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Once a vital green oasis on the caravan route from UAE to Oman, Al Ain (meaning ‘The Spring’) is the emirate’s heritage heartland, one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited settlements, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Classified by UNESCO as ‘cultural sites’, Al Ain world heritage locations include the six Al Ain Oases and the archaeological sites of Bida bint Saud, Hafeet and Hili, all testimonies of sedentary human occupation of a desert region since the Neolithic period, with vestiges of many prehistoric cultures.

Numerous stone-constructed tombs were discovered and excavated on top of the mountain called Gharn bint Saud to the north of Al Ain. The largest of these tombs is rectangular in shape, measuring 8 metres in length and 6 metres in width. Although some of the tombs may date as early as 5000 years ago, many of the tombs were re-used throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages.

A 3000-year-old falaj was discovered 1,500 meters to the west of Gharn bint Saud. It attests to local ingenuity in obtaining water from deep below the surface. Currently, this falaj, the examples from Hili, and other examples from elsewhere in the UAE and Oman are the earliest evidence for the widespread use of this irrigation technology in the world. A large mudbrick building, which included a central room with column bases, and which dates to 3000 years ago, was found near the falaj. These sites illustrate the critical role that the Bida bint Saud area, and Al Ain generally, played in the development of the Eastern Region of Abu Dhabi.

The 5000-year-old Jebel Hafeet tombs mark the beginning of the Bronze Age in the UAE. Excavations by Danish archaeologists in 1959 found evidence for ceramic vessels and copper artefacts in these tombs. These artefacts indicate the importance of maritime trade across the Arabian Gulf. The tombs are single-chamber tombs and are made of local unworked or roughly cut stones. These differ from later Umm an-Nar tombs which were made from finely worked blocks that contained the remains of hundreds of people.

Hili Archaeological Park was developed to highlight the ancient monuments of Al Ain and to make them easily accessible to visitors. Most of the monuments are of the Umm an-Nar period which dates 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.

Its centrepiece is Hili Grand Tomb dating to about 2000 BCE. Built in a circular form with a diameter of up to 12 metres, and approximately 4 meters high, the tomb was used for the burial of people from the surrounding settlements. The tomb has two entrances, which are decorated with beautiful engraved reliefs portraying human and animal figurines. Many other similar tombs are found throughout the area of Hili. In the future an archaeological trail will permit tourists to visit these sites and learn more about the Umm an-Nar culture.

In addition to tombs, there are several Bronze Age forts and settlements within and just outside Hili Archaeological Park. One of these, Hili 8, revealed evidence for the earliest agriculture in the UAE dating to about 5000 years ago. Artefacts from these sites can be seen in Al Ain National Museum.

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