The rush to modernise the urban environments of the Arab world has resulted in the neglect or mistreatment of many of its historical buildings and the creation of a false history for future generations
As anyone living in the UAE will be aware, the overpowering feeling that visitors have on arriving here is that the UAE feels new. A rapid programme of urbanisation means that high-rise, high-tech construction projects abound.
Although this urbanisation is necessary to keep up with the demands of an ever-growing population, many claim that this development is at the expense of the buildings that could give the cities of the UAE a unique identity. "Our structures are our only living records of the past. Renovating and preserving our historic buildings can provide a living history," says Adil Abdalla, managing director of the UAE's only conservation consultancy centre. "But if we preserve these buildings in the wrong way we are creating a false history."
According to Abdalla, there is a conservation crisis in the Arab world which is creating a historical record that is not accurate. "There is a big difference between simply rebuilding a historical structure to a traditional style and accurately re-creating an ancient way of life," says Abdalla. "Renovating a historical building requires the skills of a historian as well as an architect. Although many UAE construction companies are capable of replicating styles, to preserve a part of history is an altogether different task".
A correctly restored and maintained building can give an insight into long forgotten ways of life. By using modern methods to reinforce, rather than rebuild, it is possible to preserve a part of history. An overhead beam in a kitchen area can give an indication of a society's eating habits through residues left on the wood. Likewise, the location of rooms in a house in relation to each other can indicate cultural practises and provide an insight into ways of life that no longer exist.
After renovation, a historical building must also be preserved in the right way to maintain its integrity. Many valuable sites are in city centres, and subject to modern forces such as pollution from car exhausts and vibrations caused by passing traffic. Maintaining a historic building is an ongoing process that requires scientific support along a strict set of guidelines. "Standardisation is the only way to develop an accurate means of preserving historical sites across language and cultural barriers," says Abdalla.
However, manufacturing a past, with no regard for the traditions and building methods of that era should be avoided at all costs.
As cities have been built up around natural resources, such as Dubai's creek, the sites of traditional structures have become highly sought after real estate locations, causing planning conflicts. If the owner of a site of historical significance is offered a huge amount to sell his property to a developer, he is unlikely to pass up this opportunity. It is these market forces, and real estate speculation at the heart of many major Arab cities to build new hotels, office space and provide parking facilities that is causing the conservation crisis. The conservation crisis comes from a new found desire among Arab countries to preserve their heritage for future generations. Newly-discovered wealth has resulted in a building boom which has often been at the expense of traditional architectural styles and many historical buildings.
Adil Abdalla, at the Architecture and Conservation Consultancy Centre, is hoping to change this by applying international standards of renovation and preservation to the buildings of the UAE
"The most honest record of mankind are his structures," says Abdalla. "But we must preserve them in the correct way, otherwise we are misrepresenting our history."
A set of standards on the conservation of historic monuments has been produced by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). This organisation is an international non-governmental group of professionals dedicated to the conservation of the world's historic monuments and sites. ICOMOS was founded in 1965 as a result of the international adoption of the Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites. There are national committees in 90 countries. ICOMOS is UNESCO's principal advisor in matters concerning the conservation and protection of monuments and sites.
"ICOMOS has 7,000 members worldwide, but only 70 are Arabs," says Abdalla. Only six Arab countries are represented in ICOMOS. Considering the size and potential amount of historical sites in the Arab world, this is a vast underepresentation. The reason for this lack of representation in ICOMOS is a lack of a culture of preservation in the Arab world. According to Abdalla, there is a lack of awareness among Arab countries of what can be gained from preservation. The President of the UAE himself, His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, has recognised that without history the UAE has no future, but the preservation must adhere to a set of standards to be of value to a society.
The crisis is far reaching throughout the Arab World. Arab Islamic cultures possess only 6 percent of officially recorded cultural sites worldwide. Destructive renovation techniques have wreaked havoc on historical structures in many Arab capitals. In addition the succesful preservation of Arabic heritage has been hampered by bureaucratic and misguided organizations. Egypt's Antiquities Authority employs more than 20,000 people, making it the largest organisation of its kind in the world, yet its effectiveness remains unclear. Likewise the Sudanese authorities, who do not research or excavate any sites beyond a certain age.
The main cause of this crisis is the lack of specialised personnel to renovate and maintain the sites. Although large sums of money are being spent on rebuilding projects, the finished structures are not registered on the international heritage record as they rarely adhere to standards of renovation. Sites such as the Ommayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria and the pyramids in Cairo, Egypt have all been 'renovated' but the methods used have resulted in independent specialists claiming that these landmarks have been brought closer to obliteration rather than renovation. All this is being done under the supervision of organisations set up to preserve Arab culture, but not adhering to internationally established standards.
"Nobody would seek the advice of an unqualified doctor to cure their illness. Why should we let our heritage be restored and maintained with disregard for what is best for it," says Abdalla.
To succesfully preserve Arabic heritage, efforts must be made based on a coherent vision. "The efforts should be co-ordinated by an Arab national government body that will transcend local and regional organisations," says Abdalla.
An ancient deserted village located in the northern Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, Khat could be the first site in the UAE to benefit from plans to add Arab sites to the international heritage register. Comprising an ancient Mosque, a watchtower, a school and a shop, Khat covers a site of approximately two square kilometres. It was last occupied in 1990, but the residents moved to a nearby village when the buildings became too rundown. The central watchtower, which was used to protect the village from other tribes, is one of the largest in the UAE and is unique in that it is made of a solid block of mud, unlike most which are hollow. The only way in and out is by climbing a rope that was lowered by a sentry when guards would exchange shifts. The watchtower was built as a solid block to be more capable of repelling attacks from cannons.
The area has been inhabited for more than 300 years, and the mosque is the oldest surviving structure, which is estimated to be around 250-years-old. Salim S Bin Salouma, an architect and partner at the Architecture and Conservation Consultancy Centre is currently surveying the area and putting together a renovation plan for Khat. "We hope to turn the area into a major tourist attraction, but with a functional purpose. The buildings would be renovated, but also be used practically. Local people and visitors would still be able to pray at the Mosque. Khat would become an educational site as well as a tourist destination," said Salouma.
Salouma's plan is to create a living museum which would be used as an educational centre. the project would also be a big boost for the local economy. "The project would create around 200 jobs for local people, who would be trained and employed as tour guides, administration staff, traditional craftsmen and many others professions," said Salouma.
Khat is built on a man-made system of underground water tunnels fed from natural springs and sustained a population of approximately 200 people. The people were farmers, who cultivated dates, lemons, corn and henna. The area is also famous for its pottery and the nearby natural spring."We are currently making a survey for the cost of renovations to the village, which could cost Dhs5-8 million. The project could take up to five years to complete, depending on the level of funding we obtain," says Abdalla.