Monday, November 09, 2009

Is Palace of Queen Sheba/Balqis or Queen Zenobia in Ras al Khaimah?

Palace of myths and legends

Rym Ghazal

Above left, Hamad bin Seray points out and explains the significance of the area. Amy Leang / The National

The ruins stand atop a 200-metre hill above the village of Shamal in Ras al Khaimah, cloaked in myth and mystery.

“So many legends and stories are associated with this palace, with some people saying it is thousands of years old and others saying it is just a few hundreds years old,” says Dr Hamad bin Seray, an associate professor at the department of history and archaeology at UAE University.

From time to time he pauses on his climb one he has made several times for his studies picking up shards of pottery. By the time he reaches the remains of the building, he has a small collection of shards, which he says are between 400 and 500 years old.

They are tantalising clues about the history of the castle, which is reputed to be the oldest in the UAE.

“There is so much that we don’t know about this palace, except its name,” the historian says.

In fact, even that is debatable.

In English, it is known as Sheba’s Palace. The Queen of Sheba, mentioned in the Bible and the Quran, is said to have ruled the kingdom of Marib in Yemen around 1000BC, though her legend is also told in Ethiopia, across the Red Sea. The Bible dates Sheba’s reign to the 10th century BC. The Quran describes the queen as a sun-worshipper who lived in the Arabian peninsula and was converted to Islam.

“If you choose to believe it belongs to the Queen of Sheba, or Balqis as she is known to us, then it is thousands of years old,” Dr Seray says. “But I am less inclined to believe this as there is no archaeological evidence that the palace is in any way pre- Islamic.”

In Arabic, and among people who live in the area, the palace is better known as the 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.

“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,” Dr Seray says. “Not the most flattering title to be crowned with.”

Given the archaeological evidence and his study of the palace, Dr Seray is adamant the site could not belong to either queen, since it is not pre- Islamic. Such was the fame of the two women in Arabia that their names would be linked to ruins built long after their time.

Dr Seray believes the palace most probably dates from the end of the Julfar period. The area of Julfar, now Ras al Khaimah, was a renowned and prosperous trading centre in the lower Gulf from the early Islamic times until around the late 17th century, when it fell into decline during the Portuguese presence in the Gulf.


The historian Hamad bin Seray on a tour of the ancient Sheba Palace. The age of the ruins is uncertain. Amy Leang / The National

“I believe, based on its design and archaeological findings, the palace may well have been built by the Portuguese when they assumed power over this area,” Dr Seray says. But with the arrival of the British and Dutch colonialists, their rule did not last long.

Another possibility is that the building may have been the residence of a female ruler, either from the late Julfar period or during the Portuguese reign.

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.

“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,” Dr Seray says. “Not the most flattering title to be crowned with.”

Given the archaeological evidence and his study of the palace, Dr Seray is adamant the site could not belong to either queen, since it is not pre- Islamic. Such was the fame of the two women in Arabia that their names would be linked to ruins built long after their time.

Dr Seray believes the palace most probably dates from the end of the Julfar period. The area of Julfar, now Ras al Khaimah, was a renowned and prosperous trading centre in the lower Gulf from the early Islamic times until around the late 17th century, when it fell into decline during the Portuguese presence in the Gulf.

“I believe, based on its design and archaeological findings, the palace may well have been built by the Portuguese when they assumed power over this area,” Dr Seray says. But with the arrival of the British and Dutch colonialists, their rule did not last long.

Another possibility is that the building may have been the residence of a female ruler, either from the late Julfar period or during the Portuguese reign.

“There seems to be a woman in connection with this palace, but it has to have been in the Islamic period based on the date of the pieces of pottery discovered on site,” Dr Seray says.

The medieval palace is located on the ridge of a mountain above the village of Shamal and has a panoramic view of the emirate, extending all the way to the sea.

To improve access, spiral stairways were built up the side of the hill a decade ago by the local government. After climbing 100 or so steps, visitors must scramble over the loose, rocky surface of the mountain to reach the top and enter the palace itself.

“It is quite a strategic location,” Dr Seray says, standing among the palace ruins. “No wonder it was built here, as it is hard to get to and a great location for surveillance of the area below.”

And during the hot summers “it is also much cooler here than below”, he says.

The palace, or what is left of it, is an impressive labyrinth of limestone walls, little more than outlines of the narrow corridors and 10 rooms, each approximately five metres by five metres, that once made up the building.

One of the best preserved elements is a covered sunken room, or cistern, which may have been a reservoir for collecting and storing water. The cistern’s roof is made of sea corals and is of a “clumsier make” than the rest of the palace.

“The roof seems to be built for a temporary time as it is not as solid as the rest of the building blocks around the palace,” Dr Seray says.

The space may have had a more sinister purpose, perhaps as a dungeon. Rocks with sharp carvings nearby seem to tell of the existence at some point of wooden pillars and rods that may indicate a door.

There are three such cisterns, and watchtowers at three of the corners of the rectangular palace.

But the most striking part of the remains is the long wall guarding the palace that extends along the edge of the hill. If only the wall could speak of the history it has seen.

“There are no carvings, no written history about this palace,” Dr Seray says, “so we really don’t know its story and are making assumptions based on the few items found here.”

A pamphlet produced by RAK Tourism and RAK Museum, however, firmly links the palace to the Julfar period.

After the 16th century, it says, the medieval structure was no longer used as a palace but served in times of danger as “a Sur”, or retreat, for the inhabitants of the farms of date palms in Shamal.

For this reason, it is thought that the top of the hill was completely surrounded by a stone wall to ensure the safety of people and their animals in times of attacks and raids from the desert. There is no mention of a Portuguese link to the palace.

Whatever the truth of the palace’s past, its future is less bright. The fence that was built around the bottom of the hill has been pulled down, leaving the remains at the mercy of passers-by, and it is almost certain that ancient vandalism took its toll on the original structure.

“It was a common act by the inhabitants of a particular area to destroy something that was once occupied by invaders or rulers as a way of making sure that no one else takes it over, as well as making a statement against those that once occupied the place,” Dr Seray says.

“So the people of Shamal back then may have destroyed this palace when the Portuguese left and, with it, the story of this place.”

Without doubt, the site is badly in need of restoration. It is a subject that has been discussed among local archeologists and historians, but such a project would be costly and no concrete plans have emerged.

“It is a shame that the palace is not maintained, and is at the mercy of random visits by trekkers from time to time,” Dr Seray says.

When contacted by The National, the resident archaeologist at the Department of Antiquities and Museums in RAK, Christian Velde, said there was a plan to improve the area for tourism within the next two years.

“The fence is old, over 20 years old, as it was one of the first protected areas by the local government,” Mr Velde said. But other historic sites in RAK have priorities in their renovations, and the palace’s turn is coming up, he said.

“There is only a 20cm to 30cm foundation left there, so we can’t reconstruct it, and probably will end up setting up sketches of how the palace may have looked once we set up the site as a tourist destination.”

Whoever once lived here the Queen of Sheba or the equally mysterious Queen Zenobia today’s occupants of the lonely ruins are altogether more humble. “It has become the permanent home of the mountain goats and foxes,” Dr Seray says.

rghazal@thenational.ae

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