Frozen in time
As someone who grew up in Dubai, I’m constantly asked ‘What happened to all the old buildings in the city?‘
While a lot of the interesting vernacular built-form, that originally existed all along the coast of the Arabian Gulf, disappeared quickly in the accelerated urbanization since the discovery of oil in this region, it is also true that in reality there were only very few village-like settlements that actually existed here a mere half a century ago! In light of this it always gives me great pleasure to visit a structure that has managed to survive the onslaught of all the recent developmental madness. So imagine the sheer joy I experienced recently when I was able to see not just a couple of structures but an entire village that has remained almost unchanged since its inhabitants abandoned it in 1968!
The erstwhile pearling village of Jazirat al Hamra in the nearby emirate of Ras Al Khaimah was a coastal settlement that is today considered one of the region’s best example of a pre-oil village, displaying three distinct types of early- and mid-20th century Gulf architecture. The village whose name literally means ‘the red island’, was named for the sand it was built on. Most inhabitants in the village were from the Zaabi tribe, but not exclusively, as seen elsewhere in the Gulf. Many prominent citizens were of Arab, Iranian, African and Baluchi descent.
A renowned pearling center not long ago, Jazirat Al Hamra wasa coastal town of great importance, given it’s strategic location towards the entrance of the Gulf. As it attracted wealth, it also attracted foreign powers. (Interestingly, most of the major cities in the region today – Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Dubai, Doha – were once important centres of the pearl trade.) For the people of Al Hamra, life was not only the sea, as they were Hadhr – coastal Bedouin. When the men journeyed to the pearling beds in the southern Gulf during the summer, women led families inland to date gardens in Khatt at the Jiri Plain. It was a journey of more than 20 kilometers, as the crow flies.
However everything changed when the Pearling industry collapsed (after the Japanese started to mass-produce cultured pearl almost a century ago) and in addition, other outside events also changed Al Hamra when wealth from the Gulf’s oil revenue began to trickle in after the 1950s. Men left for years at a time as migrant workers in Gulf countries such as Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. They returned with savings to marry and to start businesses once again. By 1968, the Zaabi tribesmen of Ras Al Khaimah numbered less than 2,500. At this time, mostly due to conflicts with the local ruler, the people of the village left to settle in Abu Dhabi, on the Batinah Coast in Oman and in other parts of Ras Al Khaimah.
After it was abandoned in 1968, the village has stood almost untouched for decades. Other old Gulf towns grew up with their cities and were renewed, rebuilt and replaced. Jazirat Al Hamra was overlooked and has remained unchanged. Today it offers a fascinating insight into the past of the region that is one of the most rapidly changing regions in the world.
Although not a popularly visited sight Jazirat Al Hamra is relatively easy to get to. It’s an hour and half drive from Dubai along the main highway (E11) that cuts across the cities of Sharjah, Ajman and Umm Al Quwain. The abandoned village is just north of the recently opened suburban resort development with the same name. It best visited early in the morning during weekends to avoid both the heat and the grueling traffic all along the route (the E11 is notorious for its traffic during peak hours). Although currently there is nothing available within the village – there are a few small convenience stores along the fringe of the old settlement and plans for a heritage village in the pipeline. Get there before they clean it all up for the tourists!
All photos © Sahil Latheef | including the aerial photos shot using a DJI Mavic Pro drone camera