To the untrained eye, it is a modern city with wide roads, fast cars and interminable roundabouts. But Al Ain, on the border between the UAE and Oman, has been continuously settled since 3000BC, and has a rich archaeological heritage. Visitors can find plenty to see and do in Al Ain.

This is an oasis town, surrounded by high mountains, and it was once an important staging post on the caravan route to Oman. Today it is important for date growing and, increasingly, for tourism. The UNESCO designated “cultural sites of Al Ain” include the oases, prehistoric sites and traditional adobe buildings.

The Oases of Al Ain

Like many visitors, we started with the oases. Al Ain literally means “the spring”, and the town has seven oases, fed by natural springs from the surrounding mountains.  

Oasis, Al Ain, UAE
The oases use the traditional system of irrigation

At the Al Qattara oasis, the security man waved us past when we said we were tourists. We had the place to ourselves: there was no sound but birdsong and the occasional clucking of chickens. It was shady too, a good place to avoid the crowds and the sun.

Oasis, Al Ain, UAE
A shady passageway through the oasis

We walked quite a long way through the peaceful passages between the plots, observing the traditional falaj (the irrigation system that has been in use since the Iron Age). Mud brick walls divide the oasis into separate plots full of date palms, large clusters of green fruit hanging from every tree. Dates are the biggest agricultural crop in the UAE, and much of their production is concentrated in Al Ain. The autumn harvest is a tradition that goes back for thousands of years and involves whole families in picking dates, removing stalks and leaving the fruit to dry.

Green bags protect the date palms, in Al Ain
Bags are placed over the ripening fruit to prevent them falling to the ground

We stopped to watch a man with a long white beard and colourful robes controlling the irrigation, then walked away from the oasis to a cluster of traditional adobe buildings. Unexpectedly we found that one of these contained a contemporary art gallery and spent a happy half hour wandering around an exhibition of modern Iraqi art.  

Prehistoric Sites of Al Ain

The best place to explore the archaeological heritage proved to be the National Museum, next to the Al Ain Oasis. This houses items excavated from the ancient tombs and settlements around the town, including pottery, jewellery and stone tools. Elsewhere in the museum we looked at displays of Bedouin weapons and musical instruments. In the neighbouring Eastern Fort (one of 18 forts in the city) was a fascinating series of photographs showing the country as it was 50 years ago, a desert community standing in startling contrast to the oil funded high rise cities of today.  

Eastern Fort, Al Ain
The Eastern Fort, more properly known as the Fort of Sheik Sultan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, for many years the home of the former ruler of Abu Dhabi

We headed out of town to look at the actual sites but, surprisingly, there was not much to be seen. Bint al Saud, a rocky outcrop some miles from the city, was surrounded by a fence so we couldn’t get close, although the remains of collective tombs in the surface of the rock were still visible.

Bint al Saud, Al Ain
The rock of Bint al Saud. The remains of collective tombs can still be seen in the rockface

At Jebel Hafeet, the second highest mountain in the UAE, and similarly home to several ancient tombs, there was today no sign of any prehistoric habitation. However, after a short but hot climb up the barren limestone path from the car park near the top of the mountain, we were rewarded with views into Oman and across the endless sandy desert of the UAE’s Empty Quarter.

Jebel Hafeet
Climbing up Jebel Hafeet

Eating With the Locals in Al Ain

When we had finished exploring we had lunch in a little back street cafe, whose other customers were all Arabic men. Most of them were playing cards or backgammon and smoking shish, and were quite happy when I asked if I could take their photograph.

Men playing cards in a cafe in Al Ain, UAE
Locals enjoying a game of cards in a cafe in Al Ain
Man playing backgammon in a cafe in Al Ain
Enjoying a game of backgammon

With a bit of sign language we indicated that we wanted to eat and were brought a feast of bread, salad, olives, hummous and baba ganoush. An elderly man stopped by our table on the way out and helped himself to a piece of our bread, dropping cigarette ash as he did so. We were given to understand that his sharing of our food was a great honour, the ultimate acceptance.

What Else Can You See and Do in Al Ain?

Read more about things to see and do in Al Ain and the surrounding area:

How to Get to Al Ain

Al Ain is 170 km from Abu Dhabi. It is about two hours by car, and buses run approximately once an hour, leaving from Abu Dhabi bus station. Or you can take a full day tour from Dubai or Abu Dhabi.

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