Al Ain, Abu Dhabi – Crossroads of History

Posted March 17th, 2013 under Arab World, Art History, Videos

Al Ain abu dhabi
People made the desert around Al Ain their home over 6000 years ago, the times of Ancient Mesopotamia. But it’s only since 2011 that the Cultural Sites of Al Ain, the 4th largest city in the UAE, are part of the Unesco’s World Cultural Heritage. Time for a look at some of the oldest tracks of mankind in our new series “Rediscovered Heritage”.

Hafit, Hili, Bidaa Bint Saud and the Oases Area – The Cultural Sites of Al Ain, located in the United Arab Emirates, are witnessing a continuous settlement in the desert region starting in Neolithic times and being conveyed by archeological vestiges of a large number of prehistoric cultures. The remains of mudbrick constructions, of residential buildings, palaces, towers and the impressive circular stone tombs from around 2500 B.C. are representing “a culture that evolved over time and was characterized by its ablitiy to overcome the challenges and limitations of a harsh natural environment”, consisting of desert, mountains and oases.

ikono is proud to present the archeological treasures of Al Ain by a selection of stunning photographs from the last decades currently showing on ikonoTV and ikonoMenasa and chosen by Dr. Sami el-Masri, Co-Founder and Cultural Development and Management Specialist and Advisor of Onda Culture. Please find his introduction to the program below.

Al Ain, Abu Dhabi - Crossroads of History
(Image from Geolocation: Jebel Hafeet, Al Ain)

The desert sands of Al Ain, located in the United Arab Emirates, yielded cultures over six thousand years old, contemporary with the Jemdet Nasr Period in Ancient Mesopotamia, and the Mohenjo-Daro culture of the Sind Valley. The Cultural Sites of Al Ain (Hafit, Hili, Bidaa Bint Saud and the Oases Areas) were included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2011; they represent a culture that evolved over time and was characterized by its ability to overcome the challenges and limitations of a harsh natural environment. The vast wealth of archaeological remains and their natural settings demonstrate the extraordinary importance the area held as a cradle of desert civilization.

One of the remarkable features of Al Ain is the mosaic between the desert, lush oases, and mountains. The sites of Al Ain could not have been formed without the interaction and combination of these three ecozones.

The roots of Al Ain’s distinctive culture go back to the Neolithic Period, between 8,000 and 4,000 BC, where evidence of desert encampments and remains of flint tools located on elevated outcrops suggest that small nomadic communities inhabited that area in the past. These communities were pastoral nomads, who moved around with their domestic cattle, sheep and goats, remaining somewhat close to water sources. Jebel Hafit itself is a spectacular, barren limestone structure that rises abruptly out of the flat surrounding desert plains and dune fields. The mountain was formed some 25 million years ago. The natural heritage of Jebel Hafit (with its flora & fauna) and the surrounding oasis areas is exceptional, as is Al Ain’s red desert sand dune landscape.

Alongside pastoral communities that continue to exist until this day and time, late 4th to early 3rd millennium permanent settlements emerged and relied on farming, establishing trade relations with other cultures, such as those of Mesopotamia, Persia and the Indus Valley. While evidence of these settlements is preserved mainly at Hili, funerary architecture of that period is represented in the Hafit Graves.

Hafit cairns, consisting of round tomb single-chamber structures with multiple burials, is believed to have sheltered the buried bodies of communities that lived and traded across long distances in that area. Objects from Ancient Mesopotamia consisting of pottery and beads of the Jemdet Nasr period of southern Iraq, dating to ca. 3100-2900 BC, were deposited with the dead inside these cairn structures. The Hafit funerary tradition, which includes over 120 graves, is known internationally as the “type-site” for the period designated as the “Hafit Period” or “Hafit Cultural Horizon”, which dates to between 3200 and 2700 BC.

Sometime around the beginning of the Bronze Age period, at around 3000 BC, sedentary communities practiced small scale irrigation and grew enough crops to sustain small communities living inside fortified tower-like structures incorporating a source of water (a water well). Around that time, trade intensified between the cultures of the ancient world (Mesopotamia, Persia, Indus Valley) and the land of Magan (incorporating large parts of Oman and the eastern part of Abu Dhabi Emirate). Settlers were probably drawn closer to the junction of an important trade route linking the coastal and inland sites of Oman with those on the Emirati coast. These communities developed a sophisticated culture with monumental architecture in the form of dwellings as well as burials for the dead. Nowhere in the region can one find such a representation of settlements and graves to illustrate the emergence of the Bronze Age cultures of Hili and Umm an-Nar, situated on the crossroads of inter-cultural trade.

Around 1000 BC, a new technological advancement changed the model of life and structure of society in that part of the world through the invention of the ingenuous falaj (aquifer water system) system. The new invention challenged the limitations of the scarce desert environment and expanded the potential of the water resources, allowing an unprecedented expansion to occur on many levels. Being the precursor of the well-known qanat water system in Iran, the falaj system consisted of an underground tunnel, which brought water by force of gravity across long distances from the source of an aquifer (situated at the foot of the mountain) all the way to low-lying oasis agricultural terrain. Once the water reached the oasis it was distributed to farmers via a complex water allocation system. This necessitated a developed administrative system, which allowed the community to grow and thrive. The potential of oasis agriculture in allowing for a wider range of vegetation to grow and larger produce to be collected entailed an expansion in the population. This had a profound effect on the way of life, subsistence economy, security and the expression of the very same culture through architecture, religion and art. Moreover, this meant that a new capital could be amassed in order to influence developments in trade and exchange across the region.

This evolutionary model of a modest self-dependent agricultural system based on small-scale irrigation by water-wells, evolving into a large-scale engineering project which provided running water in substantial quantities to allow for the significant expansion of agricultural terrain, and its repercussions on settlement as well as funerary architecture and traditions, is all witnessed through the archaeological remains of Hili Assemblage.

The Oases of Al Ain are six in number and are scattered along the urban core of the city. Al Ain’s six oases sustained the settlement of the area in the 2nd millennium BC (and possibly earlier); they now constitute an indissoluble aspect of the landscape of the city. Each oasis most likely started with one farm or a group of trees, possibly watered by a deep well, and then grew larger as technological innovations associated with the invention of the falaj irrigation systems made it possible to increase cultivation, sustain a larger settlement and grow surpluses which were then traded against other commodities. Today, the oases are dense irrigated date palm gardens surrounded by bustling modern city streets.

Al Ain’s oases have roots in the past; they are surviving elements of a culture which developed in the Iron Age period and possibly earlier. These oases are an important heritage asset, not only for their ecological value, but also for the important cultural value they hold, which is linked to a way of life that has survived until today. The practice of harvesting dates and other crops continues as it has for generations. The oases of Al Ain are still watered by historic falaj irrigation systems that bring water from mountain aquifer recharge zones through arid regions to the cultivated areas.

Major Historic Buildings associated with the Oases. Historic oasis architecture is of several types, including large forts, defensive towers, and fortified houses (murabbas) built to protect the inhabitants of the oases and their produce. All these buildings demonstrate the traditional building techniques of Al Ain – massively thick mud walls with limited small openings for light and air, roofed with palm logs and palm mat roofs, and mud plaster floors and walls.

Traditional building materials at Al Ain there is a long and rich tradition of mud brick building using clay collected from the wadis (ravines) that bring down water from the nearby mountains. Surviving ancient examples of local mud brick architecture include the houses of the Iron Age settlement at Rumailah as well as round buildings with massively thick mud brick walls found in both the Bronze Age and Iron Age settlements of Hili. Archive photographs show that mud brick houses, often supplemented by arish structures (made from palm branches and leaves), continued to be extensively used in Al Ain until the end of the pre-oil era in the 1960s.

Historic mud brick buildings have evolved as an integral part of the oasis systems, although some of them lie within the actual oasis boundaries, defined by the boundaries of individual farm plots, some buildings lie outside these boundaries and their relationship with the main oasis areas have often been severed by modern development.

- Text by Sami el-Masri

Welcome to Al Ain, Abu Dhabi - Crossroads of History

For further information please visit and read this text from the UNESCO site: “Cultural Sites of Al Ain (Hafit, Hili, Bidaa Bint Saud and Oases Areas)”

Places to visit in Al Ain

- The Al Qattara Arts Centre

- Hili Archaeological Garden - The archaeological site has remnants of a Bronze Age settlement (2,500-2,000 BC), which was excavated and restored in 1995.

- The Al Ain National Museum, the oldest in the UAE, located next to the Eastern Fort (or Sultan Fort). The museum has two main sections on ethnographic and archaeological aspects of the country, especially around Al Ain. It includes finds from the Bronze Age tombs at the Hili Archaeological Park on the outskirts of Al Ain.

- Archaeological Site on Sir Bani Yas Island – Open to the public, this is the UAE’s only discovered Christian monastery. Believed to have been built around 600 AD, it was initially discovered on the island during excavations in 1992. See video below.

- The picturesque Al Jahili Fort is one of the UAE’s most historic buildings. It was erected in 1891 to defend the city and protect precious palm groves.

- The Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum (aka the Al Ain Palace Museum) based in the palace of the former UAE President, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and his family. It was originally built in 1937 on the western side of the Al Ain Oasis, the largest oasis in Al Ain. Sheikh Zayed lived here until 1966. It was made into a museum in 2001. The museum presents many of the rooms in the palace, including an art gallery.

- And then there is The Al Ain Sports and Culture Club which is the home of Al Ain FC of course, the most successful football club in the UAE which was established in 1968 already. Al Ain won the 2003 AFC Champions League competition with a 2-1 aggregate victory over BEC Tero Sasana of Thailand.

- More at the Al Ain City Municipality, also active on Youtube.

Al Ain, United Arab Emirates – A short Documentary

UNESCO World Heritage Eco Learning Programme‬

In co-operation with Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority, Panasonic and UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre in Al Ain conducted an eco learning programme from 15 to 18 April 2012.