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ARTS & CULTURE: Preserving the past

ARTS & CULTURE: Preserving the past

Al Jahili Fort has served as a home, a castle and a timeless icon. 

For over a century, Al Jahili Fort has stood guard over Abu Dhabi, sheltering royalty, warriors and Al Ain’s coveted oasis. Al Jahili Fort no longer houses sheikhs or soldiers; its walls now protect a proud history, which future generations can glimpse through the museum and exhibitions it now houses.

The fort stands today as one of Al Ain’s largest castles, and a fine example of local architecture. Set in beautifully landscaped gardens, its golden bricks are an indelible mark on Al Ain’s skyline. Al Jahili Fort has been so lovingly restored, it is easy for visitors to imagine its colourful history.


It was Sheikh Zayed the First who envisioned Al Jahili Fort as a refreshing retreat from Abu Dhabi’s humid coastline. He ordered the fort’s construction around 1890, and it was completed some 7 years later. Built on fertile farming ground with water readily available from the oasis, the location was ideal for a royal summer residence.

The Al Nahyan family spent many happy years within the castle walls. The UAE’s founding father, Sheikh Zayed, is said to have been born in Al Jahili Fort in 1918. During the Al Nahyan family’s residence, the fort received many important guests. Sir Wilfred Thesiger, famous explorer and author of Arabian Sands, was a regular visitor during the 1940s.

However, as new forts sprang up over the emirate, Al Jahili Fort started to lose its significance. No longer a family home, its resources made it an ideal military base. During the 1950s, it was used as a base by the Trucial Oman Levies, later known as the United Defence Force. The Trucial Oman Levies expanded the fort, adding barracks and a medical centre. These facilities were later utilised by one of the UAE Army’s squads.


Gradually, Al Jahili Fort became neglected and fell into a state of disrepair. It wasn’t until the 1980s that restoration work began, when the Al Ain Department of Antiquities and Tourism set about restoring the castle to its former glory. In 2007, the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage added a Visitor Information Centre and several tourist facilities, including a café.

Today, thanks to the efforts of UAE authorities, Al Jahili Fort is a place to come and marvel at its restored beauty, enjoy the tranquillity of its surroundings and appreciate its historical significance. Visitors can explore the original part of the fort, which consists of two restored buildings and a courtyard.

Separately, a round tower has been reconstructed to resemble one from the Bronze Age. The Hili area has been populated for at least 4,000 years, and the round tower is a replica of those unearthed in the area. Guests can also see the impressive two-storey building which was used to host visitors of the sheikh.

At the Visitor’s Centre, guests can see precious artefacts which illustrate the history of the UAE: ancient coins, pendants and gifts received by the president during the time of his governance.

A permanent exhibition is devoted to Wilfred Thesiger, who was regularly received in Al Ain by the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. As well as being a renowned writer, Thesiger was a keen photographer. During his intrepid adventures crossing the Empty Quarter, Thesiger documented his journey with pictures that capture the lonely beauty of the desert. These photographs, displayed for the first time when the exhibition opened in 2008, give visitors a unique chance to retrace the footsteps of a man affectionately referred to as ‘Mubarak Bin London’.

As visitors enter, they will see a poem dedicated to Sheikh Zayed the First; an eternal reminder of a vision realised.

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