Technically speaking, the history of Ras al Khaimah in the UAE only dates back to 1972 because that is when this monarchy ruled by the al Qasimi clan joined the political union. Prior to this event, Ras al Khaimah was part of the Trucial States governed by the British Empire, a condition that lasted from about 1820 to 1971. When tourists arrive in RAK these days, the modern prosperity they experience is part of an economic development plan that started under the rule of the late Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, and which has continued under His Highness Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi. Unbeknownst to many visitors, RAK is very rich in cultural tourism, more so than the two major Emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and it is certainly worth exploring.
The first thing cultural tourists should know about RAK is that this was one of the most important centers of the Julfar region, which flourished during the Islamic Empire, but the historic precedent of this Emirate goes back thousands of years before the Prophet Muhammad. RAK has been continuously settled for about 7,000 years, and the advantageous geography and climate of the region enabled the development of the Umm Al Nar and Wadi Suq peoples. As such, archaeologists have located hundreds of interesting sites around RAK, and this is within an area smaller than 2,500 square kilometers.
Prior to the economic reinvention of RAK, which started in the mid-1980s and is unfolding at a very prosperous pace, the Emirate did not welcome many international visitors aside from researchers. It so happens that overall economic development in RAK, including infrastructure projects, has resulted in an increase of cultural tourism. In 2013, construction of the Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed highway project, which is an improvement of the old Emirates Road, was brought to a halt by the discovery of tombs and artifacts from the year 2000 B.C. This particular site has been determined to be an extension of a dig conducted by British archaeologists in the 1980s.
These days, visitors who set up camp in the Wadi Beih region can explore ancient cemeteries that were used by Bedouin tribes hundreds, perhaps thousands of years ago. It should be noted that the Bedouins of the Wadi Suq and Julfar periods practiced a more dynamic economy than other tribes across the Arabian Peninsula; instead of focusing solely on goat and camel raising and herding, they also took advantage of the fertile soil and managed oasis camps.
Stone structures can be found across many wadi regions in RAK; some are near oasis camps, which suggests they housed managers, and other seem to have served as communal or religious centers. Visitors who are looking for more significant landmarks will certainly find them in Shimal, a site where the ruins of an ancient village can be appreciated next to Queen Sheba’s palace. It should be noted that this is not the main castle where the biblical Queen Sheba, who traveled to Jerusalem and met King Solomon, actually ruled from; this was one of her many residences, but her main abode was located in modern-day Yemen. Whether Queen Sheba actually traveled here is also a matter of debate; she is more likely to have appointed someone as a ruler to set up a royal and administrative structure that was eventually transferred to the Islamic Empire.
Although Ahmad ibn Mājid, a famous seafaring expert known as the “Lion of the Sea,” was probably born in Oman, he learned the sailing trade and became educated in a Julfar coastal district that today is home to the Port of Saqr. The legacy of this sailor should certainly be remembered; after all, Portuguese explorers such as Vasco da Gama read his works in order to figure out a way to sail from the western coasts of Africa to India. When you visit RAK these days, you can visit a museum dedicated to Ahmad ibn Mājid, located not far from the coast, where you can learn about the maritime history of the Julfar.
RAK officials believe that a golden age of cultural tourism is coming for the Emirate. As construction of the new downtown RAK district takes place, workers are finding new sites and artifacts from various historic periods. It will not take long for RAK to become an important center of cultural tourism.
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