Journey into the past to discover life in the UAE centuries before the country transformed into a modern marvel
From the world’s tallest building to the largest manmade island on the planet, the UAE’s modern architectural structures are impressive in their own right. While the curious traveller can spend hours exploring these contemporary icons, there’s something equally intriguing about journeying into the past to discover life in the region during ancient times. Over the last few decades, a wealth of archaeological sites have been discovered across the emirates. It is here that visitors are beckoned to explore the very lands where historic civilisations once thrived. With finds dating back to as early as the Paleolithic period, these sites reflect the country’s rich history, offering the opportunity to learn more about its colourful past.
/ Mleiha, Sharjah
For a truly riveting journey back in time, Mleiha Archaeological Centre in Sharjah chronicles the lives of settlers in the region right from the Palaeolithic era. Archaeological excavations have unearthed evidence that caravans traversed Mleiha’s desert sands on their way to Asia during this period. A Neolithic community also flourished around 8000 BCE and continued to grow through the Bronze, Iron and Pre-Islamic ages. The visitor’s centre is built around an elaborate tomb, Umm An Nar, from the Bronze Age. The site now houses a museum with intriguing displays that tell the story of Mleiha’s historic significance. The Faya Caves found within the area are another major highlight as they reveal the earliest evidence of human occupation outside of Africa. History buffs can also explore the remains of a Neolithic graveyard, the foundations of an ancient fort and palace as well as houses from pre-Islamic settlements. Visitors can book one of the centre’s archaeological tours with a guide to gain a deeper understanding of these sites, while mountain biking and hiking adventures around the main site are also available.
/ Sir Bani Yas Island, Abu Dhabi
In 1992, a monastery and church dating back to the seventh century were discovered on Abu Dhabi’s Sir Bani Yas Island. Believed to be the oldest Christian site in the country, it was only declared open to the public in 2019 as one of the many initiatives marking the Year of Tolerance in the UAE. Experts say that its presence in the region is proof that Islam and Christianity managed to coexist peacefully for many decades. It is believed that the site was occupied for close to 150 years and was also home to a small community of around 30 Nestorian monks who lived and prayed here more than a thousand years ago. The site has revealed much about the simple, solitary lives of these monks, who hailed from The Church of the East, a branch of Christianity that stretched all the way to China.
/ Jebel Hafeet, Abu Dhabi
The beehive tombs in Jebel Hafeet are truly among the most eye-catching sights in the UAE. Situated at the foot of the mountain, the site dates back to the Bronze Age, more than 5,000 years ago. Studies reveal that the tombs were built over a 500-year period between 3200 and 2700 BCE using roughly cut stones. In addition to the burial site found on the northern and eastern slopes of the mountain, ceramic and copper artefacts, showing links with ancient Mesopotamia, Iran and the Indus Valley, have also been discovered.
/ Hili Archaeological Site
Abu Dhabi The Hili Archaeological Site in Al Ain is a fascinating place to learn about the UAE’s past. A series of tombs, houses, strongholds and irrigation systems from the Bronze and Iron Ages, have been discovered here. These finds indicate that the town was the earliest agricultural village in the region, dating back to 3,000 BCE. A must-see is the 4,000-year-old Grand Tomb, which was restored in the 1970s. Just 12 metres in diameter and now unroofed, it was believed to have originally been at least four metres tall with a statuesque roof. Between 1,000 and 600 BCE, several Iron Age villages thrived in the area. Many houses were built of mud brick and they still stand several metres high. Excavations at one of the five remaining homes show that the village was also involved in pottery production.
/ Ed Dour, Umm Al Quwain
The town of Ed Dour in the emirate of Umm Al Quwain lies along the southeastern coast of the Arabian Gulf. At the beginning of the first century AD, its strategic position made the town an important port facilitating trade within the region and across the Indian Ocean. Nestled in a tiny district within the emirate and surrounded by high sand dunes, Ed Dour may easily skip a traveller’s radar but archaeological excavations from 30 years ago reveal that town was a place of immense significance in the past. As one of the largest archaeological sites in the emirate, it has been nominated for inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list. Several tombs, pottery items, jewellery and coins were unearthed at the site during early digs. But the ruins of a 2,000-year-old temple are among the most significant finds. It was built as an altar to worship the sun god with a fire pit inside for religious rituals. A large fort was also found, with walls almost 20 metres high and circular structures on the corners with eagle statues. Along with site tours, The Department of Tourism and Archaeology offers educational workshops for visitors looking to learn more about the region’s history.
Close to home
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has some of the most significant archaeological sites in the Middle East. While several sites dotted across the country are already gaining popularity, Madain Saleh is a must-visit. Often dubbed the ‘second Petra’, Madain Saleh is on par with its famous cousin across the border in Jordan. A major trading city along the ancient Nabataean trade route, recent excavations have revealed the foundations of houses and a market area for traders and caravans. However, it’s the 131 enigmatic tombs, which combine elements of Graeco-Roman architecture with Nabataean and Babylonian imagery, that grab all the attention. The site is currently closed for refurbishment and is due to reopen in October 2020.