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

Shaikh Mohammad tells Dubai doubters to shut up


I saw His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai on TV with a stern message for Dubai’s doubters – telling them to “shut up”.

Speaking about the stream of stories on Dubai - Abu Dhabi relations, Shaikh Mohammad restated the commitment between all of the emirates in the UAE.

Switching to English, he added: "Who doesn't understand this should do their homework before they start talking. We will be there for each other when we need it."

"And I want to tell those people who nag about Dubai and Abu Dhabi to shut up.”


His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum

Full text of Shaikh Mohammad's speech

The full text of the speech delivered by His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, at the Mena & Frontiers Conference in Dubai on Monday

Most of you know how keen I am to save time, so I will enter straight into the topic that I believe you are concerned with, which is Dubai's economy.

I will not waste time telling the details of the global financial crisis because you are the experts in this field.

However, I want to share part of my thoughts with you today about the crisis, which affected the world from East to West and formed the most important global economic event that affected the major economies of the world.

The repercussions of the crisis left an economic reality across the world and affected open economies more severely than closed ones, which are less connected and interactive with international markets.

Thus, Dubai had to take the necessary arrangements to cope with the results of the global economic downturn and the shrinking of markets. Dubai's initiatives in this field were not isolated from the UAE's serious and important steps, because, as you know, Dubai is an inseparable part of the UAE federation.

I will not list the initiatives we took to overcome the repercussions of the crisis, since most of you know the steps we took whether at a federal or local level.

I would like to talk to you about the important facts, which I can summarise in one sentence. The global economic crisis, despite its temporary effects, will not deter Dubai from its development ambitions and will not remove it from its leading position. It will not distance it from its active role in the global economic arena and will not weaken the determination of its sons to carry on the development march.

Although I agree with those who say that words are easy and the real test lies in the implementation, I have full confidence in our capability to perform, and the evidence is in the achievements which stand for all to see in Dubai. They prove that my convention is realistic. It did not come from vacuum or derive its presence from hollow hopes.

Led by my brother, President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, we in the UAE are carrying on the march started by the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan and our father, the late Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, since the early 1970s, when they launched the first stage of the federation and started the blessed march.

When my father decided to go ahead with expanding the Dubai Creek and issued orders to construct the Dubai International Airport and the Jebel Ali Port among other major projects, people around him did not hide their scepticism about the economic feasibility of these projects back then.

But, this is Dubai, and those are its sons, who always look at the future with a sharp vision and stable steps. Their method is work and their guidance is their faith in God and the success he bestows upon them, as well as their capability to overcome challenges and conquer new fields that seemed illusionary at first.

Today, we reap what our fathers planted. Our economy is diverse and does not only rely on foreign investments, which we welcome in Dubai. We are proud of a group of companies which are nationally based and globally expanded, and which have a high capability and international reputation, such as Emirates Airlines, DP World, Jumeirah Group and other companies that represent the real shields of Dubai's economic capability.

These achievements are the practical and realistic proof that we are capable of overcoming crises. They are our golden ticket for a new development and growth phase.

We have realised early on the importance of investing in a state-of-the-art, highly reliable infrastructure.

Our strategic choice is to start where others ended, while creating a development model that guarantees us the capability to face challenges in a flexible and effective way that places the human being at the top of its priorities.

Some may think that Dubai could have moved faster in tackling the repercussions of the global economic meltdown. But we decided to take our time, rather than to rush in, because of our keenness to support the capabilities of the main business establishments in Dubai and restructure them in a way that gives them strength and ability to cope with the new economic reality, which stemmed from the crisis. This crisis imposed new equations on major economies and opened promising horizons for new markets such as India and China, as part of a stage during which the roles and importance of these markets will grow.

I am confident that the worst has passed, and the darkest clouds of the crisis have cleared, and that Dubai has now, with the emerging signs of global economic recovery, is in a situation which allows it to invest its underlying strength to start new rounds in the race for distinction.

The entire world was witnessing this race for the past few decades with awe at our ability to achieve and excel.

My confidence in Dubai's ability to overcome the crisis does not come from vacuum. It is based on facts that I would like to share with you, and which some may have overlooked when they issued preset judgment on Dubai and its ability to overcome this situation, which was imposed by international circumstances that did not spare Dubai.

It is a series of factors that came together in Dubai (whether some may like it or not), and made us the best choice for the global investment community, which seeks to set up businesses to conquer the markets of a large area with over a billion residents. These are emerging markets full of opportunities which big markets lack because they are highly saturated.

I would like to highlight some important facts:

The global financial crisis will not remove Dubai from its distinguished geographic location in the heart of the world, which makes it an indispensable link between the East and the West.

The infrastructure and high-performance air and sea networks support our ability to reach the region's markets and achieve active linking with them, for which Dubai is prepared.

Jebel Ali Port is the sixth biggest port in the world and the largest in the Middle East.

Dubai International Airport is also the sixth in the world in terms of the number of travellers. It caters to 125 airlines that fly to over 210 destinations in all six continents.

When the Al Maktoum International Airport is completed, it will occupy the first position among the largest airports of the world, with a yearly capacity of 160 million travellers and 12 million tonnes of cargo. It is also prepared to receive giant aircraft.

With our geographic location, and after completing our logistic infrastructure, we were keen to develop the legislative structure, which enhances one of our four major sectors, namely the financial services sector.

The world admitted the success of Dubai as an integrated financial market among other major markets from New York and London in the west to Hong Kong and Tokyo in the east. Our market is a central link based on important organisational structures, the most significant of which is the Dubai Financial Centre, which earned the respect and appreciation of the international financial community with its world class legal system.

We have succeeded in Dubai to build a friendly business environment that fulfil the needs of investors, through distinguished facilities such as complete income and company tax exemption, and through providing a highly efficient technological structure, property facilities, professional services and service facilities to cater to the needs of investors and their families.

I will not list all the details that enhance our belief that Dubai is capable of shaking off the dust of this passing crisis, but I just wanted to point out that those who believe that Dubai's economy and its development success story was pulled by property development projects are wrong.

No one can deny the property boom in the past few years, but it is unfair to sum up Dubai's experience by these projects, no matter how big they were. Dubai's development success story is much bigger, deeper and strategically diversified than that.

Furthermore, Dubai is not alone. It is an integral part of the UAE federation, which is a strong fortress. The success of Dubai is an extension of Abu Dhabi's success, and vice versa. The same applies to all seven emirates. Together with Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah, our federation is an unbeatable force and a fortress that no challenges can dismantle.

This federation is the source of our confidence and strength.

My optimism that the crisis is coming to an end and my faith in Dubai's ability to return to its strong development rates very soon are also based on ideology and human heritage that stem from my Bedouin roots, which I and my people are proud to belong to. Bedouins are wise, tough and unbendable in the face of crises. They only know determination and working hard for their goals.

Those who know me closely trust my words when I say that I am confident the second tranche of the bonds programme launched by Dubai will be highly popular and have high subscription rates. It will be directed towards settling Dubai's obligations over the next few years.

Our development march has been and will remain a race towards excellence. A race to firmly establish Dubai's position as a leading and developed business centre, and to ensure that it deserves the title of the sole financial and trade capital of the Middle East.

Over the past 20 years, Dubai maintained healthy growth rates, and many benefited as a result of this growth, yet the economic downturn gave us a chance to slow down, think and reflect. Perhaps we needed this break to catch our breath and work to renew our competitive abilities before carrying on in the race.

We do not deny that the financial crisis shoved us into a state of silence, leaving behind an information vacuum, in which rumours found a fertile soil to spread.

We must not allow this to happen again, because clarity and open communication are key factors in building mature and civilised nations.

We must also remember that the economic recession is on the way out, just like all other recessions that took place in the past.

Over the past year, I listened carefully to the opinions of many business leaders in Dubai, the UAE, Asia, Europe and the US, and CEOs from sectors such as aviation and hotels, as well as investors and capital holders. I listened to their hopes and aspirations, and I assure them that we will continue to invest in supporting our basic structure in all fields, to serve the domestic interests and secure success for our partners of investors in all sectors.

Our recent Dubai Metro launching celebration stood as evidence to our determination to support Dubai's place on the international map as an international city which has distinction factors at both the short and long terms.

By the way, did you ride the metro? If not, I advise you to do so, since it is the first metro without a driver in the region.

In fact, I would like to see you accompanying us on the next development trip, upon which we embark with sails pushed by winds of determination and optimism.

It is a trip to beat challenges and prove to all that determination and future vision are the real resource for hardworking people in their march towards distinction and success

Makkah, Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah's Monorail to make Haj easier next year

The operation of a monorail system during the Haj next year would facilitate the transport of millions of pilgrims between the holy sites of Makkah, Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah.

http://www.constructionweekonline.com/pictures/gallery/Projects/Bahrain_Monorail_web.jpg

Habeeb Zain Al-Abidine, deputy minister of municipal and rural affairs, said the monorails would transport 500,000 pilgrims between the holy sites within six to eight hours.

“This will help withdraw at least 30,000 small and large buses from the Haj service,” said Zain .Al-Abidene while addressing a seminar on civil engineering projects for Haj.

Zain Al-Abidine said the monorail project, which is estimated to cost SR6.75 billion would bring about a major shift in pilgrim transportation, a major headache of Haj managers. “This project will reduce overcrowding in the holy sites, reduce pressure on roads and help pilgrims reach their destinations early,” he said.

He added that the project would be partially operational next year and fully operational a year later. “Once we find this project to be a success, we’ll apply this system for the transportation of pilgrims even outside the holy sites,” he said.

Studies are now under way on extending the monorail to a station close to the Grand Mosque in Makkah in order to link it with the Haramain Railway that connects the two holy cities of Makkah and Madinah.

An agreement on implementing the multibillion riyal project was signed in the presence of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah and Chinese President Hu Jintao in Riyadh on Feb. 10. The project is designed to transport five million pilgrims.

Zain Al-Abidine, who is also secretary-general of the Commission for Development of Makkah, Madinah and the Holy Sites, said a feasibility study conducted by an international company had proposed five monorails linking the holy sites.

“The feasibility study suggested the second monorail be built two to three years after the construction of the first one,” he said, adding that a single monorail would cost SR4 billion. The first monorail beginning from Mina will transport nearly one million pilgrims including 360,000 Arab pilgrims.

Monorail, which is a single rail serving as the track for a wheeled or (magnetically) levitating vehicle, has been rapidly paving its way as a modern urban transit system, providing the most-sought-after transportation solutions for a built-up congested city. The Makkah monorails will be 8 to 10 meters above ground to ensure the smooth flow of pedestrians and vehicles.

Faisal Al-Ghamdi from the Saudi Railway Organization said it would speed up the transport of pilgrims and others between Makkah, Madinah and Jeddah.