With 17 sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List, Al Ain is the ideal place to learn more about the emirate’s past
Words by Amanda Tomlinson
Abu Dhabi emirate is a land of contrasts. Its capital city is the nerve centre with ultra-modern buildings, embassies, spacious malls and opulent five-star hotels. Al Gharbia (Western Region) is a nature lover’s paradise with towering red sand dunes, camel festivals, desert islands and date farms.
Al Ain, in the Eastern Region, is the cultural heart, a place where tradition features prominently in everyday life, the home of the country’s forefathers and a place where visitors will find 17 UNESCO World Heritage Listed sites.
The sites were added to the prestigious international list last year in a first for the UAE. The cultural sites are of geological, archaeological and historical importance and include the stunning Jebel Hafeet mountain, bronze and iron age sites of Al Hili, tombs of the Bida Bin Saud area and the oases with their falaj irrigation system.
Inclusion on the list puts Al Ain alongside well-known international sites such as the Great Wall of China, Egypt’s Pyramids of Giza and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
Al Ain is a well-preserved city with an abundance of forts and oases. It has been given the title ‘the garden city’ because of its multitude of green areas, but it is also the cultural and heritage heartland of the emirate.
Its history dates back several thousand years and archaeological investigations have revealed that the area has been continuously inhabited since the late Stone Age period. Archaeological sites and artefacts have been found dating back to the Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Hellenistic pre-Islamic and Islamic eras, while there is also evidence the city traded with major cultures in the north (Mesopotamia and Persia) and the east (India and Pakistan).
Why not take a trip back in time and visit these historical sites?
This area contains over 500 graves, with Bronze Age cairn tombs. It dates to a period between 3200 and 2700 BC, also known as the Hafeet Period or the Hafeet Cultural Horizon. The tombs and their contents revealed Al Ain’s role at the crossroads of Mesopotamian trade.
During the Iron Age, the inhabitants of Al Ain began using the falaj, a system that enabled water to be transported from the mountains to the plains. It led to the construction of permanent settlement sites along with agriculture. The oldest falaj, which dates back to 1000 BC, is located at the Hili Archaeological Park. To see more examples of falaj, visit Al Ain Oasis.
Visitors will see numerous forts in Al Ain, which along with many other historic buildings such as towers, mosques and private palaces and residences, are reminiscent of the pre-1960 period before oil was discovered.
The beautiful Al Jahili Fort, which is the birthplace of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the UAE’s first president, was built in 1891 to defend the city and protect palm groves. It now houses a permanent exhibition of work by British adventurer Wilfred Thesiger, who crossed the Rub Al Khali (Empty Quarter) in the 1940s. The Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage also holds the annual Al Ain Classics music festival in the grounds of the fort.
As well as its cultural significance, Al Ain’s natural attractions include the desert, oases, date palm plantations, wadis and mountains.
The city’s six oases have sustained the region as far back as the 2nd millennium BC and remain an active element of the city today. The harvesting of dates and other crops continues to be preserved and is passed down through generations.
To discover the natural beauty, visit Al Ain Oasis or Green Mubazzarah at the foot of Jebel Hafeet.
To learn more about the history of Al Ain, a visit to the city’s museums is a must. Al Ain National Museum is divided into two main sections – ethnographical and archaeological – and provides an overview of the country’s traditions and culture as well as information on the people who inhabited the area up to 8,000 years ago. As well as artefacts, there is also an interesting collection of photographs showing Abu Dhabi in the 1960s.
Al Ain Palace Museum was once the home of the late Sheikh Zayed and the hub of the city’s political life. Visitors will find a collection of portraits of the royal family, a family tree showing the sheikh’s lineage and a classroom where the children of the ruling family were privately educated.
While 17 sites have so far been added to the World Heritage List, ADACH is actively restoring and preserving many other sites of cultural significance. Work is under way to preserve several fortresses and historical places, including the Jahili mosque and fortress and the Bin Hadi House in the Hili Oasis.
Work is also being carried out to revive the original uses of many buildings, such as the old traditional market in Al Qattarah. Many will also be used for new purposes in a bid to integrate the buildings into the infrastructure of the city.
So why not take a step back in time and explore the heritage heart of the emirate. With the UAE having recently celebrated its 40th year, it’s the ideal time to discover how far the country has come.