We are a little ashamed to admit it, but despite having lived in the UAE for almost three years, this was the first time that we visited Abu Dhabi’s Qasr Al Hosn festival.
The Qasr Al Hosn festival is a celebration of Emirati culture and heritage, taking place in the capital each February. The name translates literally as ‘palace fort’ and is a great opportunity to learn about the history of Abu Dhabi and Emirati traditions.
In the 18th century, Sheikh Dhiyab Bin Isa (Chief of the Bani Yas tribe) discovered a source of fresh water on Abu Dhabi Island and built a watchtower to protect it from intruders. With the watchtower in place, new settlements began to emerge and the community expanded. The tower was soon expanded into a fort constructed from coral and sea stones and covered with a render made from lime, local sand and crushed sea shells. Due to the shell’s reflective effect, the fort’s walls would sparkle in the sun offering a welcome costal navigational tool for the region’s merchants. Mangrove was chosen to make the flooring and roof structure due to its natural strength and durability. By the early 19th century the small village of palm huts became a town of more than five thousand residents and Abu Dhabi was formed.
Qasr Al Hosn is such an important part of Emirati history, as it represents the formation of Abu Dhabi city. We attended on the last day of this years celebrations and arrived on site just in time for opening at 4pm. We were immediately surprised to see hundreds of people queuing to get inside – it is a rarity to find anywhere in Abu Dhabi particularly busy, so we knew that we were in for a treat
Having not visited before, we were unsure of what to expect. We paid our 10 dirham entry fee and were soon within the bustling complex – the organisers of this years festival had gone all out, entering into a sandy arena full of palm tress and small shops, we were overwhelmed at the scope of the festivities and were excited to explore.
As we wondered around the site we were stunned by the scale and the attention to details, it was astounding to see the creation of an inland ‘ocean’ – complete with boats and even a machine to replicate the oceans waves.
This ocean area marked the newest addition to the festival, in the form of the ‘marine zone’, complete with fishing demonstrations and the opportunity to watch artisans at work. Watching fishing nets hand-crafted using ancient methods (gargour) that hadpassed down through many generations of Emirati fisherman, was mesmerising. It was a pleasure to watch these craftsmen at work and to see that even in this modern age, that the traditions of the Emirati culture are still being preserved and celebrated.
To help with the navigation of the site, the festival arena is split into distinct zones: Qasr Al Hosn, Abu Dhabi Island, Marine, Desert and Oasis.
When you think of the UAE, two of the most stereotypical images you may envision are camels and falcons – both of which were in abundance in the desert zone. With Arabic hospitality on full display, we were invited to sample Arabic spiced coffee and dates, whilst listening to Rababa music.
Other informative displays showed how to make threads out of animal wool (Ghazel), butter making and even the weaving of fabric to make camel saddles and tents (Al Sadu).
Visitors were encouraged to have their photo taken with the falcons, which were wooden and very docile. Falconry is such a big part of the UAE culture, that you are even allowed to travel with them on aeroplanes here.
Camels roamed the festival grounds, and there was also a designated area for children to ride these gracious beasts. The entry fee includes two activities (including archeology, pottery, petting zoo, Emirati cooking class and the camel rides) and there really is no better place to sit proudly on the back of a camel, than under the shadow of the Qasr Al Hosn fort – an iconic symbol of Abu Dhabi and its amazing history.
We visited the petting zoo, where children could pet and feed a selection of animals including camels, ponies and goats. Best of all were the Saluki dogs which are traditionally used for racing and can be likened to a grey-hound.
Around every corner there were more surprises to be discovered. From demonstrations of Emirati playground games to a presentation of how to climb palm trees (khallab) in order to harvest the sweet dates – the bravest could ever attempt to climb for themselves.
This was the oasis zone and also featured ancient storytelling (Kharaarif), where visitors could listen to traditional stories told in a theatrical way. With rope making, basket weaving from palm fronds (khoos) and a tour of a traditional bedouin house known as Bait Al Areesh – this was one of our favourite sections of the festival.
There was a traditional souk selling a variety of products, from oud to spices. We also loved the Ayala dancing, which we have seen before, but not on such a large scale. There were literally hundreds of Emirati men participating in this ‘stick dance’ – a folk performance accompanied by drumming, with the dancers positioned close together to signifying the unity and co-operation amongst tribal people.
The festival was a busy event and it seemed that the entire population of Abu Dhabi had turned out for the final day. It was interesting to see a mix of cultures embracing this opportunity to educate themselves about the traditions and culture of this city that we call home.
With so much ground to cover we missed the gardening display with indigenous plants from the region and also Dukhoun – where you could learn about the ingredients used to mix and burn traditional incense. These are definitely the areas we will be heading to first next year.
Seeing the fort itself was definately one of the highlights. The building is currently under-going major renovations that began under the reign of Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan and are still on-going today, with a new project currently underway to reveal the original bricks of the forts structure.
We ventured out onto a traditional wooden dhow boat on the manmade ‘ocean’ to learn about the pearl industry for which Abu Dhabi became famous. We learnt about pearl diving and also how the oysters are removed from their shells, during an interactive demonstration.
Within the marine zone it was also possible to watch a dhow boat being constructed, the art of sail making and most interesting of all – visitors could learn how catch is preserved in salt and buy fish and salts to try for themselves at home.
A trip to Qasr Al Hosn wouldn’t be complete with some Emirati cuisine, our favourite was a bowl of warm tasty Legamat. For those who don’t know, Legamat are deep-fried dough balls covered in sticky date syrup and sesame seeds – the perfect way to finish off the day,
The Qasr Al Hosn festival is currently finished for this year, but will return again in February 2017.
All views within this blog are our own and all photographs are © Out & About UAE, unless otherwise stated.