a historic presence right in the heart of Abu Dhabi is immense.
"At the same time, as you can see from the inside of the walls of this fort, you are in a very serene environment and I think it will create a great opportunity for people also to visit this place, to relax, and imagine what Abu Dhabi would have looked like 100 years ago, 200 years ago, etc."
The story of Qasr Al Hosn begins with the construction of a watchtower made of coral and seastone in the 1760s to protect the first freshwater source discovered on Abu Dhabi. The tower, the first stone structure built on the island, was made by nomads from the Bani Yas tribe, who regularly migrated from their ancestral home in the Liwa Oasis to the coast to hunt, fish, dive for pearls and collect salt. The creation of the watchtower would mark the start of a permanent settlement on Abu Dhabi.
By the 1790s, the Bani Yas, who inhabited swathes of desert, had a growing a community in Abu Dhabi, eventually incorporating the watch tower into a larger fort in 1795 to meet their defensive needs. Its walls, rooms and courtyards bore witness to a number of historic changes. It was from a majlis in the fort that Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan signed the Emirate's first oil concession agreements in 1939, marking a major turning point in Abu Dhabi's history. That same year, the Sheikh began expansions of the fort, adding a stunning outer palace that reflected the newfound prosperity of the island.
Later, as ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the UAE's first president, would create a majlis on the outside of the fort between 1968-1970. In 1984, he ordered its restoration.
Before the discovery of oil, Qasr Al Hosn was the centrepiece of the Emirate. With its reopening, Abu Dhabi's oldest and most impressive historic structure takes centre stage once again, showcasing the city's rise from a settlement reliant on fishing and pearling in the 18th Century to a modern metropolis.
H.E. Saif Saeed Ghobash, Undersecretary of Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi, said, “With the opening of Al Hosn, Abu Dhabi adds a unique destination to its range of cultural offering it has and achieves two important milestones: preserving our history and culture for future generations and developing an attractive cultural destination combining history, heritage and contemporary art experiences to inspire all visitors of Abu Dhabi.
“From innovative installations, rare and important artefacts, to archival documents and everyday objects,the displays in Qasr Al Hosn’s renovated fort truly bring our past to life, documenting how our ancestors lived through the centuries. Equally fascinating is the archaeological and conservation work that has been done to restore the Fort to its full glory. We look forward to visitors learning the story of Qasr Al Hosn, and by extension, that of Abu Dhabi and its people."
The cultural foundation, located right next to the fort, dates back to the year the UAE was founded. Established in 1971 by decree, its premises near Qasr Al Hosn would first open its
doors to the public in 1981 as the first multi-purpose community centre in the city comprising its first library,a theatre, and an exhibition hall.
Between 2009 and 2018, the Cultural Foundation underwent extensive conservation measures and now boasts a new visual arts centre, two exhibition halls, an outdoor gallery, and artists' studios. Its other components, including its 900 seat theatre and Children's Library, will open in 2019.
The Majlis Sheikh Zayed founded outside the fort's walls in 1968 eventually evolved into the National Consultative Council and is now also open to the public.
In addition to history, archaeology, and art, the new complex will also promote traditional Emirati crafts through the House of Artisans. Founded to preserve and enable the next generation to learn the crafts of their ancestors, the house will offer training courses and educational workshops to ensure the survival of traditional Emirati culture.
On the restoration process, Al Mubarak stated, "The restoration work of the site is a very robust process and too make sure that all the remains were recreated were using the same materials and the same tools that were used in the creation of this fort. I'm very blessed to say that the team that has been doing this work is a mixture of a local team and a team that has been brought in from around the world, everything from archaeologists to historians."
"I think a project like this is really difficult. You have everything from excess salt to excess water, you have places where, for example, the 1760 watchtower is such a delicate tower that any movement of the ground can create some issues. We made sure to stabilise that building, surrounding it with proper scaffolding whilst building up the entire fort. These are things that kept us on our toes but thank God with the effort of every single person, we made it happen."
The fort's museum features a number of highly detailed exhibits that shed light on life in Abu Dhabi and its inhabitants. Alongside the original door, visitors will also have a chance to see items belonging to some of the Emirate's most famous rulers, including the signet ring of Sheikh Zayed the First, the 'bisht' of Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan, and the passport of his namesake Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan.