Sultan bin zayed fort Image Credit: Abdul Rahman/Gulf News

Al Ain: The inclusion of 17 heritage sites in Al Ain in the prestigious Unesco's World Heritage List this year is a great boost for the UAE's culture on the international stage.

These sites join an exclusive club comprising the Great Wall of China, Egypt's pyramids, India's Taj Mahal and the Statue of Liberty in America.

Mohammad Amer Al Neyadi, Director of Historic Environment at the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach) said this international recognition will help shed more light on the lifestyle and customs of the people who lived in the region, which is today part of the UAE.

"They would drive their oxen, plough the fertile fields and use the falaj [ingenious water management system] to irrigate their fields," Al Neyadi said.

These residents of what is today Al Ain lived in houses made of sun-dried mud bricks. They also used these bricks to make dome-shaped tombs

The oldest discoveries in Al Ain testify to human occupation nearly 8,000 years ago and include flint tools, stone scrapers and fine arrowheads.

Artefacts, such as pottery, stone vessels and copper objects, have been found in collective graves at Hili and Umm Al Nar and reveal the extent of trading activity with places such as Mesopotamia as far back as 5,000 years. Locally-made and imported necklaces, pendants, axes, daggers, swords and many other objects, dating to between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago have been unearthed at Qattara.

Ancient settlements and graves from the Iron Age have are evidence of sophisticated industries producing fine bracelets, bangles and anklets made of bronze.

Neolithic period

In its observations, Unesco's World Heritage Committee said: "The cultural sites of Al Ain [Hafeet, Hili, Bidaa Bint Saud and the oases] constitute a serial property that testifies to sedentary human occupation of a desert region since the Neolithic period with vestiges of many prehistoric cultures."

It added that remarkable vestiges in the property include circular stone tombs (2500BC), wells and a wide range of adobe constructions: residential buildings, towers, palaces and administrative buildings.

"Hili features one of the oldest examples of the sophisticated falaj irrigation system which dates back to the Iron Age. The property provides important testimony to the transition of cultures in the region from hunting and gathering to sedentarisation."

Shaikh Sultan Bin Tahnoun Al Nahyan, Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach), said: "These sites are the remaining examples of a culture marked by its ability to overcome a tough natural environment, complete with all its challenges and hardships.

"The native people survived here by adapting their lifestyles to the very limited resources that were available."

1 Jebel Hafeet Desert Park The park covers the necropolis of Hafeet Graves, Mezyad Fort and associated oasis, and the natural terrain immediately surrounding it. Several ridges leading from the main mass of the Jebel Hafeet mountain range extend northwards toward the city, each one featuring groups of Hafeet tombs.

The largest and most prominent part of the Jebel Hafeet cultural landscape, the Jebel Hafeet mountain range looms over the southern side of Al Ain, rising to a height of about 1,160 metres above sea level. It is an outlair of the extensive Hajar mountain range to the east, and represents the only true mountain in Abu Dhabi.

2, 3 and 4 Jebel Hafeet North Tombs, Al Ain Wildlife Park Tombs and West Ridge Hafeet Tombs Several ridges lead from the main mass of Jebel Hafeet and extend northwards towards the city, each one featuring groups of Hafeet tombs.

5 Al Naqfa Fort Beside the Hafeet tombs, the ridge features ruins of Al Naqfa Fort, located on a rocky outcrop commanding the approach to Al Ain Oasis. Based on the discovery of pottery pieces from the Iron Age and the late Islamic period, the fort is known to represent the earliest surviving defensive structure in the city. The location and active use of the modern-day cemetery and communal prayer ground near Al Naqfa indicate the significance of this location in the cultural life of Al Ain.

6 Hili Archaeological Park It is home to some of the most interesting archaeological finds. Sites from the Bronze Age (Hili 1, Hili 10, Hili Grand Tomb, Tombs E and N) lie in the southern half of the park, while the northern section has unexcavated mounds from the Iron Age. Sites located outside the park include the Hili 8 Bronze Age settlement and tombs, Hili 14 and Hili 17 Iron Age settlements and Hili 15 Falaj, the oldest water management system on earth.

The site includes the remains of a single building, which may have been the only central park of a larger settlement. Only the foundations of the building remain, as the original floors and the upper walls have been eroded away by time.

The type of pottery discovered indicate that the building belonged to one of the Bronze Age phases and it was reoccupied during the Iron Age.

One of the primary concerns of the local culture during the Bronze Age was the treatment of the dead, said archaeologist Abdul Rahman Al Nuaimi.

"From the second half of the third millennium BC there is a large number of tombs at Hili, which were circular in shape. The tomb was excavated by a Danish team in 1995 and reconstructd by an Iraqi team in 1973- 1975," he said.

7 Hili 2 Located west of the Hili Archaeological Park, this Iron Age village features well-preserved houses, large storage jars indicating a prosperous community and a surplus of cereals due to the new irrigation system in use.

8 and 9 Hili North Tombs A and B The two Umm Al Nar tombs in Hili North, located to the north of Hili Archaeological Park, are among the most outstanding features of the Umm Al Nar culture in southeast Arabia. The monumental tombs, two-story and circular in shape, are among the largest burials in the region.

10 Rumailah Located three kilometres west of Hili Archaeological Park, the rectangular mound suggests two levels of occupation: One that began in the last quarter of 2000BC, and secondly a major Iron Age site (1000BC), which became a large farming village, perhaps associated with the falaj irrigation system.

11 Bidaa Bint Saud The Bidaa Bint Saud site is dominated by an outcrop of stratified stone rising to about 40 metres above the surrounding landscape. Cemeteries and graves were discovered along the eastern side and on the top of the outcrop. The graves located along the eastern side of the outcrop are of a Bronze Age similar to those within the Hafeet assemblage. The group of Iron Age graves on the top of the outcrop also yielded artifacts such as pottery, stone vessels, dagger blades, arrowheads and beads, now on display in the Al Ain National Museum.

Archaeologist Abdullah Al Ka'abi said Bidaa Bint Saud gained importance during the Iron Age when it was known as a rural centre with a permanent farming community. A series of Iron Age sites to the north suggest a caravan route, linking Al Ain oases with other contemporary emirates such as Dubai, Sharjah, Umm Al Quwain and Ras Al Khaimah.A well was also discovered about 300 metres to the east of the outcrop,. The remains of a public building, a few hundred metres to the west of the outcrop, are the first of its kind discovered in the region.

Called Beit Al Falaj (House of the Falaj), it might have housed the administration of the falaj system, including the distribution of water rights. It could also have served as a trade counter on the routes heading towards the north.

In the region south of the building, two falaj sites were discovered, providing further evidence that the falaj system was indigenous to the region.

12 Al Ain Oasis The largest oasis is situated at the heart of what is today downtown Al Ain.

This oasis was fertile for several hundred years. The 3,000-acre site contains over 147,000 date palms, occasionally interspersed with fruit trees such as mangoes, oranges, bananas, figs and jujubes (known locally as sidr). Within the oasis are the remains of an old fortification and a mosque resored in traditional style.

Associated historic buildings include Al Murab'a Fort, Eastern (Sultan Bin Zayed) Fort, Al Jahili Fort, Shaikh Zayed Palace Museum and Al Ain National Museum.

Al Ain city, named after Al Ain Oasis, fully deserves its title of garden city in the desert as it is a fertile oasis city and its name (the spring in Arabic) derives from its originally plentiful supply of fresh water, which makes its way underground across most of the plain lying before the Omani mountains, according to Al Ka'abi.

13 Hili Oasis The northernmost oasis, located in the northern sector of the city. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Hili region has been inhabited and farmed for thousands of years. The oasis and its falaj system were of such importance to the families living there that they built two defensive watchtowers for protection.

These towers played an important role in the 1950s conflict known as the ‘Hili Attack'. Associated historic buildings include Hemad Bin Hadi al Darmaki House and the Hili Watchtowers.

Sultan Bin Zayed Fort

The Eastern of Sultan Fort, adjacent to the Al Ain National Museum, was built in 1910. Its three corner towers helped defenders protect the fort with flanking fire, and also housed store rooms for wheat and dates.

The formal reception rooms or majlis, in which visitors enjoyed their host's hospitality, contrast with the barasti hut or arish, constructed in the courtyard as an example of the kind of modest accommodation more familiar to an ordinary family.

Jahili Fort

Jahili is one of the largest forts in the country, built in the late 19th century as a symbol of power and a royal summer residence. Buildings of that era are made up of a square fortified enclosure and distinctive four-storey circular tower.

When British forces came to Al Ain in the early 1950s to assist in the administration of the area, these buildings, which had fallen into disrepair, were incorporated into a larger enclosure forming their headquarters.

14 and 15 Al Jimi and Al Qattara Oases Set closely together and located south of Hili, these oases are rich in historic mud brick buildings both within their perimeters, as well as important sites in their proximity, such as the Muraijib Buildings and the Qattara Tomb.

16 Mutaredh Oasis Located west of Al Ain Oasis, associated historic buildings include the House of the late Shaikh Mohammad Bin Khalifa.

17 Muwaiji Oasis It is located west of the Mutaredh Oasis. Historic buildings associated with this oasis in the include Al Muwaiji Palace, which was used by Shaikh Zayed as his administrative base.