Just two hour’s drive east of Dubai, the Al Hayl Fort or Palace paints a succinct picture of Emirati life before artificial islands and enormous skyscrapers became “normal.” Located in a wadi among the Hajar mountains, the remarkable earthen compound was built in 1932 by then ruler of Fujairah Sheikh Abdullah Bin Hamdan. It’s a slice of history we discovered by accident.
After spending a week in a fancy hotel for Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, we needed some nature time. So, at the end of the conference last week Friday we set off in a tiny hired car with our tent and sleeping bag packed among suits and fancy shoes. And this is what we found.
We knew that we would head east to Fujairah with a short pitstop along the way, but we didn’t know where we would set up camp.
Originally the plan was to visit Oman, which is said to be one of the most beautiful countries along the Arabian peninsula, but we simply didn’t have enough time. Instead, since the Hajar mountains poke into the eastern part of the UAE as well, we pointed our nose in that direction and let the wind carry us along.
From Abu Dhabi we took Highway E11 to Dubai and checked in with the Land Art Generator Initiative folks and photographer Richard Allenby-Pratt at the Pavilion in downtown Dubai. After satiating our design appetite with great earth-loving folks, it was time to move on.
There are several roads that will get travelers to Fujairah from Dubai, but we specifically took E66 so that we could pop into the Friday market in Masafi. A daily roadside market with a curious name, it is renowned for its Afghani and Iranian rugs and other regional merchandise.
After haggling with an Afghani merchant over a set of red patterned Syrian cushion covers, and warding off the awkward advances of his tiny helper, we continued on our way to road E89 south to Fujairah.
We thought we might camp on Sandy beach, but it only took about 25 seconds of driving through what has become a bustling city to know this was completely out of the question.
By now the merchant helper’s attempt to get it on had dissipated any of the “I’m-going-to-camp-by-myself-in-the-middle-of-nowhere” bravado that existed before sunset.
A little bit concerned that this lack of planning would not end well, we stopped for gas, filled up the car for about $10, and went inside the shop to buy a small snack.
On the magazine rack was a book called “Explore Off-road UAE.” Our little Chevy would have drowned in the belly of any sand dunes, so we abandoned any notions of going really off road, but a place called Wadi Al Hayl caught our eye.
Just 14 km out of town, the wadi lies beyond a puddle of low homes with expensive cars huddled under carports. The city lights evaporate and after winding around a few more craggy corners, the sky opens up, the stars shine nice and bright, and sharp mountains prick the moonlight.
After a fitful sleep inside the car, we woke to the most beautiful scene: a small hut flanked by date palm trees. And then we continued on to the fort/palace another mile or so down the road.
We hadn’t seen more than five faces since leaving Fujairah, so we were surprised to find a man waiting for us at Al Hayl Fort. Rasheem, who is from Bangladesh, is a well-spoken tour guide who lives in a tiny hut on the property.
He said that the building was built for a king, though subsequent research shows that he was referring to Sheikh Abdullah Bin Hamdan, who built the place as a private residence for family. The watchtower was a protective measure that probably wasn’t necessary but created a sense of security.
The compound, which consists of the watchtower, a men’s quarter and washroom, an outdoor kitchen and a women’s quarter, along with separate buildings for guests, workers and a small date processing space, has been painstakingly restored in the last decade.
Presumably the local government wants to attract more tourists, but Rasheem’s enthusiasm for showing off the place suggested he hadn’t had to do it very often.
The main buildings were constructed with date palm trees and salooj – a special mix of earth and minerals baked in the sun.
As is the case with most vernacular architecture, the thick walls have superior thermal performance such that the temperature inside the buildings was at least ten degrees cooler than outside. Date palm trunks were used for structural support.
The kitchen and servant quarters are much simpler. Rocky foundation are topped with dried date palm trunks and leaves, which isn’t so problematic in the area since rain is scarce.
It isn’t clear exactly when the ruling family left this earthen hamlet in search of finer digs, though it’s not surprising that they did. When it did rain, the dirt roads were washed out and locals had to spend weeks rebuilding them. And the journey by horse or camel to pick up supplies in town took at least two hours.
Date palms and some maize and sorghum are cultivated nearby, but not much else. Life was hard – even for a “king.”