About an hour’s drive from the tall buildings of Dubai is an empty village in the sands of the United Arab Emirates. It stands as a reminder of how fast the Middle Eastern country is changing.
Built in the 1970s, the village of al-Ghuraifa was left empty twenty years later. Oil wealth has turned the UAE, home to the cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, into an international center of commerce and tourism.
In recent years, the empty village near the town of al-Madam in the Sharjah emirate has become more popular with visitors.
The village, made up of two rows of homes and a religious center, “can teach us a lot of the modern history of the UAE,” said Ahmad Sukkar of the University of Sharjah. Sukkar is part of a team studying the area.
Al-Ghuraifa was built as part of a public housing project after the 1971 establishment of the United Arab Emirates, a group of seven sheikhdoms. The discovery of oil 13 years earlier was just starting to reshape the country.
The village housed around 100 members of the al-Ketbi tribe, Sukkar said. They were one of several Bedouin groups that until then had led a semi-nomadic existence. They raised animals, traveled among the desert oases and visited Dubai and Abu Dhabi when they were small towns.
The modern cement houses were built with local details to ease the change to settled life. The inside walls were brightly colored, and some had mosaics. The homes also had spaces where village leaders could gather locals for meetings. One house had special paper known as wallpaper showing a land with green plants and trees - a big difference from the sandy environment outside.
It is unclear what exactly caused people to leave just twenty years after the homes were built. Some say that they were driven away by evil spirits. But Sukkar says it is more likely that people left to seek a better life in the UAE’s fast-growing cities.
The village had limited electricity and water, and was often hit by sandstorms. Families would have also had to deal with long traveling times across the desert to reach government jobs and schools in Dubai.
Now, the desert is slowly taking back the village. Sand has blown into the homes. Only the religious center, or mosque, remains as it was, thanks to regular cleaning by workers from nearby al-Madam.
Some descendants of the camel-mounted Bedouin who once traveled the desert sands still live in the Emirates’ rural areas. However, many now live in cities with tall buildings, large shopping centers, and modern roads.
Foreign nationals make up the majority of the UAE’s population, and some have taken an interest in its history. It is also a place for them to record music videos and social media posts. On a recent day, groups of visitors walked through the abandoned village.
“I wonder why they left,” said Nitin Panchal, an Indian living in the UAE. “Could it be a genie,” could it be “black magic?” Panchal asked. “We’ll never know.”
The local government recently installed fencing along with a security gate, waste containers and a parking lot. Officials made the changes because past visitors had caused damage to the village.
The new measures have taken some of the mystery from the village.
Danny Booth is from the Isle of Man, a British Crown Dependency in the Irish Sea. He said he had decided to “come and have a look before things start to change here.”
“Sometimes these places are better left undisturbed, as they lose their charm when they become crowded,” he said.
I’m John Russell.
Nick El Hajj reported on this story for the Associated Press. John Russell adapted it for VOA Learning English.
Words in This Story
reminder -- n. something that causes you to remember or to think about something
tourism -- n. the activity of traveling to a place for pleasure
nomadic – adj. describes a member of a group of people who move from place to place
oasis – n. an area in a desert where there is water and plants
mosaic – n. a decoration on a surface made by pressing small pieces of colored glass or stone into a soft material that then hardens to make pictures or patterns
descendant – n. someone who is related to a person or group of people who lived in the past
genie – n. a magic spirit that looks like a person and often lives in a lamp or bottle
undisturbed -- adj. not changed or touched by anyone or anything
charm -- n. an attractive quality