The history of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) rarely goes beyond its rapid rise from desert to decadence since its inception in 1971. But little do people know that one of its Emirates, Ras Al Khaimah is rich in cultural history – a part of the Arabian Gulf that has been home to settlers for over 7,000 years.
Archaeological excavations have uncovered pottery from as early as 5000BC and remains of burial sites and tombs from later civilisations. Small, unmarked and relatively unknown, it was only when my driver pointed out a few small fenced-off sites as we drove by that I knew of their existence.
However, two dominant and accessible historical sites – ‘Sheba’s Palace’ and Dhayah Fort – remain as portals to the ancient settler and trading history of Ras Al Khaimah that allowed it to flourish.
Once known by the names Julfar, Majan and Al Seer, this particular area with a diverse landscape of coast, rugged mountains and fertile land, was enticing and it soon became a booming trade centre on the maritime crossroads between Europe, Africa and China. Such a significant location also meant it became victim to its own appeal, where ongoing conflict and occupation meant that a need for fortification was necessary.
Both historical sites in Ras Al Khaimah are free to enter but are hard to find without a local eye and lack any definitive tourism infrastructure.
This should not be a deterrent but feel like more of a quest. Hire a driver from your hotel, and aim for a 5:30 am start to begin the climb up to ‘Sheba’s Palace’ to catch the sunrise.
16th Century Dhayah Fort – Days of Fortification in Ras Al Khaimah
A dusty tourism information sign has been erected, waiting for eager eyes and historical enthusiast hearts, yet it still feels like it has only just been uncovered. It is said that thousands of people visit Dhayah Fort every year, but there was no crowd here scrambling for a view.
The strategic location of this part of the Arabian Gulf was invaded and occupied many times over, including in more recent history by the Portuguese, Dutch and the British. Housing various ruins and remains of fortification, Ras Al Khaimah’s historical centrepiece and main structure is the small Dhayah Fort – built in the 16th Century and positioned in the northern part of the city, Rams between the mountain plateau and the coast.
Dhayah Fort required only a short meander up its winding, giant stone staircase, where we could walk between its two towers and even scramble up the precarious wooden ladder to gaze from its roof.
Not only is it fascinating for its all-round viewpoint as you peacefully stand and survey the mountains around you and the small towns scattered below you, but its an opportunity to see the other side of Ras Al Khaimah away from the relaxing resort element of its tourism.
This fort, used many times over, was mostly destroyed during the British operation of the Battle of Ras Al Khaimah of 1809. It stands as a symbol of independence, by which the defeat of the British, and subsequent changes introduced by all the Sheiks, brought about the creation of the United Arab Emirates in 1971.
Qasr Al Zabba or ‘Sheba’s Palace’ – The Oldest Palace in the UAE
Welcoming a new day from atop the crumbling ruins of ‘Sheba’s Palace’ in Ras Al Khaimah is a real adventure, especially as the climb requires a little energy on an unmarked path. First, you have to locate it, since its base is tucked away in the tiny and mostly desolate village called Shamal.
Even our driver had to make a few attempts to find the right place to park up for us to begin our exploration.
It started with a staircase of craggy steps covered in foliage and loose stones that made it appear as if no one has taken this journey for quite some time. Slowly, the sun started to rise as we then scrambled up the small rocky incline that leads up to the very top of this historical mound.
Flattening out, we stood at platforms at the very edge – the sun rising from above the jagged mountains at one end, and a view of the wide expanse of what is almost Ras Al Khaimah in its entirety at the other.
Lone trees have sprouted up through the heavy stone, bone carcasses of goats who once claimed this as their space are laid bare and trenches of ruins are scattered all around. Hardly anyone comes to the top of this once royal stronghold, said to be the oldest and only known palace in the UAE. This is the history of Ras Al Khaimah at its most raw.
Sheba’s Palace is the affectionate English name granted to what is known to locals as Qasr Al Zabba (The Palace of Zenobia). It’s still widely debated if it was built thousands of years BC for the Arabian Queen of Sheba, centuries ago for the Roman Queen Zenobia, or built during one of the later occupations just few hundred years ago.
Its exact story remains a mystery, and being up here retains that same aura. For now, you can visit and create your own story of its existence.
Ras Al Khaimah’s history paints a different picture to the extravagant image associated with the United Arab Emirates today.
The treasure trove of historical sites show that this area was more than just untouched arid ground, but a region whose significance and attraction has spanned many centuries.
Things to Know about Historical Sites in Ras Al Khaimah
- The rich cultural history of this particular area has been well cultivated, with artefacts on show in the National Museum of Ras Al Khaimah.
- Getting around the historical sites in Ras Al Khaimah is easy. Drivers are easily booked from your hotel. Try and ask for a local, who is more likely to know the best access points for the old sites and who may also be able to point out other ruins on the way. Prices will vary according to the time of day and how long you require the car hire.
- How to get to Ras Al Khaimah: With prices starting from just £385pp economy and £1,185pp business class, including Royal Brunei flights from London Heathrow to Dubai (including a transfer to Ras Al Khaimah), and a five-star hotel, packages are currently the best value for money.
Images featuring myself © Brandon Li at Unscripted