Tombs cast light on nation's origins

Hundreds of ancient burial chambers, discovered more than 40 years ago outside Al Ain, provide valuable insight into the people who lived in the region long before the advent of Islam.

Al Ain - February 16, 2010:  The Hafeet Tombs which have yet to open to the public. Lauren Lancaster / The National

AL AIN // Before the time of the three monotheistic religions that now dominate the world, there once ruled different gods with many names, shapes and sizes. Of these, one reigned high above in the sky, casting her holy light on her people - the sun.

Inside a small, ancient beehive of a building, a single ray from the sun creeps in through a tiny opening. It is the only light inside. Once it has passed there is only the dark and the damp. "To the old inhabitants here, the sun brought with it light and life," says Dr Hasan al Naboodah, a history professor at UAE University. "So when they died, they wanted to continue to bask in its embrace and to come back to life after their death by making a special opening for the sun god to visit their graves." He visited the 5,000-year-old tombs in hope of finding links to his own past through the graves of his ancestors.

The entrance of each tomb faces south-east, to catch the sunrise. For those few hours every day, the sun has been the only regular visitor to the tombs through the ages. Some of the tombs are as much as four metres high, with a space inside about two metres wide. The hard part is getting there. In many cases, the doorways have become blocked by fallen stones, and even in those that have been reconstructed the entrance is a narrow tunnel, less than two metres high and 50cm wide. Visitors have to squeeze sideways to make it to the circular heart of the tomb.

More than 500 of these tombs, known as Hafeet graves or Mezyad graves, after the village nearby - have been discovered. They gave their name to the Hafeet period, which dates from 3200BC to 2700BC, the early part of the Bronze Age. The tombs, built from rough local rocks, were excavated more than 40 years ago along the northern escarpment and eastern slopes of Jebel Hafeet in al Ain. "This area was once a bustling farmland on the route of a caravan," said Dr al Naboodah. "So it is very likely there were immigrants and influences from Mesopotamia and the ancient Egyptians that introduced different kinds of gods and deities as well as religious rituals that spread throughout the Arabian peninsula.

Similar tombs were discovered in the UAE - in Khatt, Beeh Valley and Qoor Valley in Ras al Khaimah - as well as other parts of the peninsula, such as Bahrain. The pagan Arabs are believed to have looked upon the sun as a goddess and the moon as a god. One of the well-known pagan deities inside the Kaaba in pre-Islamic Mecca was the Lat, a goddess related to the sun. In Mesopotamia, the sun god was known as Shamash, similar to the modern Arabic word for sun, shams.

"Inside the tombs, pieces of pottery from Mesopotamia were found, so the Mesopotamian influence was great here," said Dr al Naboodah. The fragments found are of a style known as Jemdet Nasr, referring to a site near Babylon in Iraq famous for its multicoloured pottery. The finding also helped to substantiate trade links between Mesopotamia and the UAE as far back as 4000 BC. Although the tombs are hardly easily accessible - even with a 4x4, it can take up to half an hour to reach them across unmarked, rocky roads - they have been plundered by raiders over the ages.

"It is a real shame," said Dr al Naboodah. "We didn't find much inside them besides bits of pottery, arrowheads, and beads, no sign of any valuables like gold or any funeral-related items that could tell us more about the story of the tombs and the people buried in it." Some bronze objects, vessels made of soapstone and beads of a much later date indicate that the graves may have been re-used in a later period, mainly during the Iron Age (1200BC to 300 BC).

Although some skeletal remains have been found, it is hard to be sure which period they are from as it was common in the Iron Age to reuse old graves. Most of the graves on the northern side of the mountain have been lost to development, but those on the eastern side are protected and regularly monitored. Some have been restored to the various stages of construction by the Department of Antiquities and Tourism.

Until recently, the area was largely off limits, because it was previously used as a military area and was consequently cluttered with land mines. These, however, have now been cleared in preparation for a resort project. Until that is complete, two years from now, the tombs stand in seclusion, a testament to a past way of life, and one that is still a mystery. "There is still so much that we don't know about our ancestors here," said Dr al Naboodah.

"But slowly, we are finding clues to our past, and how we came to be the way we are today."