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Notes on a visit to the UAE - 2004

by Phil Iddison

Dubai - Al Ras Fish Market

Display in the dried fish section

This market is accessed from the Corniche Road near the Shindagah Tunnel entrance. It is active during the morning and late afternoon into the evening and even the night during Ramadan. The PM session timing seems to be dependant on the tides. There is usually a stunning selection of fresh fish, cephalopods and crustaceans, typically as many as 80 species are on offer. There is also an extensive display of dried fish for sale which has now been organised into its own area. It is a busy market and there is always plenty to see and photograph.

For those interested in local cultural products there is also a hardware and dried goods market where many aspects of local life in the past can be unearthed, for instance the unglazed incense burners, palm craft products, mega gas rings etc.

A new development is the 'Fishermen's House' on the corner facing the car park (usual parking charge, 2 Dh for 1 hour, 5 for 2, make sure you have the coins). This is a small fisheries museum with display boards on boats, fishing and techniques in addition to some artefacts. Lots of emphasis on the history of the fishing trades, potentially a good schools visit and interesting to visitors to the Emirates. They had a free handout poster on market fish with local names, not very accurate on English and scientific names but good to see the effort has been made. I was in a hurry and accepted the poster that they gave me, got to my hotel and found it was No 1, if anyone goes there perhaps they could get me a copy of No 2, No 3 etc, if they exist?

There is also a fruit and vegetable market with good variety of fresh herbs, small plant market and a bird market. All but the latter of general interest.

Al Ras Fish Market, Dubai
The Fishermen’s House.

The Road to Hatta

Mahdah – Hatta Road.
Fan palm showing evidence of the harvested leaf stalks.

Just opposite the old well site which we visited on the recent trip, and also a little further on towards Hatta, there are two clumps of the local fan palm, Nannorhops ritchieana which are readily visible quite close to the road, on the east side. It is an unusual plant, the only endemic palm (with the known doubts on the origin of the date palm, it is strictly not endemic and the coconut palm is certainly not).

It was of importance in local craft work. The leaf fibres are of higher quality than the date palm for basketry and are also more rot-proof, a property that meant this was the preferred material for camel milking bowls of the type that are still on sale at Nizwa and Bahla suqs. It was used to make straining ropes for the sardine nets used by the coastal fishing industry of Dhofar as its strength increases when it is wet. It was also used for the fine basketry that women made for their own personal and family use, there are some examples of these types of basket in the ethnography section of the Al Ain museum. It has to be protected from the sun as it degrades more rapidly than date palm fibre.

The palm forms clumps and both the sites have relatively small sizes. There was evidence that the leaves are being harvested, the lower green stalks had been denuded of the terminal fan whilst the fully dried leaves beneath had not been touched, neither had the immature leaves. Hopefully someone is still weaving with them. The weaving is done with the fresh palm leaf and is usually left undyed.

The fruit, which is born on a terminal spike, is edible if you find a ripe specimen.

The Abandoned Village

The abandoned village.
The best preserved khaimah house.

Anybody know the name of the village that we visited? Is it A'Shuwayhah? It is a gem, principally because it is undisturbed, a coherent settlement and well worth more record and study. We saw a lot in the 33 minutes that we were on site (digital photos mean that you can precisely time visits and durations!).

Observations (in no particular order) are:

  • coherent house types, half sunk into the ground, similar structures are recorded in RAK by Dostal, he calls them khaimah. They seem to be generally associated with the mountain communities, there are similarities with some of the houses farther south, for instance at Jazirah on the plateau above the dam. Also examples where we stopped at Ray/Fay(?)
  • areesh/da'an roof construction on a palm wood ridge pole supported on a forked roundwood kingpost at each end, detailed sketches of the construction and connections should be made, the survival of one example almost intact is an opportunity that should not be missed.
  • This complete khaimah had mud plaster finish to the interior walls, was this the standard internal finish?
  • the internal corners of the house stonework are rounded to ease construction, produce a stronger structure and also probably corresponds to a rounded corner on the roof covering.
  • Presumably the houses were constructed by excavating a hole, building the stone work and backfilling behind it as the courses were completed. The excavation would have yielded some of the construction stone and excess material was probably used to raise the level of the perimeter wall above the general ground level for security against water ingress. This would be worth checking but may have been eroded since construction so I would not expect a conclusive answer.
  • From the photos, some houses have a distinct upstand perimeter wall with internal and external stone facing whilst others only have a distinct inner stone face. There might be two types worth recording.
  • Why are the houses sunken? Insulation? Structural support for the walls?
  • noted that plastic roofing materials may have been used to replace the areesh/da'an at a late date from debris evidence within one house
  • the quality of the masonry using rounded wadi cobbles from the conglomerate is exceptional, the backing/filling of rammed wadi gravel helps the structural integrity but above ground construction with this material presents a real challenge and the results are admirable
  • most of the houses had niches for storing family valuables, again well crafted given the available material, ditto the steps down into the houses, Brigitte particularly appreciated the examples near the new village!
  • a well preserved hearth in one house, check other houses for evidence, dimensions please!
  • The house with the high (about 2 metres) freestanding back wall to an open-fronted structure appears to have some cement render to the masonry, particularly around the deep rectangular recess in the back wall, was this some sort of cold store as Brien postulated? Other than this there was no cement used in the village, check? The open fronted structure was presumably a summer house.
  • One 'odd man out', the house with timber roof beams and stone pegs in the wall, are there any other anomalies in this village?? The construction is more like a bait al qofal, is there any evidence of a wooden door? From the number and wide spacing of the surviving roof beams, they did not support a heavy mud roof which one would expect for a bait al qofal, any evidence of more beams? More questions than answers!
  • Some dwellings are a single unit (one khaimah), a few are small complexes with a number of elements and compound wall, the latter can never have been much security deterrent, was it backed up with an areesh stockade? Plenty to speculate on, were larger establishments local leader's homes? extended families? Were single khaimahs married son's starter homes? Are these flights of fancy? A lack of enclosure should not be interpreted as precluding the grouping of khaimahs by social bonds without any physical delineation, reference Farij Sili in RAK.
  • Is there any evidence of animal enclosures? eg. kid/lamb pens, hen coops?
  • The mosque is of particular interest, it appears to demonstrate the open ended construction that is recorded in RAK by Dostal, more investigation needed on the apparent 'open' construction style of the north end of the sala, any evidence for demolition or collapse, the photos do not seem to indicate this?. There were remains of the khaimah type roof construction which would have covered the south end of the mosque. Note the excellent condition of the floor surface of clean gravel. Note also what appears to be an entrance passage into the qibla wall at the open end of the mosque, I do not know a precedent for this in all the mosques that I have seen.
  • Spatial positioning of structures is of note, no discernible alignments, no evidence of sikkas, apparently random planning, again similar to RAK hill villages.
  • Brien pointed out a flat area near one of the houses which had been cleared of most of its surface stone revealing a flat silty surface. Purpose, if any?? There is a remote possibility that it was a threshing floor, but if so where were they growing grain and was this an important component of their subsistence base? Are there fields in the mountains? It would be worth asking questions in the village. Another possibility is an outline mosque, look for a mihrab.
  • Note Brien's observation on the lack of old pottery, most fragments being of 20th century origin from his survey work, might be worth further searching.
  • Brigitte spotted similar khaimah bases and enclosures near the modern village and there was the rather more modern khaimah with sawn timber in the village, this invites questions about the relationship of the two villages and the transition to modern block houses.
  • The date plantation in the wadi base is rather small when compared to the extent of the abandoned village, what was the economic base of the village? Presumably they had flocks of sheep and goats exploiting the mountain hinterland.
  • Is there an associated summer village somewhere in the mountains? Or was this the summer village?

These are all subject to record and verification by more visits if someone is interested in following up. I am particularly interested in further data and anyone else's ideas.

The abandoned village.
Hearth and storage niches in a khaimah home.

Brigitte spotted a short section of donkey trail on the left of the gravel road on the way up to the head of the valley.

Off the Mahdah – Hatta road.
Caracal carcass in an acacia tree.

The caracal carcass strung up in the Acacia tortillis in the village had dessicated and dismembered, the lower jaw bone is with Brigitte. The older caracal carcass remains were still lodged in the top of the tree (photograph) as were the remains of at least a couple of goat kids which had presumably been used as bait.

Hatta Heritage Village

Hatta Heritage Village.
Madbasa or date store display.

Brigitte was persuaded to visit this in lieu of lunch at the Hatta Fort Hotel! Timing was perfect, we joined the end of the returning convoy on the flat route back to Mahdah but I don't think that you spotted us!

The village has rather a random layout and I suspect that for most of the structures this does not represent a previous village layout.

There is a more organic layout at the back of the village with some variations on the khaimah type structure and a madbasa or date store.

There are good displays on traditional music, date processing, date palm products and the majlis. Maintenance is being neglected, some of the audio-visual displays were not working, video tape needed renewal and the buildings themselves need maintenance, particularly the fort. Still worth a visit.

Suq As Samak - Al Ain

Al Ain Fish Suq
Picasso trigger fish

Redevelopment of the suq continues. The old bulk goods area was being cleared, incidentally removing date storage platforms which I guess will not be replaced in the new construction.

The hardware section has been faithfully rebuilt and seems identical in trader population and goods offered to its previous incarnation, a very welcome sight.

The small traders are persisting, displays of traditional goods including craftwork, medicinals, and wild produce, the latter very relevant to my Oxford paper this year. The Baladiya have provided iron display stalls for the casual traders.

I looked through the fish section on two consecutive Thursday mornings, a good selection of fish as usual, the only specimens of note where three Picasso triggerfish, Rhinecanthus assasi. There was a good selection of tuna, on the first visit I counted six of the fourteen species recorded in Randall:

Thunnus tonggol Longtail tuna
Scomberomorus commerson Narrow barred Spanish mackerel
Rastrelliger kanagurta Indian mackerel
Sarda orientalis Striped bonito (rare in the market)
Euthynnus affinis Kawakawa
Auxis spp. (2 species that
are very difficult to tell
apart unless you dissect them!)
Bullet/frigate tuna (also rare)

Al Ain Oasis

Al Ain Oasis.
Corbelled stone slab bridge supporting a mud brick wall above a falaj channel.

Geoff showed me round a section on the eastern fringe of the oasis, based around the small green doored mosque at the crossroads. Geoff states that this is the next area for development, which will now be to the UNESCO guidelines, a very welcome change.

A Cordia spp tree which used to stand at the point where we entered the oasis has been cut down but hopefully it may regenerate.

This area has practically the full range of wall and gate types and will be a good opportunity to preserve the history and development of the built form of the oasis. The mud brick walls have suffered from lack of maintenance but there are some excellent lengths of cement mortared stone masonry walls and retaining walls. One mud brick wall was carried over a falaj channel with a neatly corbelled flat stone lintel. Geoff was planning to take his oasis tour around this section for IEW so everybody will be able to catch up with his latest project.

Bastakia, Dubai

Bastakia, Dubai.
The interior of the house which is going to be the Stamp Museum.

I keep on promoting Bastakia because to my mind it is the most successful heritage building project in the Emirates to date. My personal opinion is based on the following:

  • Fortunately there was a substantial and cohesive group of buildings to conserve.
  • Detailed surveys, drawings etc seem to have been made as a record of the buildings.
  • The work has been as faithfull to original materials and methods as can be practically achieved.
  • Substantial existing fabric and materials have been retained.
  • Ongoing and appropriate utilisation of the buildings is being achieved with assured public access through use as museums, government buildings, conference centres, etc.
  • A start has been made on publishing details for visitors for example the map that I distributed.

As I said at my talk, a visit during the week is particularly rewarding as I have not experienced any problems in accessing the work in action. On my single visit this year, I was pleased to see the restoration work on some of the later buildings on the south of the area. I assume that these buildings date from the late 1950's to 1960's and the Baladiya is preserving the cement block construction and glazed steel frame windows which were 'state of the art' and probably the very latest fashion at that time.


A total of 2,440 photos taken, very few social shots so there are far too many to send!

To finish off these notes a photograph of another site in Dubai, the Ahmadiya School. This is now effectively the 'traditional schools and education museum'.

Ahmadiya School, Dubai.
The school bell.



Patron: H.E. Sheikh Nahayan bin Mubarak Al Nahayan