Why it’s time to celebrate this iconic building

As Qasr Al Hosn reopens its doors on 7th December following a decade of renovations, we take a look at the building’s historic role in shaping the capital.

Qasr Al Hosn has always had something extraordinary about it. A former seat of rule, government and defence, it’s at once the touchstone between Abu Dhabi’s past and present.

But the formidable fort that looms over the capital today had much more humble beginnings. Built around 1760 to watch over the small but flourishing settlement of pearl divers and fishermen who migrated their livelihoods from the sea, the structure was born out of a need for defence.

As the collection of huts grew, so too did the fort’s structure and its role in shaping the future capital.

“Qasr Al Hosn has always been the centrepoint of the city; it has always been the most important monument,” notes Salama Al Shamsi, director of Qasr Al Hosn. “This place really passed through different layers of very important historical moments for the emirate of Abu Dhabi.

“There’s a lot of research that was gathered from the buildings, from the 18th century to the [resulting] restorations that happened throughout its history,” she adds. “It started as a fort and then became a place for the rulers of the Bani Yas tribe. In the 1940s, it became the home of the ruling family with Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and from that it became the seat of the ruler.

“The government and Abu Dhabi Police force started [there]. Historically, it witnessed the full development of Abu Dhabi as a city, whether from a government, social or community perspective.”

The founding father’s legacy

Throughout the fort’s history – as it transformed from defence tower to palace –each sheikh that ruled brought new meaning to the life lived within its walls.

It was when Sheikh Zayed took up residence in Qasr Al Hosn that things began to change. Opening up the palace as a majlis, the founding father began to establish Qasr Al Hosn as a social and cultural meeting point, a place for dialogue and debate.

“From then it became a place of gathering and the official majlis,” Salama explains. “It was also the vision of Sheikh Zayed [to found] the Cultural Foundation. Of course, for whoever grew up here in Abu Dhabi in the 80s, this will be an important, nostalgic moment for them.”

Founded in 1981, the Cultural Foundation, housed within the grounds of the fort,
was part of Sheikh Zayed’s intention to lay the cornerstone for Abu Dhabi’s creative identity through artist residencies, exhibitions and workshops.

Now, as the initiative is revived almost four decades later with new studios, public programming and the Children’s Library – set to launch in March – Salama hopes that it
will continue to serve that vision in the years to come.

“You can’t look at the past without thinking about what’s going to happen in the future,” she laughs. “[The Cultural Foundation] will be back with strong elements of what was there before.

“We’re opening with an exhibition of 25 Emirati artists who were part of the Cultural Foundation before it closed for renovations. Some of them exhibited there or worked there in the past.

“Besides the exhibition, we are creating a huge outreach initiative of public programming to reach different sectors of the community. We always say [at the Department of Culture and Tourism] that education is the most important thing for anything that we do.”

History in the present

As the fort gets set to finally reopen its doors to the public on 7th December for the first time in a decade, it’s a cause for celebration.

From ayyalah dancing to heritage crafts, Arabic coffee demonstrations and net weaving, Qasr Al Hosn will breathe life into its rich and storied history with a week of festivities.

Following the fort’s transformation into a permanent museum detailing the history of the people that built and lived in it, Salama hopes that visitors will learn more about how Abu Dhabi came to be the great metropolis it is today through archival materials, films and interactive displays.

“We want the public to come in, explore and get involved in Abu Dhabi’s history,” she smiles. “The inner fort is dedicated to the leaders; some of these stories are very personal and they will be told here for the first time. The outer palace is really focusing on the people who lived and worked there and those that came to visit. Each room will have a different story to tell.”

To find out more about Qasr Al Hosn, visit: qasralhosn.ae

WORDS Camille Hogg

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