How to connect with culture and celebrate heritage

World Heritage Day encourages a celebration of culture and the monuments that underpin history.

From well-aged historical sites to newly established ones and cultural organisations, Abu Dhabi is quite the cultural mecca and ADW is here to tell you where to go to get a glimpse of the past and learn more about local and international heritage.

As World Heritage Day approaches on 18th April, we’re reminded to stop and appreciate cultural heritage, but not just our own. This commemorative day is about celebrating jointly, with people of all cultures across the world to promote awareness and understanding; a practice that starts with us and extends to the historical structures around us.

Heritage Day, formerly called The International Day for Monuments, was founded by the International Council on Monuments and Sites in 1982 to promote the importance of preserving cultural landmarks. Each year, the organisation works to preserve the world’s most beautiful and significant cultural monuments, ensuring that they’ll be around for future generations.

Perhaps the best way to celebrate World Heritage Day in the UAE is by visiting local sites that are steeped in Arab history.

World Heritage Sites are landmarks or areas designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as having cultural significance. To be selected, a site must already be classified as a landmark by its local government and have special cultural or physical significance. Abu Dhabi is home to several World Heritage Sites, including Al Ain Oasis and the archaeological sites of Bida bint Saud, Hafeet and Hili.

Al Ain Oasis

Al Ain Oasis sprawls across 3,000 acres and provides unique insight into the region’s inhabitants who began settling in the desert 4,000 years ago. While Al Ain Oasis has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2011, it just recently opened to the public after the construction of an educational Eco-Centre and an extensive system of shaded pathways that wind through 147,000 date palms. The site houses up to 100 different varieties of vegetation and working farms, which are supported by both wells and falaj, the UAE’s traditional irrigation system. Free. Al Mutawaa, Al Ain. Daily 8am-5pm. Contact:
02 599 5438

Bida bint Saud

A 3,000-year-old falaj discovered in the Bida bint Saud area makes it synonymous with one of the region’s oldest irrigation techniques whereby water is obtained from deep below the surface. A large mudbrick building comprised of a central room with column bases sits near the falaj and these sites together mark the important role that the Bida bint Saud area played in developing the eastern region.

Jebel Hafeet Tombs

The 5,000-year-old Jebel Hafeet tombs mark the beginning of the Bronze Age in the UAE. Excavations by Danish archaeologists in 1959 found evidence of ceramic vessels and copper artefacts in the tombs, which indicate the importance of maritime trade across the Arabian Gulf.

Hili Archaeological Park

Hili Archaeological Park comprises monuments from the Umm an-Nar period, which date from about 2500 BCE to 2000 BCE, and is named after the island near Abu Dhabi on which remains of this important culture were first discovered.

The most notable of the structures is the Hili Grand Tomb, which dates back to about 2000 BCE. Built in a circular form with a diameter of up to 12 metres, and approximately four meters high, the tomb was used for the burial of people from the surrounding settlements, and features two beautifully engraved entrances.

In addition to the tombs, there are several Bronze Age forts and settlements within the park including Hili 8, which revealed evidence of the earliest agriculture in the UAE dating back to about 5,000 years ago. Free. Mohammed Bin Khalifa Street, Al Ain. Daily 4pm-11pm. Visit: visitalain.ae

New History

Landmarks don’t have to be aged to hold cultural significance – the World Heritage Sites of the future are being established now. Here are relatively new places brimming with Emirati heritage.

Qasr Al Watan

Part of the Presidential Palace, Qasr Al Watan is a stunning spot that offers insight into Arab heritage and the governing principles that have shaped the UAE. It features an expansive library that holds books about the UAE’s culture, leaders and achievements. You can walk its majestic hallways, which give a nod to Arabian craftsmanship, create traditional calligraphy on interactive screens and take in a spectacular light and sound show that conveys the past, present and future vision of the UAE. Standard and private guided tours are also available. From AED 25 for adults, AED 12 for children, free for children aged three years old and below. Al Ras Al Akhdar, next to Emirates Palace. Daily 10am-8pm. Contact: 600 544 442, qasralwatan.ae

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is an Islamic monument and centre for Islamic Sciences conceptualized by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founding father of the UAE. With 82 domes of various sizes made from white marble cladding, traditional Moroccan artwork, hand-knitted carpets, seven crystal chandeliers and marble columns inlaid with precious stones, the mosque is truly a sight to behold. Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque hosts religious and cultural activities throughout the year, Friday sermons and is open to the public for tours. Free. Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Street, Khor Al Maqtaa. Sat-Thu 9am-10pm, Fri 4.30pm-10pm. Contact:02 419 1919, szgmc.gov.ae      

Cultural connection 

The UAE population is comprised of 83 percent non-UAE nationals, represented by a mix of expatriates from all around the world. While Abu Dhabi is rich in Arab history, the capital city also has strong ties to its multicultural community.  Whether you want to experience another culture or become more immersed in your own, there’s
a community organisation ready to host you.

The US Embassy Abu Dhabi collaborates on a variety of events to link Emirati audiences with American culture. Through its cultural diplomacy programmes, which include the American Film Showcase, American Music Abroad and Museums Connect to name a few, the embassy seeks to engage the local community through the arts. The US Embassy Abu Dhabi is widely known for its support of community initiatives like Rooftop Rhythms, which provides an opportunity for cultural expression through regular poetry open mic nights. Visit: ae.usembassy.gov

Alliance Française Abu Dhabi encourages cultural dialogue between France and people of the UAE with Francophone culture. From exhibitions and cinema to concerts and conferences, the organisation prides itself on hosting cultural exchange in a vibrant atmosphere. Contact: 02 612 2900, afabudhabi.org

British Council United Arab Emirates provides English language courses and CELTA training for teachers. The council works closely with schools, universities and government entities to promote cultural exchange through language learning. The organisation also develops the talent of young people through its skills for employment and connecting classroom programmes as well as its internationalising higher education programme, which supports academic links between UAE and British universities. Contact:
600 529 995, britishcouncil.ae

The Italian Embassy of Abu Dhabi will champion cultural understanding through the arts with the development of its soon-to-open Italian Cultural Institute, which aims to promote Italian language, culture and art. The Embassy also hosts Italian language courses for the local army and Italian children living in the UAE. Visit: ambabudhabi.esteri.it

The Royal Thai Embassy Abu Dhabi maintains positive trade relationships with the UAE and hosts community events such as the annual Thai Festival to share Thai culture with Abu Dhabi residents. Visit: thaiembassy.org/abudhabi

Established in 1967, the India Social & Cultural Centre offers a home away from home for the Indian community in Abu Dhabi, offering a range of social, cultural, literary, educational and recreational activities throughout the year. Visit: iscabudhabi.com

Immerse yourself in Korean cultural at the Korean Cultural Center. Regular activities, workshops and performances are hosted for the whole community, including cooking classes, Korean film screenings, art exhibitions and musical performances. Visit: uae.korean-culture.org

WORDS Tamara Clarke

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