Join us on a visit to one of Al Ain’s most historic buildings where old and new sit contently side by side.
In a city perhaps best known for its value as a desert oasis – a point that’s earned Al Ain its Garden City moniker – you might be surprised to stumble across award-winning urban architecture.
And yet, that’s exactly what you’ll find at Qasr Al Muwaiji.
Nestled in Al Muwaiji area, the fort is not only a significant archeological and historical structure and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s also the birthplace of the country’s president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
Today, it’s also a beautiful example of urban architecture. In fact, the architects behind the adaptive reuse and extension of the site were awarded the American Architecture Prize for their efforts, and it’s not hard to see why, as we found out when we visited for an in-depth tour.
In a seamless blend of old and new, the redeveloped Qasr Al Muwaiji fuses history with unobtrusive modern architecture.
The tone is set from the outset by towering palm trees irrigated by ancient falaj systems, flanked by sleek black marble water features.
Entering the site through huge glass doors, as we step into the new pavilion, we’re instantly impressed by its clever ‘camouflage’ design, the result being that, no matter where you stand on site, you still have the historical section of the fort as your main focal point.
In a nod to Arabian tradition, we’re given a cup of qahwa (coffee) and a locally-grown date before the tour begins, commencing at the permanent exhibition designed to give visitors additional information about the site’s historical significance, uses and development over the last century or so.
Housed within a series of glass walls, the exhibit makes use of interactive displays to shed light on days gone by.
We wander over to a huge glass ‘table’, don a pair of headphones and tune in to some short videos where the words and pictures of local poets, historians and cultural experts both educate and entertain us.
Elsewhere, we take hold of one of the iPads and settle down on a comfortable chair to flick through pictures, movies and stories relating to Al Muwaiji.
As we walk through the structure, it’s hard not to think that we’re somehow floating along above the ground, thanks to glass floors that have been cleverly elevated to show the utmost respect to the site’s historic significance.
A glistening golden dagger – crafted specially for Sheikh Khalifa – shines brightly on a display table, and just beyond it is a set of robes that were handmade by an Abu Dhabi tailor for Sheikh Khalifa to wear.
Today, Al Nahyans still use the same family of tailors for their custom-made garbs. Arabic text scrawls across the wall opposite and we’re told that it’s a verse from a poem that was penned by Sheikh Khalifa.
Wandering further down the corridor, we find ourselves looking deep into the depths of what was the main water well in the Muwaiji area. As well as being used by the royal family, the water from this source was distributed to those in the nearby communities, along with food and subsidies.
The clever way that it is presented gives us a real sense of how deep the waters would have once run. As impressive as the vantage point is, peering into its depths, we’re glad that the glass is reinforced.
The next part of the exhibit takes a turn towards tradition, the glass walls and interactive displays giving way – at least for a pause – to clay walls and lowered ceilings.
Stepping into the main house, it’s obvious that the level of restoration is high. From the inset spaces that were originally used as shelving, to the huge wooden beams carefully place above archways both for aesthetic purposes and safety – wood being softer than clay if you accidentally bump your head – and the various lookout points that allowed the family to see from one section of the home to another, it’s easy to get a sense of what life would have been like in days gone by.
In one room, there’s a fascinating short film and projected images that share more details about Sheikh Khalifa’s life as a child.
Tying into the region’s traditions, the young Sheikh’s love of falconry is captured in video footage and a display that has a gauntlet, falcon hoods and more.
We also learn that Qasr Al Muwaiji served as one of Al Ain’s first schools, after Sheikh Khalifa’s father, Sheikh Zayed, decreed that boys in the city should receive an education.
This was where the young president began to satisfy his thirst for knowledge. As an eternally curious child, he would also often join his father in his majlis during council meetings.
Looking at the footage in the very home where this learning began seems to give the facts a stronger sense of authenticity.
Wrapping up our tour sitting in the private majlis that played host to both Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Khalifa over the years, it’s easy to see how Qasr Al Muwaiji served as the place where the seeds of great leadership were sown.
Tours at Qasr AL Muwaiji are free. Tue-Thu and Sat-Sun 9am-7pm, Fri 3pm-7pm. Khalifa Bin Zayed Street, Al Muwaiji, Al Ain. Contact: 03 767 4444, qasralmuwaiji.ae
For an interactive experience, head along to some of the cultural workshops organised by the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi. Entertaining and educational, they aim to give children aged ten to 18 a deeper insight into Emirati culture. From learning about Arabic coffee making or trying their hand at palm-wicker jewellery making, it’s a great way to get youngsters more involved with the nation’s traditions. To find out about upcoming classes, email: firstname.lastname@example.org