As Unesco adds several new sites to its World Heritage List, we take a look back to when the agency recognised the first such site in the UAE.
In July 2011, Unesco inscribed several sites in Al Ain to its esteemed list. The places were added as a single site: the Cultural Sites of Al Ain. They included cultural locations in Hafit, Hili, Bidaa Bint Saud and Oases areas, featuring tombs from the Bronze Age and complex ancient irrigation systems that supplied the oasis city.
Al Ain has been inhabited since the Neolithic era and has remnants of several prehistoric cultures dating from the Bronze Age and Iron Age. Its strategic location on ancient trade routes between Oman, the Arabian Gulf and Mesopotamia propelled its development. The sites inscribed on the Unesco list provide “testimony to ancient sedentary human occupation in a desert region”, the agency writes. It also highlights the shift of regional cultures from hunting and gathering traditions to sedentism with agriculture.
Among the places inscribed on the list were the Jebel Hafeet Tombs.
The site was the first to be excavated in Al Ain, after being discovered by a Danish team in 1961. The dome-shaped tombs date back 5,000 years and mark the beginning of the Bronze Age in the UAE. They housed the remains of two to five people, who were buried in crouched positions with artefacts and personal belongings. The tombs were discovered as collapsed stones. Meticulous restorations were conducted to bring the tombs to a form that resembles their original state. Forty of the tombs, which are about three metres tall, have been restored.
Another entry on the Unesco list was the Hili Archaeological Site, which shows the earliest evidence of an agricultural village in the UAE, dating back to 2,500BC. The site features the famous ancient irrigation system, known as al falaj. The channels carry water from underground and provide a constant flow throughout the oasis. The site also has the largest collection of ancient tombs and buildings in the country.
The largest of them is the Grand Tomb, which has a carving of two people and an oryx above the entrance. In its day, it stood four metres tall and was 14m in diameter. More than 500 objects, including beads and pottery, were found when the site was excavated by a Danish group in 1965. A team from Iraq led the restoration efforts a decade later.
While the tombs and the archaeological sites in Al Ain provide ample evidence of the city’s ancient life, its oases are also troves in themselves, providing information about how people lived in the area millennia ago. The largest one, Al Ain Oasis, covers 1,200 hectares and has more than 147,000 date palms. While the oasis is famous for its palms, there are also mango, banana, lemon and fig trees.
The oasis is irrigated by the al falaj system, which serves hundreds of farms. The farms were passed on from generation to generation and are now run by more than 500 farmers. The farms have now been largely endowed to charity, and are managed by the UAE's General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments.
Even before Unesco added the oases to the heritage list, authorities were careful to keep the historical places intact when they conducted the urban planning for Al Ain. The city was built around the oases in a way that would preserve the ancient sites.