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Imam Bakhsh splashes his way towards the next gate in a date palm area at Hili Oasis.
Imam Bakhsh splashes his way towards the next gate in a date palm area at Hili Oasis.

Al Ain oasis still watered by 200-year-old irrigation system

Old canals are still delivering water to date palms, keeping plants alive and people cool at the Hili Oasis.

AL AIN // Every year for almost two centuries, the arrival of the hot season caused families from across the region to travel for days or weeks to reach what they called "drops of paradise" in the heart of the hot dry desert.

Hili Oasis, with water and shade from more than 100 plots of palm tree garden, each enclosed within mud-brick walls, was and remains one of those places of refuge from the heat.

"They would come and rent out our nakhel [palm farm] by exchanging whatever goods they had, for instance fish, as payment for resting in our gardens," said Mohammed al Daheri, 31, whose family owns 10 of the gardens in the Hili Oasis.

The plots are passed down by inheritance through the generations, and there is a particular sense of national pride associated with the way the plantation of date-bearing palm trees has thrived over the decades.

"Our ancestors were faced with the great challenge of lack of water, and so they engineered a water system that has lasted to this day," said Mr al Daheri.

In celebration of Unesco's International Day for Monuments and Sites yesterday - which fell during a week of heritage celebration in the UAE - the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach) recognised Hili Oasis with an event to note and celebrate not only the site but also the importance of an essential aspect of the UAE's heritage: water.

Running across each plot in the oasis are canals extending from man-made underground channels that transport this precious source across several kilometres. While the water canals at the Hili Oasis are just 200 years old, this sort of water system is ancient, originally developed in the first millennium BC.

The buried canals are known as aflaj, a word of Semitic origin meaning to divide and distribute.

The aflaj were honourably shared and managed by Al Ain's ancient inhabitants, and then by the tribes, which sometimes fought over them.

Only in the early 20th century was the ancient technology modernised by means of pumps.

"If it wasn't for the aflaj, our ancestral farms and oases wouldn't have survived," Mr al Daheri said.

Covering a surface area of about 62 hectares, Hili is the second-largest oasis in Al Ain. As a testament to the importance of the water supply, two fortified watchtowers, just 56 metres apart and over 10 metres high, were constructed at the north entrance of the Hili Oasis to protect the water supply.

In all there are seven oases in Al Ain, a word meaning "spring water" in Arabic.

A stroll through the Hili Oasis, with its farms and historic buildings, all belonging to old families of Al Ain, is available to the public for free during the day. The area is north-east of downtown Al Ain.

"The culture of water - managing and protecting it - has been essential in shaping the heritage of the Abu Dhabi emirate, of which oases are an important heritage asset," said Dr Sami el Masri, the deputy director general for Arts, Culture and Heritage at Adach.

Through the ancestral aflaj irrigation system, large extensions of land were farmed, allowing inhabitants to settle and trade crops.

This established Al Ain as a major crossing point in trade routes among areas then known as Persia, Arabia, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley.

"They are not only significant for their ecological value, but also for the important cultural value they hold, which is linked to a way of life that has survived until today," Dr el Masri said.

In case a cool breezy walk through the oasis is not enticement enough, visitors can also find a "Bin Hadi" workshop set up there.

Here you can try your hand at the traditional making of mud bricks. Bricks made from local clay, sand and hay, along with mud plaster, are produced here and used by Adach in the conservation of historic buildings in Al Ain.

Ironically, the substance that is being celebrated is also the biggest enemy of the historic mud brick buildings in the oasis.

"Water makes and at the same time breaks mud bricks," said Benjamin Marcus, a building conservator from the conservation department at Adach. Mr Marcus has overseen some of the conservation efforts in Hili Oasis over the past year and a half.

"Every bit of this oasis tells a different story, and so we are trying our best to revive these stories through our efforts," he said.

But perhaps the best part about the aflaj is what can't be proven, how the ancient aflaj of south-east Arabia were built through the help of mystical jinn.

"Well, whether they built it or not, is not as important as the legendary impact the aflaj have had on our history," Mr al Daheri said.


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