Abu Dhabi’s evolution from desert oasis to modern metropolis has seen society undergo enormous changes over the past century, making the preservation of tradition and history an important and critical priority. Efforts to protect and promote Emirati culture and history have accelerated in recent years, as the National Archives moves to enact a host of initiatives aimed at digitising the UAE’s historical records, while the Qasr Al Hosn Festival has quickly risen to become one of the most important and expansive cultural events on offer.
One of the oldest cultural institutions in the UAE, the National Archives, first known as the Documents and Research Bureau, was originally established in 1968 by the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s founding father, and affiliated with the Ruler’s Court during its formative years. Entrusted with collecting and preserving extensive historical records, this pioneer institution stands as the largest documentation centre in the Gulf region today, and holds significant collections such as audio recordings of Sheikh Zayed and diaries of various royal family members.
The National Archives has increasingly embraced digitisation, offering the modern, digitally literate generation archive access through a mobile app first launched in 2013, which allows users to purchase, download and read all archive publications in both English and Arabic. Digitisation initiatives have accelerated in recent years. In November 2014, the archives partnered with Google to launch an online exhibit celebrating the foundation of the UAE, and showcased through the Google Cultural Institute, and announced in August 2015 that it plans to launch a digital initiative to preserve and classify the websites and social media accounts of various government entities – a first for the region.
Qasr Al Hosn
The Qasr Al Hosn Festival, organised annually by the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi), stands as the emirate’s pre-eminent cultural event, spread across five separate zones and featuring exhibitions, tours of famous historical sites, horse and camel riding, the Sheikh’s parade, and demonstrations of traditional activities including dhow building, palm weaving and preparation of gahwa, traditional-style coffee.
The festival, which was officially launched in 2013, is hosted at the symbolic birthplace and home of the first permanent structure of Abu Dhabi, which was home to the royal Al Nahyan family for generations. The site’s first coral and sea stone watchtower was constructed in the 1760s by Sheikh Dhiyab bin Isa, Sheikh of the Bani Yas tribe, protecting the settlement which had sprung up around water sources in what is now the heart of Abu Dhabi. Successive generations expanded on the settlement over the next 200 years, and Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who ruled from 1928 to 1966, used the emirate’s early oil revenues to construct an iconic palace surrounding the original fort. Sheikh Zayed later transformed it from a royal residence to a museum.
The festival has grown rapidly in just three years, with TCA Abu Dhabi reporting that 140,000 people visited the 2016 event, 10,000 more than in 2015. Guests at the festival can explore Abu Dhabi’s heritage at five separate zones: Marine, Desert, Abu Dhabi Island, and Oasis, as well as the new Qasr Al Hosn Zone, which was added to the list in 2016. The Qasr Al Hosn Zone focuses on archaeology and traditional Emirati architecture through workshops and live activities; the Marine Zone offers visitors the chance to meet a diverse group of boat builders, sailors, and pearl divers; and the Desert Zone highlights the food, crafts and animals that enabled survival in harsh desert climates over millennia. The Abu Dhabi Island Zone depicts scenes of traditional, pre-oil life, and the Oasis Zone offers interactive exhibitions of farming, gardening and building.