Dig beneath the surface of Al Ain’s modern exterior and you’ll find a past rich with prehistoric settlements and pre-oil life
As a green desert jewel in the midst of rolling red dunes, Al Ain might not seem like it has much of a history to tell.
But if you walk around the city, you’ll find it still bears traces of a distant past – all you have to do is look.
Once a hub of prehistoric settlement with its plentiful access to water and copper, Al Ain, or ‘The Spring’, became a vital stop on caravan trade routes to Oman, and has provided shelter to countless humans over millennia.
And now, with new findings unearthed, new buildings discovered and many of its locations designated as UNESCO world heritage sites, the city’s historical importance is rising to prominence.
So, take a trip back in time with us through our guide to Al Ain’s most important historical sites.
Jebel Hafeet Tombs
While many of us know Al Ain’s peak for its views, you’ll find our first historical spot at the foothills of Jebel Hafeet.
You’ll need a 4×4 to actually reach this monument as the track gets rough and rocky, but the bumpy ride is well worth it.
Known for their characteristic beehive structure, these burial grounds are around 5,000 years old and date back to the earliest part of the Bronze Age.
Made from rough-hewn stone, the tombs are distinctive for their style, which differs from the more finely-worked structures later in the period.
Excavations in the 1950s unearthed bronze and copper artefacts and ceramics from Mesopotamia, showing that the area has a lost history of trade routes and bustling desert civilization.
Please keep in mind when visiting that although this area is unrestricted, it’s an important historical site that should be treated with respect, so avoid climbing on the tombs and littering. Free. GPS coordinates 24.0451051, 55.7997776.
Al Hili Archaeological Park
As the largest Bronze Age settlement site in the UAE and a UNESCO site of cultural importance, Al Hili Archaeological Park is a must-do on your list for a step back in time.
With dwellings built from mud bricks, the thriving settlement remained there for about 1,000 years without interruption.
At the centre of the park lies Hili Grand Tomb, a 4,000-year-old burial chamber decorated with ancient relief carvings of humans and Arabian oryxes.
Outside of the park’s confines, you’ll find more settlements, tombs and an Iron Age falaj irrigation system to check out, and recent excavations have also unearthed a fortified plantation house. Free. Off 110th Street, near Hili Fun City. Daily 4pm–11pm.
Al Ain Oasis
As another of the city’s UNESCO sites, Al Ain Oasis is one of the green spots that gives the Garden City its reputation.
But there’s more than just date palms – it’s also home to one of the oldest Iron Age underground irrigation systems, and that irrigation system is still in use today bringing water from the mountains to irrigate the crops in the oasis’ working farms.
The attraction has also launched its own app, Al Ain Oasis, for an interactive guide through its history.
Free. Hessa Bint Mohammed Street. Daily 8am–6pm. Contact: 03 712 8523
Bida bint Saud
It may be closed to public viewing, but that doesn’t make Bida bint Saud any less fascinating. Similar to the Jebel Hafeet tombs, excavations at this site have unearthed a series of burial grounds cut into the mountain, a 3,000-year-old irrigation system and double-edged swords.
The tombs at Bida bint Saud are rectangular in shape, and encompass a large mudbrick building within the complex, showing that the area played a critical role in the emirate’s eastern development.
Qasr Al Muwaiji
Only recently opened to the public, this grand building was built in the early part of the 20th century by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Khalifam and became the family home of Sheikh Zayed in 1946.
Once Sheikh Zayed succeeded as ruler of Abu Dhabi in 1966, the fort lay empty, but a series of beautiful renovations restored the building to its former glory, and it reopened as a place of learning with exhibitions on the long lineage of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family. Free. Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Street, near Nova Medical Center, Al Ain. Sat-Thu 9am-7pm, Fri 3pm-7pm. Contact: 03 767 4444, qasralmuwaiji.ae
Al Jahili Fort
Built in 1891 to protect the city and its palm groves from marauding invaders, Al Jahili Fort is one of Al Ain’s older and grander buildings, forming a great example of traditional Emirati military architecture.
A former residence of Al Nahyan family, parts of the original building still remain, and the building was fully resorted in 2007 – meaning it’s open to explore.
After climbing the distinctive tower, don’t forget to check out the photography exhibition of the Empty Quarter taken by British explorer Wilfred Thesiger in the 1940s. Free. Hessa Bint Mohammed Street. Tue-Thu and Sat-Sun 9am–5pm, Fri 3pm–5pm.
Al Mezyad Fort
A former stronghold and one of Al Ain’s largest castles, Al Mezyad Fort sits on the border of Al Ain and Oman.
Spanning 3,600 square metres, the fort’s original construction goes back to the 19th century, and it has since been restored with the original mud bricks.
The large fort comprises more than 40 rooms and was designed to hold an entire army, making it one of the most fortified buildings in the UAE. Free. Near Green Mubazzarah. Opening hours to be confirmed.
Souq Al Qattara
Founded by Sheikh Shakbout in the mid-20th century, Souq Al Qattara is a slice of recent history in action.
With a traditional handicraft market running Thursday to Friday from October to May, the souq keeps Emirati heritage and tradition alive.
The souq is also home to festivals throughout the year, which include traditional dances, heritage activities and music to give visitors a glimpse of the past.
Free. Hamooda Bin Ali St, Al Qattara. Daily 6pm–11pm. Contact: 03 761 8080
In addition to its many grand forts, Al Ain still retains much of its historical character in the buildings around town.
Though some are now in ramshackle condition, they show Al Ain as it was before oil was struck.
Just on the edge of Al Qattara Oasis is Bin Biduwa Al Darmaki House, which was originally built in the 17th century from mud bricks.
On the eastern side of Al Jimi Oasis, you’ll find another old relic – the Bin Hammoodah Al Dhaheri house. Thought to date back 200 years, the structure revolves around a large courtyard and well.
Opposite the new site of the Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Grand Mosque in the Al Mahat area stands Al Qubaisi House. Built in the 1960s, the distinctive limestone pillars and walled courtyard style show the last vestiges of a simpler life.
If seeing the sights wasn’t enough, here are our favourite places to visit to get some more information on times gone by in the Garden City.
- Al Ain National Museum: For an all-encompassing history of Al Ain from the Stone Age right through to the founding of the UAE, the country’s oldest museum is the place to go. Explore artefacts discovered at the city’s archaeological sites, including arrowheads and Mesopotamian beads. AED 3. 1st Tue-Thu and Sat-Sun 8.30am-7pm, Fri 3pm-7pm. Contact: 02 657 6171
- Al Qattara Arts Centre: Opened in 2011, this creative offers workshops on calligraphy, archaeological exhibitions and artistic programmes on local cultural traditions. Free. Off Mohammed Bin Khalifa Street, Al Qattara. Sat-Thu 8am–8pm. Contact: 03 711 8225
- Al Ain Palace Museum: The former palace of Sheikh Zayed, this opulent building has opened its doors to show how the Nahyan family used to live. Several of the residential quarters are on display, as well as a large collection of memorabilia of his life and times. Free. Hessa Bint Mohammed Street, near Al Ain Oasis. Tue-Thu and Sat-Sun 8.30am-7.30pm, Fri 3pm-7.30pm. Contact: 03 751 7755