Photo: Woman walks at a fort

The Jahili Fort in Al Ain was occupied just a half-century ago.

Photograph by Dave Yoder, National Geographic

By Carl Hoffman

The walls are simple mud brick with round towers at the corners, and there are a few basic rooms, cool in the mid-afternoon heat. But to wander the grounds of Jahili and Sultan Forts, their museums, and the nearby date palm oasis in Al Ain is to imagine Abu Dhabi’s distant past, which is anything but distant—these forts were occupied just 50 years ago.

In a land of sand and warring, wandering tribes, the oases—with water and date palms, a crucial source of calories—were everything. Here, 62 miles (100 kilometers) south of Abu Dhabi city, in the eastern half of the emirate, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, who oversaw the creation of the United Arab Emirates and died in 2004, built forts, date orchards, and irrigation systems to consolidate his power and create a country where there was none.

Forget Versailles and its gold or the ramparts of the Tower of London; Jahili represents the austere simplicity of the desert. In the permanent collection of Wilfred Thesiger’s black-and-white photographs at Jahili or the rifles and silver jewelry in the museum at Sultan, it’s hard not to be awestruck by the Bedouins' capacity to not just survive, but flourish in this searingly hot, empty place. To stand in either fort’s courtyard at noon, even on a winter’s day, is to understand this. They may look medieval, but Sheikh Zayed lived and ruled from within these very walls just decades ago.

The date palm oasis next to Sultan Fort is equally striking. In a world of stabbing sun and empty brownness, the green and cool of the oasis is all soothing music and fertile life. Stroll into it and sit next to its canals and imagine seeing it, coming into it, in the height of a 130ºF (54ºC) summer day.

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