Unesco has added the urban oasis to its World Heritage list, placing it on a par with the Taj Mahal, the Acropolis and the pyramids at Giza, writes Nick Leech.
Lessons from Al Ain’s past
“The UAE is often seen as a young nation, but at the same time it is also a country with a deep history. We have to be proud of this and build a long-term plan that will enable us to show that.”
As vice-chancellor of Paris Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi (PSUAD), Professor Eric Fouache is a chief executive whose days are consumed with university administration. But as an academic with more than 140 scientific papers and books to his credit, he is also a renowned expert on the relationship between geology and archaeology. As the Frenchman waxes lyrical about the way these forces coalesce in Al Ain, it is clear where his passions lie.
“Jebel Hafeet is unique: you have a combination of a scenic mountain with an artesian well; you have settlements from the early Bronze Age until now; you have the falaj system that emerged in the Iron Age; you have the palm groves, tombs, and forts. You can understand the whole history of the South Arabian Peninsula in a single place,” the geoarchaeologist explains.
“This place was on the route out of Africa … it was home to some of the first Neolithic civilisations and in the Bronze and Iron Ages, it was connected to all of the known cultures of the time. It is very important to create a common understanding and acknowledgement of this heritage.”
It was this distinction that convinced Unesco of the “outstanding universal value” of the cultural sites in Al Ain – at Hafit, Hili, Bidaa Bint Saud and the area’s oases – and which prompted the organisation to add the sites to its World Heritage List, an inscription that places the historic core of Abu Dhabi’s second city on a historic and cultural par with Agra’s Taj Mahal, the Acropolis of Athens and the great pyramids at Giza in Egypt.
If such comparisons sound unlikely, Fouache insists that is only because Al Ain’s qualities require the extra explanation and interpretation, both locally and internationally, that will enable them to be more appreciated and fully understood.
“Some people are not convinced that this is a place that has contributed to the heritage of world history. That is why it is necessary to create an itinerary where people can come for a day or half a day and be presented with a comprehensive vision of the landscape, the geology, and the long-term history at the same time as understanding how people now live with all of this heritage around them.”
With great riches, however, comes great responsibility, and the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA), the body charged with preserving and promoting the heritage, culture and traditions of the emirate, now finds itself in a situation where it is obliged to preserve, conserve, manage and interpret Al Ain’s treasures to standards defined by Unesco as being appropriate to a World Heritage site.
As Amel Chabbi, a TCA specialist in the conservation of historic buildings, explains – thanks to sites such as Dubai Creek, Al Bidya mosque in Fujairah, the paleolithic sites of central Sharjah and Ed-Dur, a rare first-century solar temple in Umm Al Quwain – it is a situation in which other heritage authorities across the UAE may soon find themselves.
“Almost every emirate has a site on the World Heritage tentative list that is in the process of being evaluated for inclusion. These sites are important to humanity and we need to have the right training not only to conserve and manage them but to keep them on the World Heritage List.”
It was for this reason that TCA, in partnership with PSUAD, recently launched Protecting Heritage Places, a two-week training programme aimed at professionals already working in the UAE’s tourism and heritage industries and delivered by a multi-disciplinary team of archaeologists, geographers, conservators and anthropologists from both TCA and PSUAD.
Hosted at PSUAD’s Reem Island campus, the course included trips to Al Ain, field exercises in conservation and survey techniques, and sessions on site-documentation, tourism management and community engagement. It ended on Thursday.
“This is the first course to introduce professionals who already have knowledge of the UAE’s archaeology and history and an understanding of the issues on the ground to the processes, criteria and approaches that we now have to master,” explained Chabbi, the course coordinator.
“Our goal is to build on what they already know, and to provide them with an understanding of the principles and approaches embodied in the World Heritage Convention but which are not taught in schools here because there isn’t a conservation programme in the UAE.”
Despite the fact that the course was aimed at professionals already working in the tourism and heritage industries, its success, according to Fouache, must ultimately be calculated by the effect it has on the wider public.
“The question is how to link local history and local interests with global history and worldwide interests. The key is to build a bridge between these two scales and to develop a sector where culture and heritage are not just cost centres, but are able to contribute to sustainable development, the environment and the economy in a positive way.”
For Abdulrahman Al Nuaimi, a 27-year-old archaeologist, course delegate and Al Ain resident, Fouache’s assessment rings true.
“The field of heritage is now becoming more important to our people and we need experience and training that will help us, not just to protect our heritage in the field, but to present it to the community.”
It was the experience of growing up in an environment where the past was visibly and inextricably interwoven with the present that initially sparked Al Nuaimi’s curiosity and ultimately convinced him to pursue a career in archaeology.
After studying at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom and taking part in several international excavations, Al Nuaimi returned to the UAE and became a professional archaeologist working with TCA. As well as taking part in archaeological excavations, documenting finds, and producing surveys and reports, Al Nuaimi now spends much of his time conducting preliminary cultural reviews of sites earmarked for development. Before construction can begin, Al Nuaimi surveys sites to assess their importance. If they are found to be archaeologically significant, construction can be delayed or the developer may even be told to build elsewhere.
“Thanks to oral heritage, we know lots about our history from 50 years ago, but we have a deeper history that stretches back beyond the Bronze Age, more than 5,000 years. I can link the history of my city not just with Abu Dhabi and the other emirates, but to other civilisations, to old Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley,” the young Emirati explains.
“We need to share this history with our community. It is our task now.”