Tuesday, 12 November 2019

The Dutch East India Company's Place in the History of the Emirates


We went to stay with friends over the summer - they had lived here in the Emirates but returned to Holland, being Dutch as they is. Andre and Sonja live in Brouwershaven, in Zeeland. It's a funny little place, at one time an important mercantile (and, as the name attests, brewing) centre but now a sleepy, pleasant sort of small town with a marina and assorted leisure facilities and camp sites. Because it was once a bustling port, it has a church sized out of all proportion to the town's current scale, a huge cathedral-like construction. And inside it, on the floor, I found this gravestone from the 1700s, carved with a Dutch East India Company (VOC) ship.

In our time wandering around the Netherlands, I kept coming up against references to the Company and Holland's colonial past. I found brass cannon inscribed in Arabic and maps of the Gulf drawn by early Dutch cartographers. In Amsterdam we spent a happy hour or so wandering around a reconstructed VOC ship. It seemed as if everywhere I went, there was a reminder of the VOC and its links with the Gulf - and the story of how European powers smashed the great Arab monopoly of eastern trade that forms such an important part of the Emirates' past.

While it's most closely associated these days with South Africa and Indonesia, the VOC was actually very much involved in commerce with India and the Arabian Gulf - the VOC comes from the company's Dutch name, Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie. Dutch is an insane language that I confess to finding as unpronounceable as I am shamed at how the Dutch all speak impeccable English.

In the late 1500s, the Dutch went to war against Spain and its ally Portugal. This triggered a series of Dutch moves against Portugal's very successful eastern trade network over the next century and saw Portugal's trading stations throughout the east fall into Dutch hands. Although the focus of Dutch expansionism was the 'Far East', the VOC nevertheless established 'factories' in the Gulf, particularly at Gombroon (Bandar Abbas), Bandar Kong and, further up the Gulf, Kharg Island.

You'll see a lot of references to these 'factories' - established at various times by the Portuguese, French, Dutch and English. They're not manufacturing plants, but trading posts. And each successive eastwards wave of European expansion (or, if you prefer, Empire) would see all sorts of skulduggery practiced in order to suppress rival influence and trade - from the co-option and coercion of local leaders and populaces to outright warfare against colonial rivals and locals alike.

Having weakened the Portuguese stranglehold on the great Arab trade networks of (and monopoly of trade with) the east, the Dutch then went to war with the British in the late 1600s. The result was a flourishing of the British East India Company at Dutch expense - much as the VOC had flourished at Portuguese expense. Over the next century, the Dutch would see their influence and trading links with the East wane as the sun rose over the British Empire.

Which is why, as we enter the late 1700s, it was the Brits in the Gulf and their government in Bombay who found themselves arrayed against the local maritime force - the fearsome Huwala and Qawasim. Which is, as they say, another story...

Monday, 11 November 2019

Droning On: UAE Drone Law and the Pleasures of Flight


Jebel Mleiha

Squelching through a muddy field packed with incurious sheep to once again recover the stupid toy drone I was trying to fly, I finally resolved to go for this all or nothing. It was almost impossible to control the daft wee thing and even the vaguest puff of wind would send it away beyond the trees before I could land it. Fed up with wandering around the countryside trying to find my little plastic Chinese gadget time after time, and with a vague notion of imaging the archaeological sites of the UAE from the air, I decided to buy a DJI Mavic - a serious drone.


Now this was no small decision. We are talking about a very expensive piece of kit indeed, here. But the more I read about it, the more I resolved to take the plunge. One short Christmas later, I had me a Mavic Pro. I'll try not to rant and rave about it too much but the Mavic unquestionably stands as the most brilliantly integrated item of technology I have ever owned or used. We're talking a highly manoeuvrable 30 kph utterly stable 4K steadycam on a gimble, if you don't mind.


Sheba's Palace - a Pre-Islamic Fort in Shimal, RAK

The Mavic does what it's supposed to and is very, very good at stopping idiots like me from breaking it. Believe me, I have tried to do for it in every murderous way imaginable. The Mavic just flashes its LEDs at me and refuses to do the thing that the stupid with the controller is asking it to do. Fly it out of range? It comes home automatically. Run out of battery while 400 feet up over a mountainside? It flies home while it still has enough power in reserve. Drive it at full speed into a wall? It just goes 'Umm, no.' Smash it with enough RF to burn out a Dalek? It auto-returns and lands safely all by itself.


Wadi Suq era burial - Shimal, RAK

Clearly, before parting company with such a terrifying amount of money, I had looked up how to certify a drone in the Emirates. The UAE drone legislation is basically very sensible indeed (it's linked here) and you are asked merely to fill in an online form with your and the drone's details (linked here) and hey presto, you're registered. The UAE drone/UAV law covers mostly basic, common sense usage of a drone. The use of camera drones is permitted in the UAE, but with the usual caveats that apply to the Emirates' attitudes to personal privacy and space. Photography near military sites, ports, hotels or family areas is most definitely a nono - with or without a drone. It has ever been thus.


Murabbaa, or watchtower, Falaj Al Mualla

There's an app 'My Drone Hub', which you can download and this has an interactive map of fly/no fly zones. These have a tendency to change (quite a lot of the east coast seaboard recently became 'no fly'), so it's worth looking up your location before you fly. The Mavic, of course, has a better idea of where it is supposed to fly/not fly than I do in any case, being a great deal smarter than its owner.

Yes, I realise this sets the bar quite low, thank you.


Unexcavated area at Mleiha

Basically, as with other UAE drone regulation stuff, the fly/no fly zones broadly make sense. There's an almost blanket ban of Abu Dhabi, and the Omani border no fly zone has been widened (the Omanis aren't terribly 'drone friendly'), which has put areas such as Jebel Hafit and Thuqeibah beyond reach, which is sad. But many other areas of interest (to me, at least) remain accessible.


Shamash Temple, Ed-Dur, UAQ

So now I can get aerial images of my various sites (forts,  burials, wadis, oases, the lot) and have a lot of fun flying around in the process. It's worth every (sigh) penny, believe me. I'm aiming to go back to the UK on leave, so I took the 20 question multiple choice test that has just been introduced there and registered as a UK operator, too. I got one question wrong (you have to get 16/20 to pass, so it wasn't such a bad flub) - which was about drone etiquette in the snow. I haven't, I must confess, had much experience of that - well, at least not yet...


A little bit of Ireland! :)

Sunday, 10 November 2019

Ed-Dur and the Mysteries of the Ancient World


The site of Ed-Dur. Nothing to see here, folks. Move on, move on...

In the heady days of the building boom, back in the early 'noughties', Dubai property company Emaar started developing the coastal area north of Umm Al Quwain, flattening a great swathe of land and building a posh little sales centre on a curve in the road north to Ras Al Khaimah. It had magnificent views out over the mangroves. Across the road was a ramshackle cold store and a tiny mosque. The place is called Al Dour.

The scheme came to little in the end. The building boom turned into a bust and only a couple of hundred houses were actually constructed. They're still there today, a tiny gated community at the end of a wee drive from the main road, hoarding blocking the views either side of you (it always reminds me of the final scenes from Terry Gilliam's surreal and brilliant Brazil) until you emerge into a small carbon copy of Arabian Ranches.

Off the main road connecting these little beige 'dare to dream' wonders and the sales centre, to the right uphill just before you hit the curve as the road snakes past the mangroves to your left, you'll find a little brown sign to the 'Ed-Dur Archaeological Site'. If you drive on the sandy track up there, you'll find yourself looking at a expanse of shrubby desert fenced off from prying eyes and, behind the fence, a few clapboard buildings that look like a tatty little labour camp.

I'd not recommend this one as a day trip, because you'll see no more than I have just described.

And yet beyond that fence lies one of the most remarkable and mysterious sites in the UAE - an early Pre-Islamic city sprawled across some 800 hectares. Blossoming from the 3rd Century BCE onwards, Ed-Dur is closely linked with Mleiha inland - the two settlements are joined by the great wadi that snakes inland from here through the oasis towns of Falaj Al Mualla and Dhaid. Coins found here at Ed-Dur were minted using coin moulds found at Mleiha, animal burials at the two cities follow a similar rite - while human burials speak of rituals associated with Parthian northern Iraq.


Part of the excavated temple complex at Ed-Dur, slowly being washed away...

Ed-Dur was a significant city with links to India, Persia, Mesopotamia, the Levant and Yemen. It was home to a vast variety of mudbrick and other constructions, from fortifications to houses and temples. It is here that we see alabaster sheets used as glass in windows and it is here that we find ceramics from Mesopotamia, Iran and India as well as Roman glass, all dated to the 1st Century BCE. The temple complex unearthed here contained an Aramaic inscription, one of the earliest finds of writing we have from the area (the others are, of course, from Mleiha), thought to have been the name of an early sun god, Shams (Himyarite) or Shamash (Akkadian).

Ed-Dur has been put forward as Pliny’s Omana, ‘a harbour of great importance in Carmania’. Carmania was a Persian province under Alexander the Great which stretched along the coast from Bandar Lengeh to Bandar Jask. Alexander never quite managed to invade Arabia, despite having expressed a clear interest in doing just that - sending his Admiral, Nearchos, to explore the seas from India to Basra. Nearchos never made landfall on the Arabian side of the Gulf and Alexander died before he could add southeastern Arabia to his list of conquests.

Ed-Dur still has many secrets to tell us. Hellenistic era coins found here celebrate 'Abiel', although we have no idea who Abiel was - similar coins have been found in hoards in Bahrain but in a location dating them to some 300 years before the coins at Ed-Dur. These 'Tetra Drachma' were the coins minted at Mleiha - Abiel seems to have lived on in coinage for a great deal longer than in life.


Hellenistic Tetra Drachma found at Ed-Dur

Both Mleiha and Ed-Dur seem to have declined in the first two centuries of what we now call the 'Common Era' and then they likely fell to the invasion of the Sasanians. Ed-Dur was never to recover and provided archaeologists with a remarkable trove of finds (some of which you'll find on display at Umm Al Quwain's eclectic and pleasant little museum). Changes in sea levels and the silting of the coast here have meant that the maritime centre and former port of Ed-Dur is today a good few hundred metres from the sea it used to serve.

Today, the excavated temple and other buildings stand scandalously exposed to the elements, literally washing away with every rainy season that lashes the site. Unprotected and neglected, the entire area of Ed-Dur (imagine an archaeological centre like Mleiha established here - what a marvel!) is fenced off, a sad testament to the overlooked heritage of the Emirates.

So next time you're hoying off to the Barracuda, look out for the brown sign before the corner by the sales centre and spare a thought for the still-hidden mysteries of the ancient city of Ed-Dur...

Friday, 8 November 2019

Visit the Mleiha Archaeological Centre


The stunning Mleiha Archaeological Centre - the only such centre in the Emirates, sadly...

I was rabbiting on about the amazing archaeological site of Faya-1 and the emergence of anatomically modern humankind (Homo Sapiens, as you ask) from Africa to populate the world yesterday and so I thought it appropriate to tell you how and why you can go there and take the kids, granny, your visiting parents or the school with you. You could do it today, actually - just bundle 'em all in the car and nip out there for a wander around and a funky lunch at the glorious café there!

Faya-1 is part of the remarkable spread of human history you'll find preserved and, uniquely, celebrated at the Mleiha Archaeological Centre in Sharjah. It's a bit of a schlep - about an hour's drive from Dubai, but it's brilliantly worthwhile - nowhere else in the Arabian Gulf will you see such a spread of human history in such a small area. And the Mleiha Archaeological Centre is, while glorious in its own small way, sadly just as unique.

The settlement, city, site of Mleiha is as central to the human history of the Emirates as it is central to the whole country. It's the motherlode, pure and simple.

Not only do we have the finds at Faya-1 to date the emergence of humans from Africa to populate the world, but we have a gloriously preserved 4,500 year-old Umm Al Nar tomb on display at the Centre. Here you'll also find evidence of human occupation - and inhumation - at Jebel Buhais, just down the road. Jebel Buhais, a huge necropolis, stretches from the Neolithic to the Iron Age in its scope - although, oddly, lacks any evidence of Umm Al Nar occupation. It's an enormously important site which has been yielding new clues about the history of the Emirates since 1974, when an Iraqi team first started exploring the area. Buhais stands as the earliest radiometrically dated inland burial site in the Emirates. Beat that!

Mleiha not only contains a museum and a guide to the many sites spread around the area - from Faya-1 and Buhais through to the Iron Age and Pre-Islamic forts and settlements of Mleiha, but it has a funky café (beetroot hummus in Mleiha? Check! Super coffee and hipster cakes? Check!) and offers a series of adventures from dune buggy tours through to nighttime desert barbecues and camping experiences. Opened in 2016, master-planned by Shurooq - Sharjah's development authority , the place has been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site - and quite rightly so, too.

Nearby, you'll find the achingly contemporary, chiq and just generally cool Al Faya Lodge, which offers reasonably priced and totes chilled (See this? Huh? Down with the kids or WHAT?) overnight accommodation. Or you can simply plan to trek out to Mleiha and do lunch there before heading to the east coast of the Emirates and the many beach hotels therein - just in time for check-in.

I reckon you'll want to read up on it first, so you can answer the kids' questions. What you'll need is a dramatic, accessible and fun human history of the Emirates that tells the story as the amazing epic that it truly is.*

2/2/2020. You'll just have to wait... ;)

*NO, that WASN'T a book plug! It WASN'T! It was a responsibly sourced reference to a future resource. That's all! Now, move on, people...

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Out of Africa: the Emergence of Anatomically Modern Humans


The site at Faya-1

It's a little appreciated fact, but on the edge of the desert interior of Sharjah lies a site which marks the beginning of the human history of the Emirates - Faya-1. It is here that archaeologists found, at the bottom of a number of well defined strata, evidence of the passage of humans through the area between 130,000 and 125,000 years ago - the emergence of anatomically modern humans from Africa. This is where I have started the story of Children of the Seven Sands because, well, it's the start of everything.

We now know, from a combination of two emerging threads of evidence, that this passage was part of a wider dispersal - humanity left its home in Africa through a northern route (via Egypt, Suez and the Levant) and a southern route (via Djibouti, Aden and the Gulf). Those two threads are woven from our ever-richer understanding of archaeology and our exploration of DNA research to unravel the mysteries of who we are and where we came from.

Last week, one particularly controversial piece of DNA research dropped, which traces Homo Sapiens Sapiens (that's us, folks) to an enormous primordial lake in modern-day Botswana some 200,000 years ago. It's controversial because other researchers postulate an earlier origin for humanity and argue the study was based on a limited study of the mitochondrial genome. While the data is considered useful as part of the wider picture, some academics reckon it's wrong to view the Botswana study's evidence presented in a standalone fashion. That viewpoint was even expressed by researchers at the German University of Tübingen, the university whose archaeologists found Faya-1 in the first place.

What we do know - and today widely accept - is that climactic change drove the movement of those people to populate the continent of Africa before, some 70,000 years later, they started to travel further afield via the land bridge of Egypt and that of the Bab Al Mandab Straits between Africa and Yemen which, at that time, would have been a shallow and narrow crossing. Global sea levels back then were much lower thanks to glaciation, see?


Another view of Faya-1. You wonder how they knew to dig here...

Our early adventurers would have travelled along the east coast of what is now Yemen and Oman before, presumably, finding their way through the Hajar Mountains to the west coast through one of the three crossings - there are basically three great wadis that intersect the mountain range - Wadi Jizi, Wadi Hatta and Wadi Ham.

At Jebel Faya, just south of the Sharjah town of Mleiha, our early explorers found a natural formation that provided shelter as well as a source of precious water, collected in aquifers which wash up against the rocky outcrop of Faya, which divides the gravelly plain below the mountains from the deep desert beyond to the sea.

You can visit Faya-1 today and stand up on a platform to contemplate this lonely, strange place where our distant ancestors - and those of all humankind - paused to knap their flint tools. You'll find it well marked when you visit the Mleiha Archaeological Centre and you can read the story of Faya-1 - and the remarkable slice of our common history that is buried at the foot of Jebel Faya - at the Centre.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Something for the Weekend? Al Ain Nights


Restored Hafit culture tombs on the foothills of Jebel Hafit

Al Ain has many things to recommend it as a weekend getaway - not least of which is its UNESCO World Heritage listed oasis, which provides a lovely walk around shaded date groves latticed with aflaj irrigation channels. There are forts and museums to visit (Al Jahili and Muwaiji Forts, the Palace Museum and the Al Ain National Museum to name just a few) as well as ancient ruins (the Hilli Archaeological Park, Bidaa bint Saud) and, of course,the great rocky outcrop of Jebel Hafit.

Jebel Hafit offers a 13Km uphill run if you fancy it - or if you're sane, you can drive up to the top and look out over the forbidding expanse of the Rub Al Khali. On the way up, you'll pass the Mercure Hotel, which usually offers a reasonable room rate and perfectly pleasant, if lacking in frills, stay. Many of the rooms have amazing views, of course. Down in the foothills on the one side you'll find the 'Green Mubazzara', a resort with en suite lake and fountain, offering chalets and hot springs. Nestled away here you'll also find a tiny old dam (the 'Mubazzara Historical Dam', according to the wee brown sign) built here by Sheikh Zayed during his time as Wali of Al Ain, when he restored much of the broken down irrigation infrastructure of the area.

On the other side of Jebel Hafit, if you follow this here pin, you'll find some odd-looking monuments that wouldn't look out of place in a Star Wars movie. These are restored Hafit Era tombs, a culture so named after this very area. The Hafit people lived, and died, in southeastern Arabia from 3,200 - 2,600 BCE and were, for many reasons, important in our story of the human development of the area.


Star Wars, anyone?

With so much to do around here, you'd be forgiven for wanting to make the journey out and stay overnight and quite right you'd be, too. There are a number of hotels here apart from the heady heights of the Mercure - although the 'big name' chains have sadly abandoned Al Ain. The Hilton Al Ain as was is now the Radisson Blu and the Intercontinental is now the Danat Al Ain. The last time we stayed at the latter (and I mean the last time) there was an almighty punch up in the pub, which had filled up with a bunch of brunchers who were clearly already boiling. Our simple dinner was punctuated with the smashing of glass, flying of fists and spilling of blood. Quite charming, my dear!!!

If you're staying in Al Ain, don't bother looking around for fine dining or anything like it these days - you're looking at hotel buffets and pub grub in the main - and smoky pubs, they are, too! The sole light in the Al Ain dining out gloom is Trader Vic's at the Al Ain Rotana - also, sadly, smoky.

Don't let that put you off - but do be prepared to eat badly and expensively unless you're up for Trader Vic's, in which case you'll eat perfectly well but expensively. Or room service, which might be a lovely idea if you can sit out on your balcony at the Mercure and enjoy the cool winter evening with a little something you thought to bring yourself!

If anyone has any better Al Ain dining ideas, please do drop a comment...

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

It's the Fort That Counts: the Human History of the United Arab Emirates in 20 Forts


Fujairah Fort

The human history of the Emirates is all around you, often hidden away in the most surprising places. The Emirates is dotted with forts, for instance - many are museums, some are just forts for forts' sake. You find them lurking around pretty much every corner - and they're there precisely because people around here used to be, well, fighty.

They weren't just recently fighty, either. Our archaeological analysis of Umm Al Nar era remains (we're talking 2,600-2,000 BCE, here) shows a number of fortified towers were constructed by that people, often guarding precious water resources. There are Iron Age forts to be found as well - and even the Portuguese left a smattering of fortification behind.

Today's more obvious forts are mostly a product of C19th and C20th construction, although sometimes built on much older foundations. Quite a few of these forts are now museums - note they aren't open on Fridays, when you'd expect 'em to be - but they all open on Saturdays. All feature ethnographic displays of varying degrees of impressiveness - often, the more eclectic assemblages are the most fun.

So why not take a trip out to take a look at a few - especially now the weather's nice and cool? It's worth getting out and about and taking a few in when you can - we're talking weekend excursions with cooler bags full of sandwiches and chilled home made lemonade in thermos flasks. Don't forget the Cheese and Onion Walkers for that authentic 'day trip car smell'.

You can usually mix it up with something outdoorsy, kayaking or hiking, a swim on a remote beach or a lazy overnight in a hotel - some of which are surprisingly affordable even during the 'high' winter season. Camping, of course, is even more affordable and there are a million places you can happily pitch a tent, taking some time out to explore the desert and more remote inland towns of the Emirates.

So here you go - the UAE in 20 Forts. All the links below open to Google Maps pins...

Dubai Museum, for instance, is located in the Al Fahidi Fort (which dates back to the late 1700s), while Sharjah's Al Hisn Sharjah is a faithful reconstruction of the building almost completely demolished by Sheikh Khalid bin Mohammad Al Qasimi in the late 1960s. Ajman and Umm Al Quwain museums are both located in the town forts, formerly the Ruler's house - Ajman Fort was occupied by the Ruler, the big, white-bearded figure of Sheikh Rashid Al Nuaimi, until 1967. I'd argue it's the most charming museum in the Emirates today.


Umm Al Quwain's Al Ali Fort, home to the UAQ National Museum

Umm Al Quwain National Museum is not only an impressive building (don't miss the UAQ Wall while you're down there, which used to completely protect the town on its isthmus) but houses some very impressive artefacts from the enormously important site of Ed-Dur, a major Iron Age and Pre-Islamic metropolis, itself linked to the inland town of Mleiha. Going inland from UAQ, you can also visit the Falaj Al Mualla Fort, or tootle out a wee bit into the sands and find the three Murabbaa - watchtowers - that guard the Wadi which feeds Falaj Al Mualla's rich agricultural resources. Look out here also for the Sharea, or baths, just opposite the fort.

Ras Al Khaimah National Museum tells the story of the town, but also of the lost city of Julphar (contrary to popular belief, not actually 'old' RAK, but to the north of the town. RAK started life as a southern suburb of Julphar) and the maritime mercantile culture which the town sprang from - including displays of early C8th Thai and Chinese porcelain brought here by the Arab traders who sailed the seven seas of the east, between Julphar and Beijing. Of course, as I mentioned the other day, there is also Sheba's Palace and Al Dhayah Fort...


The C15th mosque and tower at Bidya.

Heading over to the east coast, you can visit the 'oldest mosque in the Emirates' and the tower at Bidya (or the Portuguese Fort here) - don't forget the old fort at Masafi - or the newly restored Governor's House there. Further down the east coast from Bidya, you'll find Fujairah Fort but the National Museum of Fujairah is not actually in the fort, it's across from it - and jolly good fun it is, too - one of the most wacky and varied collections you'll find in a museum. Fujairah is a great destination for Fort Fans and also offers Al Bithnah Fort, Al Hayl Fort, Sakamkam Fort and Awhala Fort.

Take a trip out to Al Ain and you'll find the impressive Al Muaiji Fort, birthplace of Sheikh Khalifa and former home of Sheikh Zayed when he was Wali of Al Ain. It's been lovingly restored and has a pretty slick visitor centre. Al Jahili Fort in Al Ain is also worth a visit, sitting in a pleasant public park. If you want to explore further back, pop up to the Hili Archaeological Park and take a wander around the glorious Umm Al Nar era tomb there.

Last but not least, Abu Dhabi's Qasr Al Hosn was closed for renovations last time we went, so no guarantees here, but I'd reckon they've likely done a stellar job on it.

This is, by the way, not a list of every fort in the Emirates by any means. But it's as good a starting point as any if you want to start fort spotting!!!

Monday, 4 November 2019

Children of the Seven Sands: the Reveal.


The simple life of the Trucial States in the 1950s - A display at Ajman Museum...

As those of you that know me will by now have realised, there may be some book promoting going on around here for a while.

Suffer.

The good news is that this book is a bit, well, different. I try and make all my books different, but this one is differenter.

For a start, it's not a novel, a work of fiction, like the last six. It's 140,000 words of total fact. It's a very big book that tells a very big story indeed.

It's a roller-coaster ride of a tale that has never been told before in one place. And I kid you not.

Everything in it is not only true, but 100% verifiably so. It's meticulously researched and draws from archaeology, academic papers, ancient manuscripts, rare and forgotten books, archives aplenty and reputable, published (and many unpublished) sources. It draws together a story that tells of incredible innovation, of daring and courage - and of human perseverance.

If it doesn't make you draw breath and gasp at the sheer, blinding hugeness of what you didn't know, I'll refund you without quibble. Many of you are aware of my 'no refunds' policy. I'm willing to waive it for this one.

Children of the Seven Sands, set to be published in February next year by UAE-based publisher Motivate Publishing, is the human history of the United Arab Emirates. It's a 130,000 year-old tale that has, quite literally, never been shared before. And I guarantee you, it'll blow you away.

Bloody, gruesome, dramatic, vicious, honourable, glorious, brilliant, deceitful, noble, brave, bonkers and just plain splendorous, the history of the UAE is a wide-screen panorama of a narrative which has carried me away like a bewildered ant clinging to a log adrift in a winter wadi in spate - and I am going to delight in sharing it with you - here on the blog, but also in the book itself. You'd never believe the half of it - you'll never believe it's sitting here right under your noses. And it's all around you, even today.

It's a story I've set out to share with all its depth and vigour, charm and brio - it's a series of remarkable ups and downs, upsets and triumphs. It will challenge everything you thought you knew about UAE history but also quite a few unusual and unknown snippets of European and Indian history, too.

I kid you not - and I'm not overdoing it. I sent the final manuscript off to the publishers today and I can tell you that every single page contains something you didn't know, something that will challenge what you thought about this place and something that'll make you think about here in a totally new light.

Am I over promising? Let's see - but this, ladies and gentlemen, is what has been keeping me so very quiet as of late...

Friday, 1 November 2019

Children of the Seven Sands



Well, this is a first. It's only been eighteen years since I first sent a book to a literary agent (almost to the day, funnily enough), resulting in the first of something like 300 rejections I was to pick up as time went by. I hasten to add this has in no way diminished my joy at writing my six novels (one silly, five serious) or in my interactions with the very many readers who have enjoyed them. And even the one or two who have felt the need to protest them!

And now we have my very first ever publishing contract. And the devil of it is, this book's non-fiction!

More anon...

Monday, 28 October 2019

Twitter Rant Reprised - Bored in the Emirates?

If you wanted the places I outlined in my Twitter diatribe earlier this week in one handy post, you need go no further. Here, for your delectation and delight, are a number of interesting places in the UAE you can go visit at the weekend - particularly as the cool weather she is upon us. Links in bold are to Google maps pins.

I'll be posting a lot more of these, in more detail, but here are the original candidates just for starters.


Meet Al Dhayah Fort, which you'll find north of Ras Al Khaimah. 400 men women and children holed up here for three days withstanding British bombardment in December 1819. There was no food or water for them - many were simple farmers from the date plantations inland of Rams, chased through the plantations by British bluecoats with bayonets. The fall of Dhayah marked the fall of the Al Qasimi Federation and led to the Trucial States. You can park up next to the fort and take a walk up to it: I'd recommend something to cover your head and a lot of cool water to hand.


Have a walk around and wander up to the Iron Age fort at Jebel Buhais - the largest and oldest necropolis in the UAE, it dates back 7,000 years and tells of a human history of nomadism as well as giving us clues to the 'dark millennium' when humankind abandoned the west coast. You'll find Wadi Suq and other burials littering the sides of the mountain and this here Iron Age fort, discovered by an Iraqi archaeological team back in 1974, which you can walk up to and explore freely. Again, cover your head and take plenty water. Please note, I got this shot in before the drone fly zones changed and Jebel Buhais is now WITHIN the no-fly zone, so please don't try and get an aerial shot. If you want one, ping me and I'll send it you.


Mahatta Fort in Sharjah. Here landed the HP42 Heracles, the biplanes that connected the 1930s 'Empire Route' from Croydon to Australia. You'll find the history all in the museum, housed in the fort built in 1932 to house the Imperial Airways passengers and guard against 'improbable bedouin raids'... There's more info from me here about the fort and museum.


Take a trek around Jebel Hafit in Al Ain and visit the reconstructed 5,500 year-old Hafit Era tombs that litter the foothills of the mountain - they're a bit Star Wars, TBH. Zip around the other side of the mountain to take the 13 KM climb to the top. You can stay up on the mountain at the Mercure Hotel, overlooking the forbidding Rub Al Kali desert or just have a chai at the café up top...


Wander around Ajman Fort, probably the most charming museum in the UAE. It was the Ruler's House right up until 1967 and, oddly enough, was invaded in 1920 by the headman of the place in Sharjah where I live, Abdulrahman Al Shamsi. He made a bit of a mess in the process... The displays include an 'old souq', which is just cute.


The nice thing about Ajman Museum, BTW, is its very authenticity. It's not trying too hard, it's not all consultants and glitz. It's truly a snapshop of life here before modernity came a-knockin'...


Here's Masafi Fort, up in the cool mountains above the Dhaid plain. There's an example of an old falaj waterway inside the museum, which is surrounded by traces of the Iron Age settlement of Masafi, including copper mines that used to provide exports to Sumeria 5,000 years ago.


This is a 'Murabbaa', a fortification or watch-tower. These are to be found all over the UAE and every one tells a story - from Deira's Burj Nahar through to the three towers (this is one, the Western Tower) which guard the wadi at Falaj Al Mualla, deep in the desert. Every one of them is a piece of human history... Falaj Al Mualla has a sweet fort/museum and the wadi here is usually lush and a great winter drive - so is a nip up into the desert and the amazing ghaf forest you'll find there.


Here's Sheba's Palace in RAK (properly, the Shimal Fort), an early Islamic era fortification in Shimal - there are extensive Wadi Suq Era burials around here, too. RAK is also home to many Umm Al Nar and Wadi Suq era finds, the world's longest zipline, the lost maritime city of Julphar with its links to C8th trade with China. RAK Museum is fab, too...


Have a trip to the East Coast, pass by the 10,000 graves of men lost in the Ridda Wars at Dibba, visit Bidya Mosque and marvel at the Portuguese Fort there, itself built of stones recovered from an Umm Al Nar fort and burial site. Stay at Al Aqah's beach hotels or camp there...


Stay in one of my favourite hotels ever, the Hatta Fort Hotel - famous, of course, for its chickens - or glamp it up in style at the Adventure Centre with its bike tracks, ziplines and outdoor activities - including kayaking in the mountain lakes of Hatta. Or you can visit the Hatta Heritage Village...


Here you go - a bit of indoor fun. Visit Rain Room in Sharjah, an immersive art experience which lets you walk in the rain and yet stay as dry as a bone (as long as you don't move too fast!). You have to pre-book online for this one, it's a 15-minute giggle-fest. With a Fen Cafe!



See this? This is a carnelian necklace from Saruq Al Hadid, the 'iron path', a major Iron Age metallurgical centre out in the desert near Marmoom. Most carnelian jewels found in the UAE come from the Harappan Civilisation of the Indus Valley. Mysterious and amazingly rich, the huge trove of bronze, gold, jewellery and weaponry so far found at the Saruq Al Hadid archaeological dig out in the desert near Marmoom (the whole thing, BTW, was discovered by Sheikh Mohammed - and a ring from Saruq Al Hadid gives us the Expo 2020 logo) can be viewed at the Saruq Al Hadid Museum in Shindagha, Dubai.


If you HAVE to go to the Louvre, enjoy things like this decoration from the early Christian church at Sir Bani Yas. You can chat to @Peter_Hellyer about it - he found the whole thing. While you're in Abu Dhabi, visit the Founder's Memorial, an amazing monument to Sheikh Zayed...


Go visit the Heart of Sharjah and enjoy a lavish coffee at the Chedi-managed Al Bait Hotel (take out a mortgage) or any one of innumerable teashops and cafes lining the cool walkways of the souks by the creek. Enjoy museums, art galleries and restoration projects aplenty...

Do let me know how you get on - @alexandermcnabb...

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