Al Ain's World Heritage tombs can now rest in peace

Al Ain became the first location in the UAE to be recognised as a Unesco world heritage site this week.

Al Ain - February 16, 2010:  The Hafeet Tombs which have yet to open to the public. Lauren Lancaster / The National
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AL AIN // Looking down from the top of Jebel Hafeet, the area's highest peak, one can begin to understand the complexity of the area below - and why it was named as a Unesco world heritage site this week.

Extending 13km from north to south, and straddling the borders between UAE and Oman, the prehistoric mountain overlooks two of the important cultural elements that gained Al Ain the coveted international recognition: the lush Al Ain and Buraimi oases and a 4th millennium funerary landscape cluttered with tombs.

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These mysterious dome-shaped tombs, known as Hafeet tombs, are the earliest tombs of the Bronze Age in the UAE and defined a period known as "the Hafeet period", which dates from 3200BC to 2700BC. About 500 of these 5,000-year-old tombs lay scattered at the bottom of Jebel Hafeet mountain. While difficult to reach, even with a 4x4, they remained at the mercy of random visitors and development until their recent inscription which sealed their protection.

"With the Unesco stamp on these sites, we can do an even better job of preserving them and saving them from any threats of development," said Mohamed Al Neyadi, director of the department of historical environment at the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach).

The world heritage committee made its announcement on Monday after 10 days of meetings, making Al Ain the first UAE site on the prestigious list that includes Egypt's pyramids and India's Taj Mahal. The designation was the culmination of efforts that began back in 2003, when work on the file began in Al Ain. It was submitted to Unesco in 2008 by Adach in co-operation with the National Council for Tourism and Antiquities of the United Arab Emirates. The file includes 17 historical and cultural components, recognising both geographic and physical characteristics.

Classified as a "cultural site", Al Ain's Jebel Hafeet is joined by the Hili cultural landscape, Bidaa Bint Saud, its six oases and the man-made falaj irrigation system, which transported water from the higher plains to support settlement in more outlying areas.

Al Ain's oases, representing the cradle of Emirati Bedouin culture, sustained the area development as far back as the 2nd millennium BC. Each of its archaeological sites tells a crucial part of the story, the move from nomadic culture to settlements with the development of falaj in 1000 BC to modern day Al Ain.

With the exception of the oases and some of the tombs, most of the sites are not open for visits from the general public. Adach can, however, make special arrangements to view the sites. These precautions have been taken to protect the "delicate" nature of some of the sites.

"Our priority is to protect, and then tourism to these sites comes as a byproduct of the international recognition," said Mr Al Neyadi, who is a member of the Al Neyadi tribe of Al Ain. "To us, we always knew the beauty and value of Al Ain," he said. "It was the summer retreat for families from across the UAE, who would come here while their men were out at sea pearl diving."

These sites were first discovered by the late Sheikh Zayed, in the 1950s, who later alerted a Danish team to their existence, and excavation began on the Hafeet tombs in 1959. It was also the late president and founder of the nation who insisted on the importance of the oases and established Al Ain Museum in 1971 to house the treasures found throughout the area. Visitors can use the museum as their starting point, as it houses rare artefacts such as jewellery, pottery and funeral ritual items discovered in the winning sites. Guided tours to the archaeological sites can be arranged at the museum.

"Al Ain could start the trend of cultural tourism," said a department official at Adach. "It is a delicate balance we have to strike between tourism and protection of sensitive sites. We want to make sure people can come and see the sites, but at the same time, we need to make sure there is no harm done to any of the elements at the site, not even the plants there."

The management strategy for the Unesco sites was set up in 2005, and has been repeatedly updated. There have also been several local master plans introduced since Al Ain's 2008 application, covering the Al Ain Oasis Cultural Quarter, Mezyad Desert Park at Jebel Hafit and the expansion of the Hili Archaeological Park. These will serve to protect the sites and rehabilitate them in line with international conservation and environmental guidelines. There are tentative dates set for completion for various phases of the plans, ranging from two to 10 years.

"We want to work at it slowly and properly," said the official. "We are dealing with sensitive sites - errors are irreversible."