There are many things for which the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) are famous, but archaeology is not one of them. The fast-paced growth of the last few decades, the extravagant real-estate experiments, and the projection of a luxurious lifestyle in an, otherwise, barren landscape have overshadowed the country’s past. Contrary to popular belief, though, the UAE’s heritage is not limited to dunes, camels, and palm-frond shelters (what the Bedouins call “barasti” or “arish”). Instead, archaeological excavations have unearthed evidence of organised and prosperous social structures that date to prehistoric times – something that should not be a surprise, since this land has been for thousands of years on the trade routes that connected the East with the West.
Given the business-oriented mentality that has prevailed, as well as the transient, and often opportunistic disposition of the residents who have flooded the country from all over the world contributing to – and taking advantage of – the recent economic development, news concerning archaeological finds remain unnoticed by most of the expat (and local) community. In the UAE one is not surrounded by an ancient past – as it happens in other countries, especially in the Mediterranean basin, where I was born and raised – so, insights and understandings regarding the country’s history are hard-earned and demand considerable effort. There is a thrill, though, in the discovery of some of these treasures, and one cannot but feel awe for the diverse facets of this land, and the ephemeral nature of many of humanity’s creations that so easily glide from glory to oblivion over the course of time.
My first encounter with some of the existing archaeological sites was destined to take place in Ras Al Khaimah (RAK). This remote and inconspicuous emirate has been blessed with a heritage that spans over more than 9000 years. Its distinctive landscape combines fertile plains, high mountains (where, more than once, we had seen piles of hail and even a bit of snow during my stay in the country), sweet water, and a large coastal area, all of which have supported for centuries a continuous and organised human presence.
It was November: summer’s humidity had already receded, the weather was pleasantly warm, and the camping season was just beginning as we set off for a camping weekend, somewhere close to Wadi Bieh.
We passed by an old cemetery marked by the familiar vertical stones that define the graves in most Bedouin settlements and pitched our tents on a plateau which, in sharp contrast to the rugged surroundings, was already covered with a soft fuzz of fresh grass after the first autumn rains. Our camp was encircled – almost protected – by the imposing figures of the Emirati mountains, while the gorge extended as far as we could see, accessible only to goats and the few adventurous humans who would be interested in etching a path amidst rocks and boulders.
We spent the rest of the day scouting around the nearby slopes, up and down the terraces that the locals had created to cultivate the land. Most of the structures looked deserted since the improved lifestyle, and the new career opportunities have spurred the Bedouins out of their gorges and into the cities. Their humble abodes – low constructions made of stone and, occasionally, wood from the ghaf trees for the roof – gaped exposed to the elements, most of them in an advanced stage of deterioration. Only an occasional metallic door – adorned with geometric designs and colours – or a pot, a tray, a few cups and other simple items of everyday use stood as witnesses to the life that, not so long ago, was still vibrant in the wadi and, maybe, has not been entirely abandoned yet.
The highlight of our small excursion though was yet to come, when on the next day we visited the Shimal archaeological site and the scanty remains of Queen Sheba’s Palace.
The area – located next to the modern village Shimal and a mere 8 km from the city of Ras Al Khaimah – is today the largest pre-Islamic site in RAK, featuring more than 250 prehistoric tombs that date to the Umm an-Nar (2600 – 2000 BC) and the Wadi Suq Periods (2000 – 1600 BC).
The Umm an-Nar era is maybe the most critical period for the development of civilisation in the UAE. At that time, the country was an integral part of a network that included Iran, the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia and Bahrain, and engaged in the trade of copper – an activity that had brought significant wealth to the region. This prosperity is evident in the various archaeological finds, the high-quality pottery (some of which was locally produced and other was imported), and the impressive burial grounds that were discovered during the excavations. The circular, aboveground tombs that are typical of this period were used for groups of people and not individuals (for example, in one of the graves, remains of more than 100 people were found). The outer side of the domed walls was well-shaped and smoothened, while, internally, space was divided into several chambers.
Most of the tombs, though, in the Shimal site belong to the Wadi Suq period which succeeded the Umm an-Nar era, bringing many changes in the patterns of the settlements, the pottery, or the graves. As such, these tombs are mostly elongated (instead of circular), still constructed above the ground and used for collective burials, with a small entrance door that allowed multiple access to the interior. Funerary inventory like ornaments, weapons, pots or vessels with geometric designs shed light into the habits and structure of these pre-historic societies that apparently prospered through commerce and international exposure.
All testimonies of pre-historic human activity are enveloped in cloaks of mystery since the absence of written documentation leaves plenty of room for myths and stories to emerge. However, the much more recent ruins that are known today as “Queen Sheba’s Palace” also present a baffling riddle. The local folklore has connected the remains of this castle with Queen Sheba (who ruled in Yemen during the 10th century BC) or Queen Zenobia (who ruled in Palmyra during the 3rd century AD). It seems though that none of these two alternatives has been supported by archaeological evidence, and the local legends merely reflect the radiance of the two women in the Arab world long after their death. Most probably, the structure is only a few hundred years old – still, it is presumably the oldest building in the UAE – dating to the end of the Julfar period which belongs to the broader Later Islamic Era.
By the middle of the 14th century, the settlements in RAK moved closer to the coastal line becoming the well-known city of Julfar. Julfar was a powerful trading centre, its reach extending beyond the Gulf, even to China as proven by several pottery shreds. Its buildings and walls were made of mudbricks, hence, little of them remains today; still, it was a city so renowned that it compares in importance to modern Dubai. During that era, commerce and seafaring flourished; it is indicative that the most famous Arab seafarer, Ahmad ibn Majid, was born here. Moreover, the surrounding fertile plains were inhabited by numerous small settlements with terraced fields, and a major, pottery production was established in the areas of Shimal and Wadi Haqil. The city declined after the Portuguese conquered it in the 17th century; however, the pottery production in the old kilns continued for over 500 years and was abandoned only one generation ago, just to be transferred to more modern facilities, focusing now on additional ceramic items and not just pottery.
We climbed up the stairs that lead to the top of the construction – which, as per another belief, may have been a summer residence for the ruler of Julfar. The little remains, protected by wire, did not seem as intriguing as their story. However, the panoramic view over the RAK valley, with the extensive palm-tree groves that stand as a constant reminder of the fertility hidden in this arid country, the sea and, at some points, the skyline of the modern city at the far end of the horizon was a reward worthy of our effort.
Despite the compelling view, though, Sheba’s Palace cannot hold any visitor for long. It was much more exciting to spend time in the broader Shimal area, under the scrutiny of the goats that were feeding on the ghaf trees. Besides exploring the tombs, we discovered on the surface of the ground numerous fragments of pottery, some of them glazed, others displaying beautiful painted designs, most of them 400-500 years old. Among the pebbles, there were also tons of broken sea shells – empty molluscs of a spiral, conic form that, we had heard, have disappeared from these coasts long ago and those that we find today are remnants of bygone eras. It is possible that they date to the Late Bronze Period (1600 – 1250 BC) and indicate that the people back then relied on the creek which must have been much closer to Shimal than what it is today. However, as we were not accompanied by an archaeologist, this information may be wrong and misleading.
The past of the UAE is still being researched. Several excavations are currently conducted, and archaeologists from around the world try to decipher the history of a region that has not received, until recently, much attention on this front. Written resources are not as abundant as in other civilisations, and the efforts to connect the pieces of the puzzle are tedious and time-consuming. However, the slowly accumulating knowledge is significant and allows us not only to delve deeper into the psyche of the Emirati nation but, above all, to understand the interconnecting movements of humanity and the links that hold us together.
Photo credits: © Konstantina Sakellariou