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Monday, May 27, 2024

Al Ain achieves UNESCO World Heritage Status

by Philip Weiss

© Shutterstock
© Shutterstock: View from Jebel Hafeet in Al Ain in the UAE.
© Shutterstock : The Jebel Hafeet mountain on the outskirts of Al Ain. The mountain rises 1,240 metres high.
© Shutterstock : The camel market at Al Ain in the UAE

The fact that Al Ain is a treasure trove of historical sites has long been known in the UAE. Now the rest of the world is to learn of its importance

With its abundance of heritage   sites and miles of untouched scenery, Al’ Ain has long been considered a place of significant historical value in the UAE. Now the rest of the world is to learn of its importance.

A number of heritage sites, some dating as far back as the the Stone Age, were last June added to a list of 936 UNESCO World Heritage sites, putting the city firmly on the map as tourist destination of global importance.

Al’Ain was in fact one of only four Middle Eastern cities added to the 2011 list of places of special interest that warrant conservation. The other sites are the stunning Wadi Rum Valley in Jordan, the ancient villages in Northern Syria and beautiful Persian Gardens in Iran.

This gives the city the same significance as the Pyramids of Egypt, the Taj Mahal in India, the Kasbah of Algiers and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

Known as the ‘Garden City’ of the UAE, Al Ain literally means ‘The spring’ in Arabic. It’s the second largest city in the country and the first UNESCO world heritage site.

Amongst the 17 locations that warrant its inclusion are: the Al Jahili Fort, Umm Al Nar, the Al Jimi Oasis and watchtower, the Hili Archaeological Park and a man-made water system called the ‘Falaj’.

The most impressive of Al Ain’s attractions however is probably the Jebel Hafeet, which is the highest mountain peak in the area. More than just a winding road leading up to a lookout, and the location of a hotel, the mountain extends 13 kilometres from the north to the south.

This stunning prehistoric range straddles the border between the UAE and Oman and overlooks a fourth millennium funerary landscape peppered with dome-shaped tombs.

About 500 of these 5,000-year-old tombs, known as ‘Hafeet tombs’, are scattered at the bottom of Jebel (which means ‘mountain’ in Arabic) Hafeet. They are the earliest tombs from the Bronze Age in the UAE and define a period known as ‘The Hafeet period’, dating from 3200BC to 2700BC.

Until recently the site was open to anyone. But since it’s been added to the heritage list access is limited and this applies to a number of the sites. With the exception of the Falaj Oases and some of the tombs, most are not accessible to the general public. However special arrangements to view the sites can be made in advance with the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage.

It is said that it was none other than the late Sheikh Zayed who first discovered the site in the 1950s and alerted Danish archeologists to its existence. Excavation has been ongoing at the Hafeet tombs since 1959.

Studies also indicate that Jebel Hafeet is home to around 118 species of rare plants, 18 species of mammals, 140 species of birds and over 10 species of reptiles. As such, it is also of environmental significance. “The biggest challenge we’re facing today is to preserve the balance between heritage and modernity,” says Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, the Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach) after it was announced that the site had received a UNESCO listing.
“As we celebrate this international recognition, we look forward to further achievements in the area which will undoubtedly serve to promote our country and our people,” he adds. “The archaeological sites in the Al Ain region are historically important examples of residential and entombment traditions.

“These sites are the remaining examples of a culture marked by its ability to overcome a tough natural environment and one which has the ability to complete with the challenges and hardships posed by the years.”

The UNESCO stamp on sites such as this, means not only that they can expect to attract more visitors. It also means they’re less likely to be destroyed because of development.

Ahmed Al Marar, 36, an Emirati who was born in Al Ain points out that the city is vibrant in a way that’s very different to Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Al Ain he says has a classical elegance.“It’s like other less developed emirates like Ras Al Khaimah or Fujairah whch have a family-feel to them, where everybody knows each other.

“Sheikh Zayed always wanted to keep Al Ain as it was – a green city,” he says. “There have been forts and castles and oases here for many years. Some trees are older than my father,” he adds.

And he cautions against further development. “There’s no need to develop Al Ain any more. Already the city has three shopping malls.”

Over the last decade he has noticed more tourists coming to the city. “It’s important that people know what we have here. Things have changed so much since I grew up in Al Ain,” he adds. “We have a much easier life today, but we must honour our past too.”

Work to get Al Ain listed by UNESCO began in 2003 but it wasn’t ready to be approved by Adach in co-operation with the National Council for Tourism and Antiquities of the UAE, until 2008.

“Al Ain has a beautiful story, and anyone can appreciate it by simply visiting the sites,” says Dr Walid Yassin, the Manager of the Archaeology Department at Adach, who has been overseeing the sites that were added to the UNESCO list, for more than three decades. “I would encourage everyone to come and see for themselves.”

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