Tuesday 14 January 2020

In Plain Sight - Five Places You Probably Didn't Know Were Even There

The landscape of the Emirates is dotted with little bits of history: a murabaa (watch tower) speaks of a conflict between emirates or tribes here, a wall reminds us of a war there. Sometimes we find ancient ruins, millennia old, sometimes we can stumble across an Iron Age fort or two. And sometimes we can find memories so fresh they still hurt - and yet they're carved in the landscape around us. Such is history.

So here are five to watch out for - these particular examples are ancient places that speak to the distant past, but which you've probably driven by time and again without realising anything was even there. You can visit, or just take a spin on Google maps and see what there is to see from a satellite.

Most of these sites (well, all except Jebel Buhais) are fenced off, so you can't actually do anything once you get there, except perhaps fly a drone over and take some snaps (watch out for no fly zones), but you can impress friends by even knowing there's a thing there! The links in the names are Google pins...

A key Iron Age settlement, Muwaileh is an archaeological site in the middle of a residential area just off the Sharjah University City campus. It was here that researchers found evidence of Iron Age collective authority developing around water resources, of the domestication of the camel and one of a very few objects found that date back to the Emirates' virtually iron-free Iron Age - most of the metals we find from this era of the country's history are copper, bronze or precious trinkets in silver or gold.

Ed Dur
The site at Ed-Dur is actually an important pre-Islamic city. 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 on the Persian shore. Ed-Dur is linked tightly to its 'sister city' of Mleiha, inland of Sharjah.

Ed Dur is most likely one you've passed many times as it's on the coastal route north of Umm Al Quwain to Ras Al Khaimah - many expats will know it as the Road To The Barracuda. It was at Ed-Dur that archaeologists found the first use of alabaster as windows, as well as extensive finds of weapons, jewellery, coins and other artefacts that point to an flourishing in an era under Hellenistic influence and a decline and fall, likely to the Sasanians in or around the 3rd Century BCE.

In its blossoming, it was a sprawling settlement greater in area than 1st Century London. One of the key finds here was a temple dedicated to the Sun God, Shamas - and the earliest surviving evidence we yet have of the written word in the land of the Emirates.

Sheba's Palace (Shimal Fort)
The area around Julfar (the precursor city to Ras Al Khaimah, but NOT 'old' Ras Al Khaimah, although the city has expanded to encompass the area of ancient Julfar) is rich in Islamic era settlements, spanning the 900s and first millennium settlement at Jazirat Al Hulayla, the fortress of Shimal, dating to the 1100s (known today as Sheba’s Palace) and farms in the Wadi Haqil.

This development of agricultural resources inland of the port town is mirrored at Sohar in Oman, where at around the same time we see extensive development taking place along the Wadi Al Jizi, the route from Sohar inland to Buraimi. Here's a drone shot:

Shimal fort is pretty impressive, but also pretty inaccessible, sadly. Your best bet is a drone or a pretty hectic scramble around the rocky escarpment it sits on, with a fine view of the extensive plains of ghaf trees below it. The area's settled now and it would be wise to bear in mind that you're intruding on private life if you do decide to go biffing around the place.

Jebel Buhais
The important and extensive necropolis of Buhais encompasses burials from pretty much every pre-Islamic era with the sole - and deeply puzzling - exception of the Umm Al Nar period. Many of the burial sites here have been at least roofed over - and some key finds have been removed to Sharjah Archaeological Museum. Right in the middle of the extensive area of burials dotted across the east-facing face of the outcrop of Buhais is an Iron Age fort, first excavated by an Iraqi team in 1974. Again, a drone shot:

Above: The Iron Age Fort at Buhais

Al Sufouh
The Al Sufouh Archaeological Site is perhaps the maddest of the lot - it's bang in the centre of the residential neighbourhood inland of the Palm Jumeirah and it includes an important Umm Al Nar tomb, which you can see to the centre right of the Google image above. It's a classic shape, better seen from this drone shot of the Umm Al Nar tomb at Mleiha Archaeological Centre:

So there you have it. Just five of five hundred or more places around the Emirates where you'll find the past is hidden in plain sight.

We'll be talking about this sort of stuff on the 7th February at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, in a session where I'll be 'In conversation with Peter Hellyer' about the history of the UAE.

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