The Cultural Landscape of Dhayah
United Arab Emirates National Commission for Education, Culture, and Science
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Regarding its geographical setting and cultural landscape, Dhayah is one of the most impressive and important sites in the Emirate of Ras al-Khaimah. Surrouned by steep mountains rising up to 850 m on three sides, and bordered by a lagoon towards the west, the bay of Dhayah has attracted settled life throughout the millennia. Its crescent shaped gravel plain is covered with cultivation towards the coastline, where a rich marine habitat completes the resourceful area. Dhayah’s palm garden area is further characterized by a singular conically shaped hill, which visually dominates the oasis.
Settled during the last 5000 years, the bay of Dhayah and its different landscapes represent a condensed version of the Northern Emirates’ characteristic environments. The cultural landscape of Dhayah is an outstanding example for the display of Ras al-Khaimah’s rich and fertil nature and its cultural importance. Sandbars created by sediment transportation inside the Gulf protect the lagoon and its small islands, which are covered with mangroves. Between the steep rising mountains of Dhayah and the lagoon, fertile outwash fans of the wadis are covered with palm gardens, the core of past life. At the edge of the palm gardens and towards the foot of the mountains, a conical shaped hill serves as a natural defence post for the oasis. Since prehistoric times, both the palm gardens and the hill were used for settlements and fortification alike. Furthermore, a prehistoric cemetery is located at the foot of the mountains in Dhayah. The first range of the Ru’us al-Jabal mountains rises to a height of 800 m, where terraced fields and terraced stone villages, typical for the Musandam Peninsula, are part of the landscape.
The different landscapes, archaeological places, and historical sites in Dhayah:
1) The lagoon
Dhayah’s lagoon is protected by an island (‘Jazirat al-Hulaylah’), which developed during the first centuries AD, and was settled in early Islamic times. Its southern part, situated opposite the modern town of Rams, contains an Omayyad/early Abbasid settlement, the largest known in the United Arab Emirates. The lagoon’s beaches and small islands are covered with mangroves, an environment, which has been typical for the coastal waters of the UAE since Neolithic times.
2) Palm gardens and fort
Dhayah’s palm gardens belong to the last viable natural palm garden areas in the UAE, which, in contrast to the falaj system, are depending on wells. For the last few hundred years, the original layout of the gardens and wadi run offs, leading the rain water from the mountains into the gardens, are unchanged. The remains of a large mud brick fort, which was originally used as a fortification for the palm oasis, and served as the residence of the ruling sheikh, are situated in close proximity to Dhayah’s iconical hill.
3) Hill fort
This 70m high hill, which rises between the palm gardens and the mountains, forms the centre of the oasis, and has been used since prehistoric times for settlement and fortification purposes alike. Dating to the Late Bronze Age (1600-1300 BC), a shell midden of considerable size is situated at the hill’s western edge, while remains of an Iron Age (1300-600 BC) fortification can be found near the top of the hill. Today, it is crowned by a mud brick fortress, which was built during the 19th century on the foundations of much older structures. It is one of the few hill forts still existing in the UAE, and offers a fantastic view over the lush palm gardens towards the sea, and to the dramatic mountains in the back. The hill fort stands as an important historical monument, where the last resistance against the British invasion took place in 1819.
4) Gravel plain and prehistoric tombs
The oasis’ gravel plain and its outwash fans of the many small wadis extending from the mountain range continue up to the south. They are covered in acacia forests, which have in parts been protected together with prehistoric tombs. An area including 12 large Wadi Suq tombs, Ras al-Khaimah’s most iconic archaeologival heritage, is planned to be developed into an archaeological park. Four Wadi Suq tombs habe already been excavated in the past, and represent the best-preserved and visually most impressive funerary structures of this period in Southeast Arabia.
5) Mountain villages and terraced field systems
To the east of the gravel plain and palm gardens, the first mountain range of the Ru’us al-Jabal rises up to an inhospitable limestone environment. During unsecure times in the 17th century, the inhabitants of the palm gardens moved into ‘hidden villages’ along the flanks of the mountains escaping attacks and danger. One of the villages, consisting of more than 50 houses, is situated on a terrace above Wadi Sal Dhayah. Another village is located on a steep spur in the southern part of Dhayah, built on tight terraces leaving just enough space for its stone houses. In the north of Dhayah, a number of terraced fields were built to grow cereals by catching rainwater from the surrounding mountains with the help of sophisticated aboveground channels. They epitomize the enormous effort and amount of physical work, which was needed to create small pockets of arable land inside the waterless mountains of the Musandam Peninsula.
Justification of Outstanding Universal Value
The cultural landscape of Dhayah contains, in a concentrated form, all different systems of land- and sea-use, which were typical for the northern part of the Oman Peninsula in the past. They include a lagoon protected by a sandbar with an early Islamic harbour settlement. The palm gardens and their water wells represent the centre of settled life during the last 5000 years. A mud brick fort inside the oasis and an additional hill fort defended the surrounding. The mountains encompass stone house settlements and terraced field systems, which are both unique for the Musandam Peninsula. Contrary to other places in Southeast Arabia, water supply for the fields relied on rain water only, which was trapped and transported along the mountain flanks in aboveground channels.
Criterion (v): The cultural landscape of Dhayah is an outstanding example of traditional settlements and their various land-use and sea-use. They represent the manifold historic interactions with the environment, which have become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change.
This applies for the lagoons and their mangrove forests, the major food source for Dhayah’s inhabitants since millennia, evident in the large prehistoric shell midden at the foot of Dhayah fort. It also applies for the palm gardens, representing the centre of daily life, major food source, and commercial value. It further applies to the terraced fields, the main cultivation area for cereals since the medieval ages. All three forms of land- and sea-use were vital for the survival of Dhayah’s inhabitants, and were essential for the northern part of Southeast Arabia.
Statements of authenticity and/or integrity
Over a period of more than 20 years, archaeological fieldwork has been conducted in Dhayah and on Hulaylah Island from the late 1970s onwards excavating, documenting, and studying the finds and architectural remains. All sites and monuments are the original remains, and as such exhibit complete authenticity.
The Government of Ras al-Khaimah officially declared the sites of Dhayah and Hulaylah Island as ‘Protected Archaeological Zones’. In addition to their prehistoric and historic monuments, the protected archaeological sites also incorporate the surrounding landscape and ecosystem.
Comparison with other similar properties
The cultural landscape of Dhayah is unique, because nowhere in Southeast Arabia and the Gulf is a landscape preserved, which shows an offshore sandbank, lagoon with mangrove swamps, palm gardens, and mountain terrace fields in such a condensed area, all used by the same population simultaneously. These different types of land use and sea use existed in prehistoric and historic times.
Contrary to Dhayah, other bays on the Musandam Peninsula miss a lagoon and sandbank. The Indian Ocean side of the UAE has a different type of mountain (ophiolite) forming divergent ecosystems and land use, even when a lagoon is present, for example in Kalba.
Along the Batinah coast, lagoons are very small or non-existing, and the mountains are distant with different land use due to their ophiolite origin. In the Sharqiah, where the limestone mountains are touching the coast, only few lagoons exist, and their coastal settlements have no connection to mountain terrace fields.
Southern Oman, coastal Yemen and Saudi Arabia have completely different land and sea use, which are not comparable to Dhayah at all, as they never combine an offshore sandbank, lagoon with mangrove swamps, palm gardens, and mountain terrace fields used by the same inhabitants simultaneously.