(CNN) — The UAE may have just celebrated its 50th anniversary of independence, but Abu Dhabi has a centuries-old past.
The largest of the emirates boasts an array of UNESCO World Heritage Sites as well as some of the country’s best preserved forts which showcase its key geographical location over the centuries, telling the story of the bond of the Emirati people with land and sea.
A short drive to the oasis town of Al Ain is where some of the most magical gems of past generations come to life, a living museum paying homage to the country’s Bedouin roots.
Birthplace of the country’s founder and first president, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, Al Ain is a must for visitors to the United Arab Emirates for a real taste of its authentic culture and heritage.
Known as the Garden City, Al Ain was once a vital green oasis on the caravan route from the United Arab Emirates to Oman and is now home to several UNESCO protected sites.
Here are some of the main archaeological and historical treasures of Abu Dhabi.
Qasr Al Hosn
The 18th-century Hosn Palace, or Qasr al Hosn, began as a unique watchtower in the 18th century and, as the complex grew, eventually became the seat of power until the late 1960s.
“There are great stories about the palace told by people who lived around this place,” says Nataly Leslie, a tour guide in the emirate. “The door to the palace was wide open for people to talk to the sheikhs and raise their concerns.”
Today, the palace remains a key attraction not only for tourists but also for Emiratis, who come to sit in the palace cafe to savor the place their ancestors have spoken of so much.
The palace also showcases local culture with regular exhibitions and events.
Al Ain Oasis
Al Ain is home to 100 varieties of date palms.
The first of the UAE’s UNESCO sites was the spectacular Al Ain Oasis.
Located in the heart of The Garden City, the site dates back more than 4,000 years and bears witness to one of the first irrigation systems of modern times.
The system, known as the “falaj”, took water from the nearby Hajar Mountains via a series of narrow waterways still visible today.
Visitors can take organized walking trails through the site which covers over 1,200 hectares and contains over 147,000 date palms and 100 varieties of dates.
The centuries-old falaj system was only updated in the 20th century with the introduction of push-ups. An eco-center is also available to allow visitors to better understand the ancient Bedouin irrigation systems.
Bidaa Bint Saud
A treasure trove for archeology enthusiasts, Bidaa Bint Saud, a former caravan site, is located 25 kilometers (15 miles) north of Al Ain.
The fascinating area which once had a huge farming community stretching to the northern emirates, all using the region’s network of falaj irrigation systems, includes a rare Iron Age building and tombs of the 5,000 year old Bronze Age as well as the imposing Gharn Bint Saud.
This 40 meter high rock rises above the landscape with several ancient stone tombs on top. Many of the finds from the area such as pottery, dagger blades, jewelry and bronze arrowheads, are now on display at the Al Ain National Museum.
Hili Archaeological Park
Dating from the Bronze Age (3200 BCE to 1300 BCE) and Iron Age (1300 BCE to 300 BCE), this area shows evidence of ancient life that once lived in the deserts of the region.
Archaeologists have uncovered villages, cemeteries and agricultural infrastructure from what is now called the Umm an-Nar period, named after the island off Abu Dhabi where remains of the culture were discovered for the first time.
It also houses the largest collection of tombs and buildings in the United Arab Emirates from this period.
Tombs of Jebel Hafit
The tombs of Jebel Hafit reveal the importance of maritime trade across the Persian Gulf.
David Steele/Adobe Stock
Besides being the highest peak in Abu Dhabi, Jebel Hafit (Hafit Mountain) is also home to around 500 5,000-year-old tombs that mark the start of the Bronze Age in the United Arab Emirates.
First discovered during excavations in 1959, archaeologists found ceramic vessels and copper artifacts in the igloo-shaped tombs that showed the importance of maritime trade across the Persian Gulf.
The single chamber tombs are a spectacular site offering a window into a bygone era.
Tour guide Leslie calls it one of Abu Dhabi’s “hidden gems”.
“Most people aren’t aware of all these discoveries in this area,” she says. “Even though the UAE is a relatively young country, it has ancient finds that prove this region was once a bustling place where history was written.”
Fort of Maqta
This small but essential fort at the entrance to the main island of Abu Dhabi was erected in the late 18th century using basic materials such as coral stones, beach rocks and sand and its tower will guard and protect Abu Dhabi for many years to come.
“While Qasr al Hosn has become a place of great importance to the local population, Maqta Fort has become a stopover for people coming to Abu Dhabi,” says Leslie.
Al Ain Palace Museum
Al Ain Palace was once the home of the ruling family of the United Arab Emirates.
Once the residence of the late Sheikh Zayed, the first president of the United Arab Emirates, Al Ain Palace was inhabited by the ruling family until the 1960s before making the city of the emirate their permanent residence as the main island of Abu Dhabi has become a political and economic capital. .
Visitors can get a glimpse of life inside the residence which stands as a reminder of the days before the discovery of oil in the mid-20th century.
Although it is not “old” compared to other sites in the emirate – the oldest building in the complex dates from 1937 – it is made of traditional materials of the time, dotted with traditional courtyards which characterized such properties in the area at that time. period.
Now a museum, visitors can see the critical links between past and present and appreciate Abu Dhabi’s rapid transformation from Bedouin life to modern affluence.
“If you are a history buff and want to learn more about the royal family and the traditional architecture of that era, this is the place to go,” says Shamsa Al Naqbi, an Emirati tour guide.
“It’s a glimpse into the life of the royal family, their rooms, the style of architecture, the objects they would use, so it’s a really nice place to visit to see the real history of the UAE .It also really shows the transition our ancestors made to the modern UAE that we have today.”
Sir Baniyas Island Church and Monastery
A little off the beaten track is Sir Baniyas Island in the Western Region, accessible by boat or plane from Abu Dhabi via the resort of Anantara, which handles tourism for the remote island.
Discovered in the early 1990s, the church and monastery are the only pre-Islamic Christian site found in the United Arab Emirates, Leslie explained. It is the source of hundreds of artifacts offering a fascinating insight into life during this time.
“Like life in the United Arab Emirates before the discovery of oil, the people of this colony used the sea as a source of food,” she said. “They also raised animals like sheep and cattle and traded across the Persian Gulf and into the Indian Ocean.”
Sir Baniyas Island is now a wildlife sanctuary, home to a wide range of protected animals, from Arabian oryx to gazelle, which visitors can observe firsthand on game drives.