Jazirat al-Hamra: Ghost Town or a Crumbling Piece of History?
One look at the seclusion and crumbling walls across the main road tells us that we have arrived at the right place. It’s a couple of hours before dusk; we have some time to explore the area before it eventually gets dark. We park our cars right in front of a fort that watches over narrow alleys and abandoned buildings in eerie silence.
A sister of mine knows some people from a photography club. It is through them that we came to know about this town. It’s a weekend, and not having any other plan, we decide on visiting this place for some photography fun.
The breeze is chilly. There is labor camp not so far away. We see a couple of men walk past us carrying firewood on their heads. When they left, there are only the eight of us remaining in the area. I look up; a few fluffy clouds are scattered on a very blue sky, and a few birds fly overhead. We pick up our cameras and start walking towards the quiet town.
This place is Jazirat al-Hamra, or the Red Island, located in Ras al Khaimah, one of the seven emirates that form the U.A.E. It is also known as the ghost town. The story goes that this town was haunted, which is the reason why it was abandoned, and has remained uninhabited and neglected since 1968.
The main paths meander through this village—passing by mosques, and houses with features like wooden doors, star windows, wind-towers, and courtyards—towards the sea. However, all of these structures lie in varying degrees of decay.
Occupied by the Za’ab tribe, this coastal village was created in the 14th century on a peninsula. They were also called Hadhr, which is the local name for coastal Bedouins, whose livelihood depended mainly on pearling.
The 1930s economic crises saw the decline of the natural pearl industry. Few years later, this town was deserted when the inhabitants moved out, attracted by the prospect of better living conditions offered by the local government. People left behind their houses, mosques and shops, creating what now is an undisturbed picture of life before the exploitation of oil.
It is said that the house shown above belonged to a very wealthy merchant. I have not walked past the house to see the other side, but I heard that there is a huge courtyard in front of the house. The mud-and-brick wind towers were designed to funnel even the slightest breeze off the Gulf into the house.
But what I find really interesting while roaming around the deserted town is how corals and sea shells were incorporated with stone and mud to create the walls. Most of the houses were built from coral rag, the roofs were constructed from palm trunks. The walls of the oldest buildings have larger pieces of coral, while the younger once were built from bricks of crushed coral.
This town is so famous for being haunted that different people have different stories to tell. A nephew of mine—very charming and naughty—said that he once came to this town with some of his friends. They drove into the town and decided to stop in front of a big house. Some of them started to smoke cigarettes and chat. Few minutes later, they looked down and noticed that there were actually graves right at that spot!
We walk around town but do not find any graves.
A few journalists even decided to spend the night here hoping to encounter whatever is rumored to be living in these decaying structures. Although incomplete, their ‘live’ update was featured here.
This is the courtyard that I find the most impressive. We stand there for a few minutes trying to imagine how lively this place must have been years ago. As you can see, the pillars look like they will come apart anything soon. Someone had a recent bonfire around here, the soot scattered right at the center of the courtyard.
Do we ‘feel’ anything at all? No. My sister even remarks that the town has no fear factor at all. We comfortably pass through the alleys, stopping in front of houses to take pictures. Once, I enter the fort to take pictures from inside, but there is this uncomfortable feeling—like I’m trespassing or something—so I decide not to enter any other building.
Photographers frequent this place. One can spend hours roaming about, taking countless pictures. This is also a favorite amongst fashion photographers.
We quickly walk back towards our cars when the sun begins to set into the horizon. Although we do not encounter anything spooky, it is believed by a lot of people that there are jinns who live here, and they usually come out at nightfall. We are not interested to meet them, so we leave.
Jazirat al-Hamra may be a ghost town to many, but for me it is an amazing piece of history. It is also the last authentic and traditional town still standing in the U.A.E., and if the government does not do anything to preserve it soon, it is going to perish forever. Some say that this place is off-limits, but I do not see a sign anywhere.
How to get here:
We took the Emirates Road (E311) and drove straight until we approached a roundabout. Take left (the sign says ‘Umm al-Quwain’). After some time, you will see the Ice Land water park on your right. Keep driving until you see some whale statues on your left. Take right and drive straight until you see the town on your right.
You can also read this account about Ras al Aisha al Shareef, whose ancestors once lived in this very town.