Al Ain Oasis world heritage site turns key to understanding national history

Al Ain Oasis, the UAE's first UNESCO World Heritage Site is open for the public.

View of the Al Ain Oasis in Al Mutawaa area in Al Ain. Pawan Singh / The National
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A glimpse into the UAE’s past opens to the public today at the country’s first Unesco World Heritage Site, Al Ain Oasis.

In the heart of the ancient city, Al Ain Oasis is the city’s largest and, dating back more 4,000 years, irrigated one of the world’s oldest permanently inhabited settlements. The oasis covers more than 1,200 hectares and contains more than 147,000 date palm trees producing 100 varieties of date.

With Al Ain National Museum to the east and Al Ain Palace Museum to the west, the Tourism and Culture Authority-run heritage site invites visitors to delve into the history and understand the oasis through a network of walking trails. The oasis is known by its aflaj irrigation system of narrow waterways that carry fresh spring water from the nearby Hajar Mountains.

The aflaj were shared by Al Ain’s ancient inhabitants and then by Bedouin tribes for hundreds of years. Only in the early 20th century was the technology of the irrigation systems modernised by the introduction of pumps.

Visitors to the miniature oasis, an interactive experience that mimics the real oasis in the palm grove, can learn about the workings of the aflaj network.

“People were visionary here, creating an ecosystem that fully utilised nature’s blessings, from its freshwater springs and fertile soils; a prosperous civilisation ascended and survived the passage of time,” said Mohammed Al Mubarak, chairman of TCA Abu Dhabi.

Sheikh Tahnoun Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi Ruler’s Representative in the Eastern Region, who inaugurated the opening, was given a tour of the World Heritage Site during the opening.

The tour revealed a complex desert environment beyond the palm groves while highlighting the architecture and traditional practices fundamental to the cultural integrity of the site.

Visitors to the site will be given an insight into the historic nomadic stopping point by using the eco-centre to better understand the oasis’s ecosystem, its evolution, and its significance for Abu Dhabi’s heritage and civilisation.

The centre also showcases the environmental standards followed to preserve the ecosystem of the oasis, which goes back to the third millennium BCE, and perhaps even earlier.

“Al Ain Oasis does not only offer a lesson from the past but also a message for the future, namely how to create true sustainability. It is a testament to the engineering and survival capacities of mankind,” Mr Al Mubarak said.

In 2011, Al Ain was the first site in the UAE to be inscribed on Unesco’s world heritage site list, comprising of four locations: the Bronze Age Hafit Tombs, the archaeological settlements at Hili, the prehistoric vestiges at Bidaa bint Saud, and the six lush oases of Al Ain, including Al Ain Oasis.