Al Ain was awarded a UNESCO World Heritage status in 2011.
That was truly a nice little piece of news to come across while googling possible Eid getaways from Dubai last week. Of course, it prompted a quick rediscovery visit, to explore the Garden City’s recent stance of fame under a new light.
Evidence of 4000+ years of continuous human inhabitation in the area has been proven. That, and its significance as a popular trade route lead to the UNESCO recognition, making Al Ain the first UAE city to be included in the World Heritage List.
Al Ain (literally translates to “The Spring” in Arabic) gets its name from the oases that sheltered and fed the locals for centuries. Research showed that the region attracted hunting communities that gradually turned into fulltime occupants. The landing ground was the original Al Ain Oasis, around which an elaborate falaj irrigation system was built to sustain and distribute water supplies. Date palms, Ghaf trees, and various fruits and vegetables were and still are grown here, keeping the estates as green as when first cultivated around the Neolithic period.
Today, the UNESCO covered areas include the Hili Archaeological Sites, Bidaa bint Saud, the six oases, and Mt Hafeet.
I happen to be a huge Mt (or Jabal) Hafeet fan, so we headed there first for a leisurely afternoon drive. This was the second day of Eid, and that was a terrible idea. The traffic to the top was backed up almost to the bottom, and it took us way too long to get up there. There were moments when we just had to park somewhere on the side of the road and get out of the car to stretch our legs.
I tell you what, that was not such a bad alternative. With amazing views overlooking the city below, and glances of what is now considered one the best engineered mountain roads in the world, we were mostly kept entertained.
Still on my visiting list though, are the actual Hafeet Tombs at the foot of the mountain, to which the UNESCO status is attributed.
In the northern parts of the city, Al Hili district stands the test of time.
Our next stop was in the Hili Archaeological Gardens, a quiet and relaxing public park developed to house the Hili Grand Tomb and other smaller archeological structures dating back to about 2000 BCE.
Nearby, the iconic Hili watchtowers become my favorite feature of the area. Formidable and magnificent. They were erected to protect the precious water sources and known to have played an important role in the 1950s conflict known as the “Hili Attack”.
Inside the Hili Oasis, the century old traditional hand pollination method using harnessed climbing techniques can still be witnessed. We wandered around on foot, sheltered in the shadow of tall red fruit bearing palm trees, and tried to pull strands of friendly chats with the busy workers who picked them.
Good thing one of us spoke Arabic (and would like to think got a handle on Urdu), as English -keep in mind- isn’t very trendy in this part of the land.
If you’re not interrupting their work or extending their stay under the August sun, these guys can be a great source of information. Ask the right questions and you might even get a little date picking demonstration.
It is probably worth noting that more than 40 million date palms are grown in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, about 18 million of them in Al Ain alone. No wonder it is referred to as the country’s garden big garden…
Al Qattara oasis is much smaller, but equally interesting. If wandering under a thousand interlocking palm fronds, blocking away city noise, and examining some ancient ruins is your thing, perhaps this is the one you want to see.
Also, it’s located next to the historic Al Qattara Fort, which was turned into an art center few years ago and probably worth visiting to inspect the local arts scene.
Al Jimi Oasis
Finally found the water, rippling through the narrow passages of a modern falaj system made of concrete, plentifully gushing out of an invisible source. What i loved the most about this one, is that there isn’t really much you need to do to enjoy it. Just find a spot to sit, close your eyes and listen to the soothing sound of running water. It is such a rare and awfully relaxing noise to hear in the UAE!
Al Jimi is also an important archaeological location where you can spend some time examining ancient ruins, old mosques, and restored houses.
Al Jahili Fort
Al Jahili is where the seventh and smallest oases flowed for years before it dried. A royal summer residence was ordered to be built in its place in the 1890s by Sheikh Zayed the first, ruler of Abu Dhabi at the time.
The birthplace of the UAE’s founding father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, is now utilized as a heritage center, where a number of public performances are held throughout the year.
Al Jahili Fort now houses a visitor information center, and a permanent photography exhibition devoted to Sir Wilfred Thesiger (aka Mubarak bin London to the locals); a veteran British explorer, travel writer and photographer, who crossed the Empty Quarter Desert twice in the 1940s. I definitely have an explorer crush on Thesiger, and his travel memoire “Arabian Sands” is one of my favorite travel reads.
Al Ain Oasis
A popular tourist attraction and the largest oasis within the city, covering more than 1200 hectares. If you only had time to visit one oasis, pick this one. Here you can simply get a sense of it all. weather permitting, you could probably spend entire morning seeing the whole site.
More than 145000 palm trees are cultivated in Al Ain oasis, producing dates for the local community and exporting to international markets.
Side note – we visited on a Friday, and it was nice to see the different rhythm of life as farmers and residents answered the call for prayer at noon and the center of the oasis turned into a lovely Jumaa site.
Al Mutaredh Oasis
This tiny oasis lies in the calmer side of the city, adjacent to a residential area, You could easily miss it if you’re not careful as you approach the exit leading to it.
Al Mutaredh Falaj irrigates around 40000 date palms, mango trees, lemon trees, ghaf trees, acacia, and tamarisk trees. Several date varieties indigenous to the UAE are produced here. In August, the fruits hang from the tress like colorful chandeliers, ready for harvest.
Having said that, I feel like I need to mention that at the time of our visit this one seemed less developed, and a bit deserted. Honestly if I wasn’t on a bit of a mission to scan most of the UNESCO sites, i’d skip it!
I am not normally all about the UNESCO list, but obviously we couldn’t have missed the only one right in our backyard.
I get the feeling that you would enjoy going on a similar adventure too, specially to learn a bit more about the UAE’s enduring heritage.