The Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah has an impressive archaeological heritage and rich cultural history. This area has enticed settlers with its unique combination of the four different landscapes found in the United Arab Emirates: fertile plains, striking mountains, coastal beaches and mangroves, and the desert.
The interaction of these geographical factors coupled with Ras Al Khamiah’s strategic location at the mouth of the Arabian Gulf has shaped the very special heritage of the Emirate. Archaeological excavations reveal that an advanced civilization that carried on trade has existed in this region since 5,000 BC.
This rich history dating back to the Bronze Age makes Ras Al Khaimah one of the few places in the world continuously settled for over 7,000 years. Known through the ages as Julfar, Majan or Al Seer, Ras Al Khaimah has stood throughout antiquity as one of the most important trade centers and markets in the region.
Its position at the most trafficked maritime crossroads meant that the emirate was known to traders around the Gulf. Records show that inhabitants from RAK traveled as far afield as Bombay, China and Zanzibar as early as the 10th century.
Ras Al Khaimah’s location made it a valuable target for domination by a series of invading powers. Eighteen historic fortifications, castles and towers bear testament to a turbulent history that saw Ras Al Khaimah occupied or challenged by the Sasanians, Islamic clans of the Arabian Gulf, the Portuguese, Dutch and British forces.
Ras Al Khaimah’s history comes into sharper focus with the arrival of the Qawasim, a clan so influential that not only united a large part of the Northern Emirates, but also created one of the strongest fleets ever seen in this part of the region.
The arrival of the British influenced a political situation of the Arabian sheikdoms and introduced many changes. These changes finally led to unification of the seven emirates, which from 1971/1972 are known as the United Arab Emirates.
History enthusiasts will find that RAK is a treasure trove of archeological sites within easy reach, waiting to bring the past to life.
Ubaid Period (5’500 – 3’800 BC)
This is the oldest era known so far in the history of Ras Al Khaimah. Not far from Al Jazeerah Al Hamra, huge ruins of structures and external roofs have been discovered. These ruins are indicative of the early human activities in this area.
Moreover some pottery remains, beads, nets and stone implements were also found from the same area. They are a good evidence of the early existence of the Bedouin desert inhabitants who used to live on the coast in the winter. The pottery remains resembled pottery and earthenware pots found in Mesopotamia in the same period. This is living proof of direct trade relations between both areas. In the area of Khatt, excavators have also discovered historical sites that contained granite implements which belonged to the same era.
Haffet Period (3’200 – 2’600 BC)
This era was known for its ruins of graves and burial grounds which were built on high mountains. They were made of local stone and shaped like beehives. Each grave consisted of one or two small rooms. These were discovered in the areas of Khatt, Wadi al-Bih as well as in Wadi al-Qarw.
Umm al-Nar Civilization (2’600 – 2’000 BC)
The Umm al- Nar Civilization existed in the middle of the third millennium BC. It was arguably the most important period in the development of a civilization in the UAE. Evidence suggests that trade between Mesopotamia and the Valley of Inds (south-east of Iran) flourished during the period. These areas together provided a vast and extended network for distant trade especially in high quality pottery which they were famous for. The period is well known for its round graves whose external walls were built of smooth engraved and polished stones. A grave was divided into rooms to be used for massive burial, in other words they were used for burying generations of dead people. Archaeologists were able to discover the remains of more than one hundred bodies in these graves. The largest grave was found in the Shamal area. One of these graves had a 14.5 meter diameter. A stone on its front had the drawing of a human foot engraved on it. In 1988, another grave was discovered in the Menaie Valley in the northern area of Ras Al Khaimah. Another grave was discovered in Aasama, where significant collections of bronze implements were also found. Among them were arrowheads and daggers.
Wadi Suq Culture Period (2’000 – 1’600 BC)
The most remarkable archaeological finds of this era are the 15 huge graves in the area of Shamal, comprising the biggest cemetery in the prehistoric era. More graves were also discovered in Ghaleelah, Al Qirm, Al Rams, Qarn Al Harf, Khatt and Athan in 1976. Their excavation work and investigations were carried out during 1985-1990. Most of the Wadi Suq graves were huge and were built above the ground. Their foundations were built of limestone. Each grave was the burial place of 30 to 60 bodies. The personal belongings and remnants found in these graves are at present on display in the Ras Al Khaimah National Museum. They include painted cups, cans and indented stone pans, pots with lids, personal jewels (namely beads), metal tools and arms.
Late Bronze Age (1’600 – 1’250 BC)
The second half of the second millennium BC, the late Bronze Age, is known from a settlement in the Shamal area, which has been partly excavated by a German Mission of the University of Goettingen. Built at the foot of the rising mountains, it showed traces of ‘arish’ style housing, typical of the United Arab Emirates until as recently as 50 years ago. Large amount of shells and fish bones discovered from the area indicate that the people relied on the Creek, which was probably not far away. Dates and animal bones discovered from the area suggest that farming was also common during the period.
Iron Age (1’200 – 300 BC)
The Iron Age here is best known from finds from the southern part of Ras Al Khaimah where a number of graves were discovered. Some of them were oblong with four rooms, others were shaped like a horseshoe and some others were circular in shape. Archaeologists have discovered painted pans and large number of stone engraved decorated pots made of chlorite from them. One of the most significant discoveries was a stone with the drawing of a phoenix engraved on it. The drawing of this imaginary bird resembled those painted in Assyrian palaces in Northern Iraq. In Northern Ras Al Khaimah there are two settlements shaped like hillocks. The settlement in Khatt was discovered in 1968. The other is in Shamal. Both settlements represent life in the northern region in the Iron Age.
The Hellenic and Parthian Era (300 BC -300 AD)
The later pre-Islamic time, the Hellenic and Parthian Period, is also evident in the northern parts. Survey projects launched by the Antiquities and Museums Department have led to the discovery of some historical sites in the northern and southern districts of Ras Al Khaimah. These sites include individual tombs and reused old graves found in Shamal, Asimah and in Wa’ab / Wadi Muna’i.
The Sasanian Occupation Era (300 AD – 632 AD)
The Sasanian occupation of Ras Al Khaimah is now becoming increasingly evident. A team of archaeologists have founded a small site on the island of Hulaylah that was occupied during the Sasanian Period. Recently two other sites were found in Khatt. The most significant discovery of this era during the three-phase exploration campaign was a Sasanian citadel. It was built mainly to have full control over the fertile plains in the north of Ras Al Khaimah. This monument was evacuated when Islam was adopted in the UAE area. For the early as well as for the later Islamic Periods, Ras Al Khaimah is the most important Emirate regarding the archeological heritage. The early centuries of Islam are well presented in Kush and at the island of Hulaylah.
The Abbasids Era (750 – 1’250 AD)
This period of history featured the great unified Islamic Empire and the huge expansion of trade with East Asia. This era was embodied in small areas in the Arabian Gulf. The presence of two of these areas in Ras Al Khaimah helped it to play a great role as a bustling trade route in the early Islamic Era. One of these places was Al Khoush which was a castle abandoned by the Sassans during the Islamic expansion in this area. It was reoccupied by people who lived in it for the next seven centuries. The second place is situated in the Island of Hulaylah. It was a structure made of palm leaves. Its ruins are few and vague, however they are considered to be of great historical importance. Both the sites were known as a part of Julfar, which was an old town well known to Muslim travellers and geographers. Some Abbasid pottery and Chinese porcelain pots imported from Iraq and elsewhere were found in these two areas. The antiquities show us how far people of Julfar were deeply interested and involved in trade at that time.
The Later Islamic Era (14th – 19th century)
In the middle of the fourteenth century, Kush and the Island of Hulaylah were deserted. People began to settle on sandy beaches near the coast. This area was called Julfar. It was discovered by the famous archaeologist Piatris in 1968. Many archaeological expeditions were delegated to the area by France, Britain, Japan and Germany. They all showed that Julfar was a vast populated area from the fourteenth up to the seventeenth century. The town was built of baked mud bricks and protected by a mud wall, 2.5 meters thick and 4 meters high. It was a main center of trade in the lower part of the Arabian Gulf. Julfar was famous for its vast and flourishing trade with distant areas. The finds of porcelain and pottery from here were imported from Arab and European countries. It was the hometown of the famous Arab navigator, Ahmad Ibn Majid who was called “The Lion of Seas”. Julfar was famous for its quality pottery made in Shamal and the Valley of Haqeel which were among the main centers for making and distributing pottery pots throughout the Gulf countries. The pottery industry prevailed for more than 500 years. The last abandoned pottery oven was in the Valley of Haqeel, 30 years ago.
The recent History (19th – 20th century)
Even the more Recent History (19th & 20th Century) is well presented in the National Museum of Ras Al Khaimah. In the recent years the Department of Antiquities and Museums has conducted several surveys to collect the data about traditional buildings. 75 standing towers built of mud-brick or stone and mortar were registered during a survey. Recently, a survey concerning the existence of old mosques located more than 20 sites, which were older than 30 years. They have been recorded, planned and photographed by a Belgian team and reflect the unique and important architectural tradition of religious buildings in the United Arab Emirates in general and the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah in particular.