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Real oasis in the land of bling
Real oasis in the land of bling

It's quite wrong to assume that the United Arab Emirates, and the cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, have never looked back since the discovery of oil.

Founder and first president, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, believed a country without a past had "neither a present nor a future". And that was very fortunate because, on June 28, 2011, the ancient city of Al Ain secured a UNESCO World Heritage listing.

Al Ain is a desert oasis about 120km south of Dubai and is a distinct alternative to the thrusting new cities.

It was once home to the late Sheikh Zayed and offers charm and originality, qualities immediately apparent at Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum, his Al Ain residence from 1937-66.

This is a labyrinthine complex with public and private areas surrounding courtyards and high-walled gardens at the edge of the oasis. There is no air-conditioning; perforated screens shade deep verandas from the intense summer heat. Circular towers at the main entrance are new - these imitate an older summer residence, the 19th century Al Jahili Fort, which stands close by. Everything else is much the same as when the ruling family lived here.

We enter their actual bedrooms, including the one shared by Sheikh Zayed and his wife. Main rooms are captioned and plaques are inscribed with his words. One example: "A woman constitutes half the society and keeps the house. A country aspiring to build itself should not keep a woman in the darkness of illiteracy and a prisoner to the shackles of oppression."

Throughout his lifetime, Sheikh Zayed remained preoccupied with his people's welfare. Locals would be welcomed in meeting rooms furnished with low cushions on a rush matting floor and coffeepots warmed atop a brazier, as we see today. He would visit the desert tribes in the old Land Rover that's parked in the palace grounds. Also in the grounds, a replicated royal tent harks back to the family's earlier nomadic way of life.

The nearby Al Ain National Museum was established by Sheikh Zayed to convey 7500 years of Abu Dhabi history, illustrated through objects found during the archaeological excavations carried out since the late 1950s, plus ethnographical collections focusing on the pre-oil era.

The latter features traditional medicines and herbal remedies - black cumin for headache, fenugreek for kidney problems and so on. A collection of surgical instruments includes razors for circumcision and cutting the umbilical cord. Separate exhibits show how pupils used reed pens and ink prepared from tree bark to write on the shoulder-blade bones of camels. There are weapons - battleaxes, multi-barrelled pistols and curved daggers. Falconry is explained in intricate detail.

The archaeological section holds artefacts discovered in the region. Flint tools and arrowheads attest to humans at Al Ain in the Late Stone Age while goods found in circular stone tombs indicate trade with Mesopotamia 5000 years ago. A separate exhibition explains the local falaj irrigation system, the 3000- year-old underground water distribution method that led to the development of permanent settlements and the cultivation of the date palm plantations that still give this region life.

We take a drive to the Hili archaeological site, 10km north of town on the Dubai road. Parts of the site are incorporated into a landscaped park designed to highlight the archaeological trenches and the tombs while making the site more accessible to the public.

Most prominent is the Hili Grand Tomb, a masterpiece of masonry for its time (around 2500BC). This was excavated by Danish archaeologists in 1965 and reconstructed by an Iraqi team in the mid-1970s. Carvings in low relief on the north and south entrances depict animals and human figures, one couple entwined in an intimate embrace.

This, and the plaster replica at Al Ain National Museum, would never be seen in modern-day public art in this region.

Travelling some 10km south of the city we arrive at Green Mubazzarah Hot Springs. Segregated indoor bathing is an option, though most Westerners are here for the scenery, specifically the rugged Jebel Hafeet, which at 1240m, is the second highest peak in the United Arab Emirates. A long winding road leads to the summit and this offers fine views of Al Ain and its surroundings.

It is the flora and fauna, however, that set Jebel Hafeet apart. That and its paleontological value, with some fossils dating from back to the Cretaceous period.

Back in Al Ain, various defensive towers, forts and fortified houses - in all, 65 registered historic buildings - add their weight. On a day trip we can't see them all, though an option is an overnight stay at the multi-storey Hilton Al Ain, which was built in 1968 to accommodate a royal wedding.

Despite rapid changes, the hotel remains the city's tallest building. Laws and statutes initiated by Sheikh Zayed ensure the oasis city retains its cultural edge, and the UNESCO listing is a further assurance that it will continue to offer an honest reflection of this region's culture before the discovery of oil.

  • fact file *

Becker Travel offers a day tour to Al Ain from Dubai or Abu Dhabi. beckertravel.com

The four-star Hilton Al Ain hotel is about 4km from the centre of Al Ain. Rooms overlook the hotel's gardens

or offer views towards Jebel Hafeet mountain. hilton.com/alain

For more information see

Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage at adach.ae.