miércoles, 5 de febrero de 2014

The Towers of Ras Al-Khaimah (Dubai)

Adventures in archaeology are hard to come by in these days of satellite technology and the increasing loss of remote locations around the world. One example of this lies in the far north of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and only 100km from Dubai.  Ras al-Khaimeh (RAK) is one of the seven Emirates that make up the UAE, and is now transforming into a modern 21st century state with even talk of building a space port.
In the late 1980s I worked there on the excavations at Julfar, an Arabic trading port. At that time RAK’s mysterious hinterland and mountains were still largely unexplored. A few archaeologists such as the redoubtable Miss Beatrice De Cardi had ventured there, and some of the known sites such as Hili and Bat, enormous stone and mud brick third-millennium BC round towers, had already been surveyed. These buildings were not the only examples of military architecture to be found in RAK, for wherever you looked you could see fortified towers, both round and square, some abandoned only 20 years before and now slowly crumbling to dust.  These buildings appeared to be the most visible testimony of a way of life that had all but disappeared, as the people no longer needed to protect themselves from attack by the mountain tribes, and inter-Emirate warfare was a distant memory rendering these fortified towers largely redundant.

A great adventure

My colleague on the site, Derek Kennet (now at Durham University), suggested we attempt to locate every defensive tower in RAK before they vanished forever. So, supported by the Department of Antiquities and Museums of RAK, and the far-sighted understanding of H.H. Sheikh b. Saqr  al-Qasimi, we put our project together. Starting in December 1991 we set about what we were told would be an impossible task: to locate, record and interpret every tower in the entire country in the space of six weeks.
The Nissan Patrol in the desert towards al-Khatt

The Nissan Patrol in the desert towards al-Khatt

Our team consisted of Derek, who would create the written record and take the photographs, myself and Fiona Baker who would draw the elevations and ground plans, and Miss Beatrice De Cardi who possessed unrivalled local knowledge.  Armed with a clipboard, three biros, two pencils, two tape measures, camera, drawing board and an aluminium ladder, we felt well prepared to face the task at hand. Jumping into our trusty Nissan Patrol, we set off to record our first tower which lay only a hundred yards from our base camp at Falayya. The adventures in the weeks ahead as we hunted over deserts and mountains, salt flats and wadis were to take us to the limits of our endurance at times, but to this day I still remember it fondly as one of my greatest adventures.

A test of endurance

The first few towers that we tackled were either in or near areas that were already settled along the coast. Two very difficult fortifications to record were the National Museum of RAK and the police station of al-Uraybi: the Museum, because of its sheer size and number of rooms, and the police station because of its obvious security difficulties. Although they were aware of our arrival, it was very difficult to concentrate while 20 heavily-armed policemen stared in bemusement as I attempted, for the umpteenth time, to throw a weighted 30-metre measuring tape over the battlements.
However, the real test came as we moved inland to the large expanse of the Shimal Plain where we realised that each small settlement had its own defensive structure. Talking with locals would often lead us to abandoned courtyards containing a single square corner tower. The biggest problem here was the acacia trees that covered the plain and made visibility at ground level almost zero, so we adopted a novel approach to solve the problem. Derek suggested I stand on the passenger seat with the window open, with my head and body sticking out thus allowing me to see over the thorny acacia trees. The one weakness to this plan was Derek’s careless steering, which led to my body being pricked, scratched and lacerated by the branches, and although he always swore it was a mistake I was sure I could here the sounds of giggling from inside the car. By the end of this phase we had recorded a wide arc of defended farmsteads that lay on the edge of the gravel plain, and already we were beginning to understand a pattern to the location of these sites and distinctive architectural styles.

A perfected routine

On one of our daily expeditions Beatrice remarked on our incredible routine on discovering a new tower. Our car would pull to a halt, each of us would silently jump out and pull out our respective equipment. Fiona and I would begin with the ground plan while Derek recorded the exterior. The ladder would be placed against the tower to reach the door which was invariably on the first floor. I would then pick a principal elevation which displayed the essence of the building and, using the stone tied to the end of the measuring tape method, would throw it to the top, something I became better at as time went on. Fiona would then shout out measurements as I drew a scaled elevation which I would then complete by eye.
By this time Derek was inside the tower and we would join him on completion of the exterior elevations to draw internal plans and significant features. With us hidden from view, Derek would photograph the exterior after which we would descend the ladder, pack our equipment and return to the Nissan Patrol. This could take as little as an hour, and with the minimum of equipment and fuss we completely recorded an entire building. The further from the urban centre we travelled the more dangerous we realised our mission was becoming. While surveying a site called Sheba’s Palace perched on a precarious rocky ridge we heard the occasional pop and whizzing noise. We soon became aware that the source of this noise was gunfire from an AK-47, wielded by the son of an irate old lady whose garden we had inadvertently walked through. Retreating to our car we were confronted by a crowd of angry locals and, realising that the situation was getting out of hand, decided to make a hasty escape.

The mountains

This episode prepared us for the odd pot shot that would be fired in our direction from time to time up in the mountains, which was where we were headed next. There we found dozens of stone-built towers protecting routes and remote villages that clung to the side of dangerously steep slopes. Many of the lookout towers were recorded only after hours of climbing cliffs, crossing chasms spanned by single palm trunks and, on one occasion, driving up a gravel track that was six inches wider than the car with a sheer drop down into the wadi below. However, our single-minded determination drove us on and by the end of the six weeks we had found and recorded 75 defensive structures. All the plans and elevations were written up to publication standard, the records collated, the photographs catalogued, and on our return to the UK we carried out further archival study.
The project seemed complete but ten years later, in 2002, Derek phoned to say we had missed a tower. It lay close to our original base camp but by some oversight we had missed it, and I promptly returned to RAK to finish the job.
And so that’s where the story finally ends. In a matter of weeks (for the most part), and with the most basic of equipment, we had recorded the remarkable buildings that were the Towers of Ras al-Khaimah – and despite the gunfire, angry locals and hazardous locations, it was a mission worth pursuing.
DAVID CONNOLLY is the director of British Archaeological Jobs and Resources (BAJR) http://www.bajr.org.  His work as an archaeologist has taken him to many countries including Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Turkmenistan, Georgia, UAE and Germany. David has worked extensively throughout the United Kingdom, including a long stint with York Archaeological Trust. Over the years he has built up a wealth of experience and now prefers to concentrate on community archaeology and teaching but still makes the odd foray into the commercial world.

Source: Past Horizons: http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/02/2014/the-towers-of-ras-al-khaimah

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