Since the dawn of human history, geography has determined, to a large extent, the fate of nations, and has frequently been the science on which further evolution was based. More often than not, the location of a specific region dictates its role in the local annals and foreordains the area’s destiny. Such was the case with the sheikhdom of Ras Al Khaimah in the U.A.E. – an emirate that today is largely overshadowed by Dubai and Abu Dhabi but which, based on its topographical characteristics, flourished for several centuries and played a strategic role in the region, at a time when the modern dominant emirates were mere dots on the map.
Ras Al Khaimah (RAK) is blessed with vast reserves of sweet water, lush oases, mountains and gorges that further retain water and allow for amble cultivational land, and a coastline that is conveniently located next to Iran with easy access to both the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Thanks to these advantages, the area has been inhabited from prehistoric times, as indicated by several archaeological findings that reveal the presence of structured societies since 5000 BC – maybe even earlier. The emirate also identifies – to some extent – with the historical area of Julfar that developed during the Late Islamic period, bequeathing to the next generations expertise on ceramics that still comprises a significant part of RAK’s economy.
The proximity to the sea and the economic activity that emerged helped the tribe of the Al Qawasem to hone their seafaring skills, becoming a maritime power in the region and developing trade relations with neighbouring countries, mainly Iran. It is known that it was Ibn Majid, a seaman and one of Ras Al Khaimah’s most famous sons, who navigated Vasco da Gama from Malindi to Calicut in 1498. Still, when at the beginning of the 16th century the Portuguese met the inhabitants of this unknown and forgotten piece of land on the Arabian Peninsula, the encounter was not amicable. These western explorers, coming from the strictly Catholic Iberian Peninsula which had only recently ousted the last Muslims, did not view the (Muslim) locals favourably, despite the latter’s utter disconnection from the Arab civilisation that had blossomed for centuries in other parts of the world. The Portuguese did not last long, and they were soon overpowered by the Dutch, but the century of their presence was marked by several slaughters of the local population that left indelible memories of pain and distress.
The years that followed were relatively quiet, apart from a few – albeit – severe clashes with Oman based on conflicting financial interests in the area. By the beginning of the 18th century, the Al Qasimis of RAK had grown again into a considerable naval force, with a large fleet (over 1,000 ships and boats), and trade hubs in Persia and the coastline of the Arabian Peninsula. This time, their dominance was in disaccord with the British interests and the East India Company – some friction that was possibly further kindled by Oman: a close ally to the British Empire and the aspired sole recipient of the tax revenue resulting from the trading activity in the region.
A series of attacks against the western ships gave the British the excuse to brand the whole area as a “Pirate Coast” and the Al Qasimis as “pirates” even though they were not exclusively responsible for the incidents. On the pretext of obliterating piracy, the British attempted their first assault on RAK in 1809. The local population dissolved into the wadis and the countryside, so the assailants did not gain any considerable advantage. Their 1816 attack was not very successful either. The 1819 campaign though, with the presence of the royal navy led by HMS Liverpool and a combined bombardment from sea and land alike, resulted in the surrender of RAK and the financial and political annihilation of the sheikhdom. In 1820 the Treaty that laid the foundation for the British protectorate over the Trucial States was signed (lasting until December 1971), while the weakening of RAK opened the way for Dubai and Abu Dhabi to grow into their present status.
The decisive battle took place around the Dhayah Fort: the last point of resistance against the British, the position where the local population had retreated after deserting the city of Ras Al Khaimah and Rams at the North that had already been heavily bombarded. Despite the thick mud in the area, the British army managed to push up the hill their most massive ship canons and, hence, very quickly they brought the fort and the rest of the surrounding buildings to the ground (on the 22nd of December 1819), putting an end to the hostilities among the Arab tribes of the region.
We visited the fort on a dusty February morning when the UAE was plunged in a blinding sandstorm. The wind was so strong that we had to stop occasionally, clinging on a rock, waiting for the gusts to subside. But, although visibility had for hours been extremely limited – restricted to only a few meters – we were lucky with a precious pocket of, relatively, clear weather and, thus, we could enjoy our exploration.
The original fort dated to the beginning of the 19thc AD. After the 1819 destruction, it was restored (in the 1830s) and was used by the Sheikh until 1964; it later served as a prison before opening its doors to the public in 2001 as an archaeological site.
It comprises of two mudbrick towers built on top of a man-made platform, connected with a perimeter wall. Several stones in the centre of this platform indicate an earlier presence of semi-permanent buildings (Areesh huts), which supplemented the towers.
The fort was not built for long sieges, as it lacked a cistern for water storage. Instead, it was part of the broader defence system of Dhayah, together with several watchtowers and a second fort (which was also the Sheikh’s Palace, currently almost completely wrecked) at the foot of the hill. The watchtowers would detect the enemy and would act as the first line of defence. In the meantime, the inhabitants and their flock could gather in the lower fort, while armed soldiers would take their positions in the bastions to face the assault.
We complemented our visit to the fort with the exploration of a deserted village perched on the surrounding slopes. Most possibly, it was Qudairah (or Old Rams): a cluster of 71 stone houses dating to the 18th or 19th century, encircled by cultivation terraces and protected by the rocky mountain on one side and the fort and watchtowers on the other.
The area today looks insignificant, barren and forsaken; however, a prehistoric tomb identified at the foothill stands as a testament to the region’s long history, and proof of the bustling activity that, once upon a time, was taking place on these grounds.
We went in and out the roofless remains, jumping over the walls or entering politely through the door openings, and we cheered with excitement when we identified the old mosque with its stone mihrab and ablution facilities, or the ruler’s house on the top of the hill with a magnificent view towards the sea. We stepped on piles of seashells, scattered on the ground, perhaps used once upon a time as fertilizers, and collected fragments of pottery (most probably from the Late Islamic period): some dark and thick, typical of the local craft, others of Indian style, and finally, few pieces decorated with painted designs or the characteristic green Iranian glaze.
However, not everything was forlorn and “dead” in this village. Within the shadowed space created among some rocks, we discovered a busy beehive of wild bees. We had been told that such free beehives are claimed by the locals on a “finders-keepers” system, and their honey is delicious albeit unexpectedly expensive.
The view on the hills behind the Dhayah fort, the nearby canyon, the sea, the mangroves and the sand islands of the Arabian Gulf was breathtaking. Despite the hazy visibility, there was serenity emanating from the expanse coloured in the shades of taupe, and a promise was whispered from the land to the people of all times.
Photo credits: © Konstantina Sakellariou
Original Article here