As a child at junior school I was taken on a trip to a local roman ford. There we found some pottery which the teacher, an amateur archaeologist, took to the old Bedford Museum on the Embankment for identification. We also learned why the home counties village we lived in had schools named after well known figures from Scots history namely Robert Bruce and John Balliol (click here to find out). From then on I was hooked!
Ever since understanding the history of various places we’ve lived in or visited has always proved interesting and thought provoking. Whitchurch, Hampshire is smaller than several nearby villages but has a town charter, our estate in West Molesey was built on a former horse racing track and Bahrain was once the thriving trading civilisation of Dilmun and possibly the Garden of Eden!
|The Lookout Tower|
Last weekend found us in the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah looking for a geocache that had escaped us on a previous visit. Close to our goal we stopped to tick off a few other caches, the first of which was located near a lookout tower. These rather Portuguese looking towers are common in the Northern Emirates where pirates and marauders were once frequent unwelcome visitors. They are usually round, constructed of coral stone and date palm logs covered with a reddish plaster finish. This one was not particularly tall but being built on a slight mound was probably sufficiently high in this flat landscape below the mountains to enable a good view out to the Arabian Gulf. Today even from ground level you can see the buildings of RAK City just a few miles away on the coast.
A few hundred metres further on there was a poorly fenced area containing the cleaned up foundations of yet another circular building. This would have been much much bigger. We wondered what it had been, there was no signage but someone had obviously been conducting an archaeological dig recently. And, as we drove towards the mountains, more ruins could be seen unfenced, simply partially obscured by the scrubby thorn bushes.
Our next stop was to hunt for the Sheba’s Palace cache. At the back of the village of Shimal, a steep set of modern steps petered out into a gravelly goat track up to a curved rocky promontory. We were glad to have come here in the winter as it was hot work climbing up in the full sun. There were goat remains is several places, it was obviously a popular haunt for the local herd. As we rounded the corner we could see the ruined walls and what looked like someone’s tomb on one arm of the rock. The latter had a barbed wire fence and the remains of Emirati flags flying at each corner. From the other arm there were great views out over the flat land to the city and the sea beyond despite the somewhat dusty haze.
Who was this Sheba? Well from the cache description we gathered this was not The Queen of Sheba (10th century BC) who ruled what is today known as Yemen but a more modern female ruler as this hilltop settlement possibly dates back only to the 14th century. However back home and curious I found an article in The National in which a local historian Dr Seray says from pottery evidence it was most likely an 18th century Portuguese built fort as they occupied this area known then as Julfar.
The locals actually call the site as Qasr al Zabba, the palace of al Zabba or Queen Zenobia. Zenobia, the warrior queen of the Roman colony of Palmyra, in what is now Syria, ruled from about 267 to 272AD. She conquered several of Rome’s eastern provinces before she was defeated by the emperor Aurelian. Apparently the term ‘Zabba’ refers to a masculinised woman, so perhaps there was a local woman ruler here who was tough like a man, and hence was nicknamed by the settlers here as al Zabba. As Dr Seray says “it was not the most flattering of titles”. Sheba or Zabba or simply a Portuguese fort? I’ll leave to up to you to decide. Whatever its a fascinating piece of history in a land where most things seem to post-date oil.
|Sheba’s Hilltop Fort|
Further on still in Wadi Hagil there is an abandoned village where pottery was once made however we failed to find the access track last weekend. I have since been provided with not just directions but also some pictures from twenty years ago so we will soon be making another trip north to this interesting corner of the UAE. Meanwhile ceramics are still big down in the modern city with one of the larger local firms being the eponymous RAK Ceramics makers of tiles, sanitary ware and crockery! RAK may be poor compared to its oil rich cousins further south but its ancient past is a fascinating wealth of history for those who care to venture off the tarmac.
|Modern RAK in the distance|