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The pearl trading town of Jazirat Al-Hamra

Date of Submission: 26/07/2020
Criteria: (iii)(v)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
United Arab Emirates National Commission for Education, Culture, and Science
State, Province or Region:
Ras Al-Khaimah
Coordinates: N25 42 34 E55 47 40
Ref.: 6464
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Description

The 45 ha large former island was originally situated inside a lagoon off the southern coast of Ras al-Khaimah. Its south eastern end was almost connected to the mainland and fordable at all times. Towards the east, island and lagoon are bordering on the desert, where the first line of large sand dunes is still crowned by two watchtowers today, which originally defended Jazirat al-Hamra towards the desert. The towers also secured sweet water wells along the foot of the dunes, from where drinking water was brought to the island by donkey, as the marine environment of the town itself provided only brackish water for domestic use.

We assume that Jazirat al-Hamra was founded in the 17th century, as it is not mentioned in Gasparo Balbi’s list of coastal towns from 1580. Baron von Kniphousen, director of the Dutch East India Company, provided the first description of Jazirat al-Hamra in 1756, before the British mentioned it after their attacks on Ras al-Khaimah in 1809 and 1819 producing the first map of the island, town, and sea view in 1820. By 1908, John Lorimer estimates 500 houses divided in two quarters, and calls it the main settlement of the Za’ab tribe, whose livelihood depends mainly on pearl diving.

Today, Jazirat al-Hamra’s narrow alleyways connect a conglomerate of courtyard houses, suq buildings, mosques, and a fort with watchtowers, all built from coral stones and fossil beach rock in layer technique. Where time, neglect, and the harsh climate have removed the traditional plaster from the walls, the different types of corals appear like a beautiful piece of art from the bottom of the sea. This significant type of construction is combined with plain and ornamental arches, and elaborate plaster screens, which represent the main decorative elements of its architecture. While the majority of buildings are modest summer and winter houses surrounding a courtyard, examples of rich residences and homes of pearl traders can also be found. Among others, they include an impressive two-storey house (‘Bait Omran’), and a wind tower residence where three barjeel cooled the different family quarters (‘Bait Abdul Karim’). After light rainfalls in 2015, traces of a significant mosque could be discovered on the surface, which is pictured on the British 1820 map, and was originally covered with 20 domes.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Jazirat al-Hamra is the only historical pearling town in the Gulf, which survived the modernisation and fast development after the discovery of oil. It is an exceptional testimony to the long established architecture and town planning of the past, and includes all traditional elements of a former Gulf town: a fort and watchtowers, mosques, suq, and large numbers of courtyard houses, which represent since thousands of years the archetype of housing in the Middle East, and reflect the different social strata of a pre oil settlement. They range from simple homes, to small courtyard houses, ornate two storey buildings, and large courtyard residences belonging to rich pearl merchants. In a unique way, both the past way of life and the very first modern transformations of the U.A.E. are preserved and reflected in the architecture and structural set-up of this abandoned town. While it provides a fascinating insight into the former traditional life along the Gulf, Jazirat al-Hamra also displays the early introduction of modern building materials (sand bricks, cement, paint), before its abandonment and inhabitant’s departure at the beginning of the oil boom.

Criterion (iii): The town of Jazirat al-Hamra is a unique example for past traditional settled life along the coast of the Gulf, which was lost elsewhere due to the discovery and revenues of the oil industry. This includes courtyard houses built from traditional materials (coral stones, fossilized beach rock, mangrove beams, palm trunks, palm matting, palm fiber ropes, seashell layers for drainage), narrow alleyways, traditional Gulf style mosques, and a suq. 

Criterion (v): Jazirat al-Hamra is an outstanding example for a traditional island settlement representing the industry of pearl fishing and pearl trade. It symbolizes a thousands of years old tradition of interacting with the maritime environment for the collection of pearls from ‘Pinctada margaritifera’ and ‘Pinctada radiata’ pearl oysters. Pearls from both types have already played an important part in people’s lives since prehistoric times, and many have been discovered at Neolithic sites in the UAE during archaeological excavations. Jazirat al-Hamra also displays unique aspects of sea-use through the harvesting of coral stones and fossilized beach rock, the two main building materials for traditional housing along the coast of the Gulf until the mid-20th century.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Jazirat al-Hamra was left by its inhabitants between 1968 and 1971, and since then has remained unchanged. In a unique way, its authenticity characterizes the pre-oil townscape of a settlement along the Gulf coast, which today is nowhere else preserved. Its most outstanding feature is the homogeneity of the urban structure being made up of coral stones mined from the sea, and fossilized beach rock quarried along the coast. Both principal building materials have conditioned the technical and morphological qualities of local architecture. To preserve the integrity of the site, it is officially protected since the beginning of this century, and conservation measures have started to preserve its authenticity. 

Comparison with other similar properties

In the past, many coastal towns existed along the Gulf coast, which were connected to the pearl trade. Unfortunately, all of them were removed in the second half of the 20th century, when modern town developments started with/at the beginning of the oil era. Although the State of Qatar and other Gulf countries are now trying to bring back their lost coastal settlements by excavating and rebuilding their foundations, all lack complete authenticity and rely on vague assumptions. Fortunately, Jazirat al-Hamra was abandoned before rapid development started to change the area forever, and was left untouched as a ‘ghost town’, thus preserving the original fabric of a Gulf settlement. Today, it is the last remaining traditional coastal town in the Gulf comprising narrow alleys, mosques, fort, watchtowers, and a suq set between the thousands of years old heritage of courtyard houses.