The secret history of Saadiyat: how people lived there until the early 90s

As he sits in the majlis of his modern suburban villa, Thani Al Remaithi tells stories that transport his daughter, Fatima, and her professor, the Zayed University archaeologist Dr Tim Power, to the years when he lived a very different life on the “island of happiness” the world now knows as Saadiyat. The most striking […]

As he sits in the majlis of his modern suburban villa, Thani Al Remaithi tells stories that transport his daughter, Fatima, and her professor, the Zayed University archaeologist Dr Tim Power, to the years when he lived a very different life on the “island of happiness” the world now knows as Saadiyat.

The most striking thing about Al Remaithi’s recollections are not his powers of recall, which are considerable, but the light they shine on the very different and half-forgotten world of the not-so-distant past.

Al Remaithi spent the first 22 years of his life living with his mother, grandparents and seven siblings in one of 20 houses that then formed the island’s only community, the now-disappeared Sha’biyat Al Saadiyat.

Established in the 1960s as little more than a cluster of fishermen’s huts, the Sha’biyat was established soon after Al Remaithi’s birth, when the original hamlet was replaced by a series of single-storey concrete houses as part of a campaign to provide the first generation of UAE citizens with modern, low-cost ‘Sha’abi’ – or national – housing.


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Despite the immediate architectural improvement, life on Saadiyat in the 1970s continued to be defined by the absence of essential amenities. Food, for example, still came directly from the sea or had to be imported from Abu Dhabi, a short boat ride away across the turquoise waters that form the creek known as the Khor Laffan.

“There was no petrol, no electricity and no water,” says the 44-year-old, remembering an island whose solitary well contained brackish water fit only for camels, 500 of which were kept on a small farm, or ezba, in the heart of the island.

“My mother and grandmother would go to Abu Dhabi to get food and [drinking] water and I would go with them, but nobody used too much [water] because we would clean our clothes and wash in the sea,” says Al Remaithi, remembering a life that, despite its hardships, he still cherishes.

Each summer, as temperatures rose and the fishing season ended, the Al Remaithat would leave Saadiyat for the cooler temperatures of the desert’s interior and it was during one of those annual sojourn’s that Al Remaithi was born in Al Ain.

In the cooler autumn and winter months, daily life on Saadiyat was made possible by the presence of certain basic facilities.

“As well as the Sha’biyat, there was a school house, a small police station and a hospital,” Al Remaithi remembers. “But this was only open for two hours at a time and was only for first aid.”

Until his daughter Fatima embarked on Zayed University’s Emirati Studies programme, the undergraduate regarded her father’s memories as little more than the baggage that accompanies any family history, but as the senior student explains, her opinions have changed.

“[The course] made me appreciate the stories more and allowed me to see them from a different point of view,” says the 22-year-old. “[I now see that they contain] information that is part of the oral history and archaeology of Saadiyat.”

Fatima’s tutor agrees with her assessment. Working with Abu Dhabi’s National Archives, Power recently worked on an oral history of Jazirat Al Hamra, an historic but abandoned pearling village in Ras Al Khaimah, and he hopes to achieve something similar for Saadiyat by conducting interviews with members of each of the original households.

The result, he says, would be an important “micro-history that investigates Emirati society at a key moment in its transition”.

For the past 18 months, Power and the female students in his Emirati Studies class have also been collaborating in an Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA) initiative that aims to use a blend of archaeology, oral history and heritage management to uncover what its founder, Dr Mark Beech, describes as “the secret history of Saadiyat”.

“We call it the Saadiyat Coastal Heritage Project and the main aim is to make sure that the history of Saadiyat Island isn’t forgotten,” explains Beech, TCA’s head of coastal heritage and palaeontology.

“The idea is to have Emiratis involved with discovering their own heritage by involving students from Zayed University but also from NYUAD [New York University Abu Dhabi] whose campus is less than a kilometre away from one of the island’s main archaeological sites.”

Beech, who has been working in the UAE for 22 years, was one of the first people to realise Saadiyat’s potential when he worked as part of the team that surveyed the island for the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey (Adias) in 2005.

“We found 15 or 16 locations where there was archaeological remains that were mostly in the form of pottery scatters, shell middens – clusters of discarded shells that had been processed – and we also found some settlement traces, clusters of stones and cooking areas where there were ancient hearths,” says the archaeologist.

“We collected as much of the archaeological material as we could, because we knew that a lot of the sites would be destroyed [by development], but we recommended that two areas should be protected.”

The areas Beech describes as sites ‘a’ and ‘b’ are both are on the eastern, mangrove-facing side of Saadiyat Island and the larger site, ‘b’, has been fenced by the island’s master developer, Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC).

Further north, site ‘a’ is a 40 metre-wide rocky outcrop that juts into the island’s lagoon-like inter-tidal zone where the daily movement of the tides, which frequently surround the outcrop with water, make the erection of a fence almost impossible.

“We didn’t find large stone houses on Saadiyat, but we did find clusters of stones possibly indicating tents or arish [palm] structures; we also have cooking places where people are cooking and processing fish and shellfish; and we have some small cairns and temporary mosque-type arrangements showing qibla,” says Beech.

Both sites are now listed for protection but the results of the earlier 2004-2005 Adias surveys, conducted by Beech and his former colleagues Heiko Kallweit and Richard Cutler, were never published and the thousands of pottery sherds and shells collected by the archaeologists were never processed in detail.

“The pottery scatter at site ‘b’ is quite large; we collected between 2,000 and 3,000 pottery sherds distributed over an area of around 200 by 50-60 metres and we have a cluster of around 10 hearths that show repeated cooking activity, which looks quite organised.”

It was with the idea of processing this material in mind that Beech approached Power a decade after the material had been archived, and in 2014 the idea of the Saadiyat Island Coastal Heritage Project started to become a reality.

“We made an agreement with Tim that the students would study and quantify the pottery but there was also 10 years of material eroding on the surface, so we thought we should go back and map the remaining material,” explains Beech.

“It’s an ideal job for introducing students to archaeological survey and pottery collection” says the TCA archaeologist Dr Anjana Lingareddy, who worked with Power to help train his students in the collection, mapping and processing of potsherds, a new batch of which were collected by Power’s students on a day-long field trip in March last year.

“We taught them how to collect pottery from the site in a systematic manner, to map it using differential GPS and to collect it in clusters so it was recorded properly, and then to put it in bags, carefully labelling each one.”

A specialist with a research background in late-Islamic archaeology, Power has been working in the Gulf since 2009 and has used the findings from his excavations in the oases of Al Ain to establish one of the first detailed chronologies for late-Islamic ceramics.

“The work I did in Al Ain was based on excavations and this gave us a vertical sequence, like the layers in a cake, with the earliest [pottery] at the bottom and the latest at the top,” the Englishman explains.


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“Because the pottery came from multiple sites it allowed us, for the first time, to reconstruct the late Islamic sequence from around 1650 to 1950.”

Back at Zayed University, Lingareddy and Power then taught the students how to handle, recognise and categorise the finds in their care.

“It’s research-led teaching that encourages the students to think about the city in which they live and gets them involved in actual research,” explains Power.

“We counted the different types of pottery, put them into a spreadsheet and when we look at the data and process it, that allows us to date the period of occupation on the principal that fashions in pottery change over time just as they do in fashion.

“Not all of the periods are the same length, but we’re now able to divide the period between 1650 and 1950 into six periods, of not equal length, but of between 30 and 70 years.”

After many weeks of processing, the Zayed University team produced a series of results that not only revealed the likely date of Saadiyat’s occupation but which also sheds light on the island’s trade relationships in the region.

“Although this is a coastal site, it’s not a very cosmopolitan one. It’s plugged into local rather than international trade routes and 90 per cent of it is a type of cooking pottery known as Julfar Ware which comes from Ras Al Khaimah,” says Power.

“But what is interesting about the site is that it’s transitional and appears to date from the late 18th or early 19th century. It’s definitely pre-1820s or 1830s because there are no refined, European white wares that were being exported to India from places like Stoke-on-Trent and then being re-exported to the Gulf and are ubiquitous.”

Despite the evidence pointing to temporary, small-scale and very humble forms of occupation, much like the life Al Remaithi’s family lived on Saadiyat 200 years later, the date of the pottery is something that gets all of the members of the heritage project excited. “If we have that date, then the site becomes very interesting when we put it into its historical context, because that is when Abu Dhabi was established,” says Power.

Source: uae news

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