'History of the Emirates' review: we may never look at the UAE in the same way again

This new series offers stories about the Emirates you may never have imagined possible

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In the opening few seconds of History of the Emirates, a new five-part series from Image Nation, the narrator asks, "What does being Emirati mean?" It is a rather reductive question: attempts to find order in the chaos of cultures, beliefs and personalities that make up a nation tend to have a dulling effect, as the splinters of variety are sanded away to leave a homogenised slab.

But in this first, hour-long episode, History of the Emirates achieves something quite extraordinary. It doesn't attempt to provide a definitive answer to the question it poses; instead it offers alternatives you would never have imagined.

The story starts at Jebel Faya in Sharjah, where archaeologists have found what looks, to my untrained eye, like a fairly unimpressive lump of rock, but was actually a hunting tool.

Using a technique called luminescence dating, which reveals when sediments were last exposed to sunlight, the History of the Emirates team discovers that this lump of rock dates back 125,000 years. This is astonishing, since it was previously thought that humans first arrived in this region about 10,000 years ago.

As the narrator wastes no time in pointing out: “What it means is that the Emirates now holds a unique place in human history.”

Using the evidence discovered at Jebel Faya, anthropologists have been able to formulate a new theory as to how the first modern humans left Africa. Many humans ventured east via a land bridge connecting Egypt with Asia.

But the tools from this period dug up in places such as Jebel Faya suggest that some humans crossed the Red Sea at a time when sea levels were about 80 metres lower than they are today. Added to this, there would have been more rainfall across the Arabian Peninsula. It was only when the climate changed and the terrain became more arid that these early settlers moved on again.

It is a breathless introduction to the series, which confirms the claim made by Mohamed Al Mubarak, chairman of Image Nation Abu Dhabi, that History of the Emirates is "one of the most powerful things that we've done".

The story picks up again in 5500 BC when humans began to form permanent settlements in the Arabian Gulf. On Marawah Island, we watch as archaeologist Dr Mark Beech brushes away the sand to reveal the cranium of one of the oldest individuals ever found in the Emirates.

We are then whisked off to the Bronze Age and a structure, likely a communal tomb, in Al Ain on which carved figures are holding hands and embracing, suggesting that a spirit of unity was flourishing in the Emirates many thousands of years ago.

The revelations come so thick and fast, there is scarcely time to process one before it is barged out of the way by the next. It is as if we are discovering words on a page previously thought to be blank.

One of the conundrums faced by documentary makers delving into the distant past is how to bring objects and people long deceased back to life. There is a limit to how much footage of archaeologists in linen shirts and large hats prodding around in the dirt the viewer will tolerate.

History of the Emirates, which was co-produced by Atlantic Productions, tackles this with the latest technology, from CGI to LiDar scanning and 360 degree camera work.

A stone relief from a Bronze Age tomb in Al Ain. Courtesy: Image Nation
A stone relief from a Bronze Age tomb in Al Ain. Courtesy: Image Nation

When we reach the pre-Islamic era, for example, archaeologist Bruno Overlaet shows us on his laptop the foundations of towers built to mark ancient tombs in Mleiha, Sharjah. This really is as unexciting to look at as it sounds, but then these tombs are re-built in front of our eyes, followed by other buildings in the city, springing up out of the sand like fresh shoots emerging from the soil.

It is thrilling, transporting us back to this vast site, which stretched across the desert for four square kilometres. As the camera pans further and further away from this virtual rendering, at last we get a sense of the scale of what was happening here.

It is as if you could drop in and wander around the palm plantations. The section on the Islamic era, meanwhile, opens with warm, smudgy digital paintings depicting people praying or travelling by boat, which again softens the clinical historical facts being presented.

The rise of Islam, a shared religion, encouraged trade, leading to the creation of souqs and elaborate homes, such as the ones built in 8th century AD Jumeirah, which “laid the foundations for the super cities that are here today”. There is a stunning shot of the remains of one of these homes in the shadow of Dubai and the Burj Khalifa. The past and present sitting quite literally side by side.

An impressive cast of local and international voices, including Emirati archaeologists Eisa Yousif and Abdullah Al Kaabi, provide clear-headed analysis throughout.

But History of the Emirates, which will follow the story right through to the modern day over the course of the next four episodes, seems to be less about accumulating knowledge and more about immersing oneself in a world previously unimaginable.

We may never look at the UAE in the same way again.

The five-part documentary will air from November 24 to 28 on Dubai TV, Dubai One, Sama Dubai, Abu Dhabi TV, Baynounah TV, Dhafra TV, Ajman TV, Al Roya, National Geographic Abu Dhabi, MBC1 and further regional broadcasters in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan.

Community screenings

Ajman Culture Center – November 24 and 25 (in association with Ministry of Culture & Knowledge)

Cultural Palace Sharjah – November 26

Louvre Abu Dhabi – November 26 (registration required)

RAK Cultural Center – November 27 (in association with Ministry of Culture & Knowledge)

Fujairah Cultural Center – November 28 (In association with Ministry of Culture & Knowledge)

Umm Al Emarat Park, Abu Dhabi – every Friday from November 29

Cinema Akil – December 2-4 

Qasr Al Hosn – every Friday from December 28