For a place so strongly associated with heritage and tradition, Al Ain has a history of innovation that has the ability to surprise.
From the Bronze Age tombs at Jebel Hafeet and Hili, to Al Ain’s cultivation during the Iron Age and the later development of its oases, fortified houses and irrigation systems, collectively known as aflaj, technology has shaped Al Ain’s landscape throughout the millennia.
Thanks to My Old House, however, a new initiative from the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, a double-decker bus is being used to introduce visitors to Al Ain’s largely overlooked modern heritage.
“We want people to come to see these houses because we need locals and foreign people to see Al Ain in a different way,” says Mariam Al Dhaheri, a public engagement programmer in the museums department at TCA.
“They need to come and look and touch the mud here and to discover Al Ain and the oases, so they can imagine how the families lived in these houses and how close they were to each other, without any television or media.”
A one-day equivalent of the architectural Open House Weekends that started in London but have since become a worldwide phenomenon, My Old House is a behind-the-scenes tour of historic buildings that are normally kept under lock and key.
They include the Bin Biduwa Al Darmaki House in Al Qattara and Bin Hamoodah Al Dhaheri house and mosque on the edge of Al Jimi Oasis.
As with the view from the upper deck of the tour bus, the vista afforded from the tower that defines the Bin Hamoodah house proves that a simple change of perspective can go a long way to unlocking Al Ain’s secrets.
Standing on the battlements, not only is it possible to understand that houses such as the Bin Hamoodah, which is believed to be more than 200 years old, were often built on defensive outcrops of higher land, their surrounding plantations appear to sit in the landscape because they were excavated.
The lesson may sound simple but it sheds light on the turbulent history that defined life in the region during the 17th and 18th centuries. It also reveals the manufactured nature of Al Ain’s apparently natural landscape and the enormous amount of labour and manpower that were required to create it.
Restored according to a set of conservation imperatives that are very different to those employed today, the Bin Hamoodah house’s impressive courtyard, towers and walls appear like new and stand in stark contrast to the tour’s other sites, which include the relatively modest Al Qubaisi House in Al Mutaredh.
Clad in construction hoardings and supported by scaffolding, this modest courtyard home sits opposite the construction site of the new Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Mosque and offers a lesson in Al Ain’s urban transformation.
As the tour’s guide explains, the earliest pre-oil phases of the house were built with traditional construction techniques and materials such as local limestone and plaster, while its later phases, which were added as the family grew wealthier, featured imported materials such as cement and concrete.
The work of Laila Prager, a professor of social anthropology at the University of Hamburg, focuses on the presentation of Emirati heritage and she joined the tour as part of her research.
“Modern heritage is a very different concept that people might associate with Abu Dhabi or Sharjah, but not so much with Al Ain,” says Prof Prager, who is presently a research fellow at New York University Abu Dhabi.
“I think it is very interesting to see what is being done to look after modern heritage here.”
Like Prof Prager, Maja Buterin is a fellow Abu Dhabi resident who visited Al Ain for the tour. But for the Croatian, the insights it offered were personal rather than professional.
“Abu Dhabi and Dubai are places full of skyscrapers and you don’t see how life was before, except in the heritage villages and some tourist places. So I came here to see real life and how people lived before,” she says.
“You know what? It’s really the same. Our old people in Croatia led a really similar life. It was a hard life but I think that was the case everywhere.”
If My Old House affords an unprecedented insight into the architectural history of Al Ain, it is the social and cultural insights afforded by the tour’s Emirati team and visitors that stay longest in the memory.
“It’s very important that people come to see these places, especially people from outside, because it is our tradition,” says Hamda Al Shamsi, 22, a business student from Abu Dhabi.
“This is my country and these are my traditions and I am proud that people can come and see how we lived before and I want everyone to see that.”
At the end of the tour, Ms Al Shamsi sits at the front of the tour bus chatting with Prof Prager and Jennifer Castro, a day tripper from Abu Dhabi. And as they talk, not about architecture but about everyday life, they sit as living proof of the power of public transport.
The top of a double decker can provide an education whether you are from Al Ain, Hamburg, Zagreb or Manila and the view is a fine thing indeed.
• The next My Old House tours are on March 8 and 9. For more details, contact the Al Ain National Museum on 03 711 8331