An oasis in the Empty Quarters

An oasis in the Empty Quarters

Al Ain’s personality has not been smudged by the modern anonymity of skyscrapers, writes Tania Banerjee

Gardens of Al Ain. PHOTOS BY AUTHOR

It is easy to assume the lack of life among the copper humps of the Rub Al Khali desert also known as the Empty Quarters. Defying common sense, however, a town has sprung up amid the swells of sands — 171 kilometres from Abu Dhabi and 144 kilometres from Dubai. 

Aptly named ‘Al Ain’ which translates into ‘Garden City’, the township centres around its six oases. Before the 20th century when pearl fishing was still in vogue in the gulf countries, India was their biggest client. Al Ain served as a popular pit stop in the trade route. Cradled by the Al Hajar Mountains separating UAE from Oman, Al Ain has earned UAE’s first UNESCO World Heritage tag owing to the discovery of ancient tombs excavated at the foothills of these mountains.

Jebel Hafeet: History revisited

The craggy contours of the clay mountains was my companion along the serpentine roads going uphill to the highest point in Abu Dhabi Emirates — Jebel Hafeet, a mountain 1,249 metres tall. The searing heat rising from the Empty Quarters and the cool air moving down to the desert conjured up a film of fog on the slopes of the hill. Occasionally when the mist cleared, I saw green Al Ain, beyond which extended a sea of sand. Jebel Hafeet is at its best during sunrise and sunset. A hotel and a palace crown the mountaintop. However, it is not the summit that raised the eyebrows of historians, but the foothills where people from the Bronze Age are resting for 7000 years. UNESCO now protects the stone tombs, inscriptions and ancient irrigation systems found here at the sites of Hili Archaeological Park and Bidaa Bint Saud.

Quenching the thirst

The six oases of Al Ain that played a big role in winning the UNESCO tag are fed by the falaj irrigation system introduced by the people residing in the area during the Bronze Age. In ancient times, the water of the rivers and cascades in the mountain were channelled into small streams to ensure even distribution throughout the valley. Gravitational force was harnessed to its full potential. Nowadays, the water is supplied into the aflaj (plural of falaj) from dams, aquifers and direct pipelines. A canopy of vibrant green shrouded me in the oases.

Split by the aflaj recurrently, the land patches in the oases resembled pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Native date palm trees were accompanied by plantations of pomegranates, oranges, bananas and eggplants — foreign crops which adapted to the climate over time. The rain of lights that descended upon me in the palm groves of the oases in Al Ain inspired architect Jean Nouvel to design the spectacular dome of Louvre Abu Dhabi.

A fort that guards oases

The oases of Al Ain are the most fertile areas of Abu Dhabi Emirates, a value first noted by Sheikh Zayed bin Khalifa Al Nahyan (Zayed the first). Al Jahili Fort was constructed under his regime in 1898 to protect the oases. The mud-straw structure is a typical example of the vernacular military architecture of the region. The round tower of the fort, which comprises of four concentric tiers, offers strategic viewpoints overlooking the oases. Jaali windows and wooden doors with stout iron spikes gave away the Indian influence.

The living quarters for the royal family were added later to the fort. A dedicated section of the fort displays photos and belongings of the author of the book Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger, popularly known here as Mubarak bin London. Loved by the Bedouins, Thesiger was a British explorer who crossed the perilous Empty Quarters twice and documented his experience through his pen and camera. Being a good friend of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (founder of UAE), he was a bridge between the royal family and Bedouins of the desert.

Al Ain Palace Museum
Al Ain Palace Museum

Palatial affairs

In a courtyard of Al Ain Palace Museum, where the afternoon sun drinks up all life, a car stood under a shade from which a very quirky warning on a placard dangled, “To avoid embarrassment do not touch or open the car.”

The car in question had belonged to Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. He lived in this sprawling yet humble palace with his family until 1966.

A large tent with cushioned seating on the floor, flanked by a charcoal-fuelled stove, coffee pots and lanterns welcomed us — a typical majlis. At the core of the hospitality in Bedouin culture is the majlis, a living room where guests are hosted and fed.

As I walked past the corridors, indoor majlis, servants’ quarters, children’s rooms and the Sheikh’s bedroom, I noticed the pervasive presence of by-products of palm trees in the roofing, flooring, doors, windows, mats and baskets.

I bid adieu to the palace the way Emiratis do — by smelling the aroma of Oudh wafting through the corridors of the palace.