Did you know that Al Ain was awarded a UNESCO World Heritage status in 2011?
Evidence of continuous human inhabitation in the area for more than 4000 years has been proven, and its significance as a popular trading route lead UNESCO to recognizing Al Ain, making it the first UAE city to be included in the World Heritage List.
Research showed that people of the region changed from a hunting community to fulltime occupants, who invented and used the falaj irrigation system to sustain the original oases, another factor that was considered in the city’s evaluation.
I personally didn’t know about the Garden City’s newly acquired stance of fame until recently, which called for a quick visit to rediscover one of my favorite UAE city escapes under a new light.
The last Eid long weekend was perfect for it; clearly we couldn’t have gone too far in 3 days, yet my investigative spirit was well stocked and ready to go.
We took advantage of a special Eid offer at Al Ain Rotana Hotel that included a spacious premium room with an oasis view. We packed extra light, and ventured out on the first day of Al Fitr seeking a mini cultural adventure…
Partial oasis view from the hotel room
When we arrived at the hotel I realized why that offer sounded too good to be true…
The hotel was fully occupied, check-in expectedly took longer than usual, what I didn’t expect though was being assigned the wrong room, at the wrong side of the hotel, with the totally wrong view! The hotel’s website had it all wrong, and somehow it neglected to mention that the premium rooms are now located in the new section of the hotel, which is still being tested, with a closed pool view! opsss…
Eventually we settled, because it was Eid, and frankly I wasn’t in the mood for prolonged arguments. Luckily, our room ended up very comfortable, and that new section was child and noise free. We were able to catch a glimpse of the oasis from the side, so it wasn’t such a bad deal after all.
Jabel Hafeet Road
After lunch and a brief rest, we went out to greet the city. I am a big Jabel Hafeet fan, so we headed there first for a leisurely Eid afternoon drive. I had forgotten how crowded this place gets on holidays, at one point the traffic came to a complete stand, which we didn’t mind as long as there were marvellous views of the city below to enjoy.
Hafeet is now one of the areas covered by the UNESCO designation in Al Ain..
Minutes before sunset over Hafeet
As a child, I was brought to Al Ain in numerous occasions to attend family weddings or for short breaks in the cooler and less humid winter weather. Back then, the drive to the top of Jabel Hafeet, the second highest mountain in the country, resembled the ultimate adventure to my family. The mountain road wasn’t yet developed into what is today described as one of the greatest engineered driving roads in the world; it was actually a dangerous drive via a rugged and narrow road that grandpa never minded braving, for the sake of leveraging similarly wonderful views. The pinnacle of the mountain wasn’t even fenced, but it didn’t stop us from triumphantly claiming our breezy picnic spot at the top.
Hili Archaeological Park
The other UNESCO covered areas include Hili Archaeological Sites, Bidaa bint Saud and the seven oases.
The next morning Angel helped me locate the UNESCO sites on my city map, we planned to start in Hili in the north, then gradually make our way south closer to our hotel. Later we realized that our ambitious plan can’t possibly be achieved in one day, if we were to avoid the midday scorching heat, and hopefully squeeze in some meal, sleep, and resting time. The new plan was then to see all the oases in the next two days, and soak in their natural and traditional appeal.
Al Ain (translates to “The Spring” in Arabic) gets its name from the oases that sheltered and fed the locals for centuries. Date palms, Ghaf trees, and various fruits and vegetables were and still are grown here, keeping the gardens as green as when first cultivated about 3000 years ago.
At the time of our visit most of them were open, except for Qasr Al Muwaiji Fort, which is undergoing maintenance work and expected to reopen at the end of this year.
We explored the sites freely on foot, when it got seriously hot we drove around and watched everything from the comfort of our air conditioned vehicle. This was still August, THE HOTTEST month of the year in the UAE…
The second largest, located northeast of the city, and dotted with historical structures that are such a joy to explore.
Two defensive watchtowers were built in Hili to protect the people who lived in the area and their precious water sources. the towers played an important role in the 1950s conflict known as the “Hili Attack”.
The hand pollination method using harnessed climbing techniques has been applied in the UAE for over a century; today you can still see the workers attending the trees in the oases in the same traditional way…
These guys are friendly, approachable, and a great source of information, as long as you don’t interrupt their work. It also helps if you speak a little bit of Arabic…
More than 40 million date palms are grown in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, about 18 million of them in Al Ain alone, no wonder it is referred to as one big garden…
Al Qattara Oasis
This one is much smaller, but you can still enjoy a lovely stroll around it through the network of walled pathways, under a thousand interlocking Palm fronds that are keeping the oasis cooler inside and blocking out the city noises.
It is located next to the historic Al Qattara Fort, which was turned into a comprehensive art centre by the Abu Dhabi Culture and Heritage Authority (ADACH), and it’s probably worth investigating if you are curious about the local arts scene.
Al Jimi Oasis
Finally found the water, rippling through the narrow passages of a modern falaj system made of concrete, plentifully gushing out of an invisible source, the soothing noise generating a comforting ambiance, distributing life.
Al Jimi is also an important archaeological location where you can spend some time exploring ruins, old mosques, and restored houses.
Sultan bin Abdullah Al Dhaheri House, protected by ADACH
Al Jahili Fort
Al Jahili area used to be the smallest of the seven oases, but it dried out. A royal summer residence was ordered to be built in its place in the1890s by Sheikh Zayed the first, ruler of Abu Dhabi at the time.
The birthplace of the UAE’s founding father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, is now utilized as a culture and heritage center, where a number of art activities and performances are held throughout the year.
Al Jahili Fort now houses a visitor information center, and a permanent photography exhibition devoted to Wilfred Thesiger, or Mubarak bin London as known to the locals, the veteran British explorer; travel writer and photographer, who crossed the Empty Quarter Desert twice in the 1940s.
I first heard of Thesiger when Adrian Hayes, the UAE based British adventurer retraced his steps by trekking from Oman to Abu Dhabi City in 2011. Visiting the Thesiger gallery, showcasing superb photography from the original trips, provided a great insight into what it takes to attempt such a journey.
I think I have a new explorer crush on Thesiger. I’ve been sifting through every material I could get my hands on about him and his impressive adventures around the world.
This is one of the biggest, and most important historical buildings in the country, it defiantly has some attractive qualities that compelled me to visit it twice. On our first night, we circled it’s beautifully illuminated exterior to get few night shots, I searched for unique angles and Angel assumed the perfect assistant role. The next day after visiting the rest of the oases we returned for more, not much was going on inside, thus we had to let our imagination serve as guide.
Al Ain Oasis
A popular tourist attraction and the largest oasis within the city, covering more than 1200 hectares. If I had to pick one oasis to visit it will be this, here you can simply get a sense of it all, and if the weather is right it can take you an entire morning to see everything.
More than 145000 Palms are currently under cultivation in Al Ain oasis, producing dates for the local and international market.
We visited on a Friday; obviously it was quieter than usual, around noontime life suddenly sprung into the oasis, workers who live with their families in the premises answered the call for prayers from every corner, some rode their bikes in, others arrived on foot. The oasis spun out its own rhythm; it momentarily had me fully removed from the city’s sphere.
Al Mutaredh Oasis
This tiny oasis lies in the calmer side of the city, adjacent to a residential area; you could easily miss it if you don’t pay attention while driving. Al Mutaredh Falaj irrigates around 40000 Palm, Mango, Lemon, Ghaf, Acacia, and Tamarisk trees in this oasis, Also, several varieties of dates indigenous to the UAE are produced here. The fruits hang from the tress like chandeliers in different colours and shapes, some of it ready to be harvested, I was constantly tempted to reach up, pick some and stuff my face with it…
There wasn’t a soul in sight when we got there in the early evening; I don’t think I’ve ever heard quiet like that before! Peaceful is one way to describe it, not necessarily the desirable kind. I am not sure if at this point I had seen too many oases in a couple of days, that being in yet another one had started to agitate me. I guess this place could use some action, other than the sound of my own shoes crushing dry leaves on the ground.
Sunset pushing through the clouds – Al Mutaredh Oasis
Soon it got dark, clouds covered the sky and it started drizzling, it was time to go home, but I sure owe Al Mutaredh another visit to get a better impression…
I am not normally all about the UNESCO list, but whenever I find myself in one of its remarkable sites I am all game for discovering it. This time it happened that the site is practically in our own backyard, it was almost our national duty to make this trip 🙂
I am truly glad we did.