Unearthing bits of the UAE’s past in Al Qattara Oasis

UAE, Al Ain, Qattara, door

It is already four years since I last visited the archaeological site in Al Qattara, one of the oases that stretch in the plains of Al Ain. Al Ain, part of the Abu Dhabi Emirate, is known for its water sources (hence its name), its dry climate (as opposed to the high humidity levels that are prominent in the rest of the country), Jabel Hafeet (one of the few UAE mountains), and its oases that produce first-rate dates. The town itself has the picturesque tranquillity of a rural Khaleeji settlement, with low buildings in the colour of the sand, lines of small shops, and elaborate roundabouts decorated with flowers or various symbols of the Emirati heritage. Few people are aware, though, of the significant prehistoric activity that took place in this area. The latest discoveries – in Hili and Qattara – demonstrate that this is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited places.

With its oases and fertile landscape, Al Ain provided its inhabitants with a broad range of opportunities, including growing crops in the fields and mining copper and stones from the nearby mountains. Although numerous essential findings are dating to the Bronze Era, it appears that Al Ain experienced significant economic activity during the Iron Age, the early Islamic period (9th c), and the late Islamic period (from the 1700s until the 1960s). The other eras remain silent, reflecting the downturns of the local economy or, simply, our lack of relevant archaeological evidence.

Based on the sites that have been unearthed so far, copper was mined and processed in Al Ain since the Bronze Era and was transported to the coast as ingots on the trade routes that had been established during the earlier Neolithic period. Those early entrepreneurs created a trading port on Umm An Nar Island, right next to the modern city of Abu Dhabi, which was to become a hub for international trade, continuing the tradition that had begun thousands of years earlier, during the Neolithic times. Many copper weapons and agricultural tools from that era were found in excavated tombs dating to 4,000 and 3,000 years ago, attesting to the ingenuity and technological mastery of the time.

I was fortunate to get a glimpse of the region’s history while strolling around the Al Qattara Arts Centre, the Souq, and the surrounding fields.

Iron Age (roughly, 1200 – 500 BC)

The new information regarding the Iron Age history of Al Qattara was discovered by sheer luck – as is so often the case for those parts of our heritage that have been buried under subsequent layers of activity. Bayt Bin Ati Al Darmaki – a traditional mud-brick tower and house, partly rebuilt in the 1990s, located on a mound overlooking the date-palm gardens of the oasis – was chosen to host the Al Qattara Arts Centre. During preparatory excavations at the basement of the building, astonishing remains from the Iron Age were identified, revealing industrial installations (Early Iron Period), a field system, and copper production facilities (Late Iron Age).

Al Ain, UAE, Al Qattara, archaeology, Iron age
Photo of the excavation site next to the building and the five layers of history discovered.

 

The most ancient of the findings consist of a series of square tanks connected by shallow channels cut into the sloping rock surface.  Apparently, they were fed by a square well located at the top of the slope. The tanks contained no residual fill, so their purpose is still unknown. However, they were clearly intended to hold and direct liquid in an ordered process, perhaps for copper processing, tanning, dyeing, as well as water purification and harvesting.

Al Ain, UAE, Qattara, archaeology, iron age
The Iron-Age tanks found at the basement of the Al Qattara Art Centre building.

 

The association of the site with copper processing is further supported by evidence dating to a second industrial phase and including about 2,500 pieces of copper slag and crucible fragments weighing 50 kg. This activity may have constituted a re-exploitation of earlier copper processing waste, turning Bin Ati into one more site that confirms the presence of copper production in the area during the Iron Age, while demonstrating the continued importance of copper trade beyond the Bronze Era.

Between the industrial phases, two distinct Iron Age agricultural systems were also discovered at the specific location. A series of circular tree pits, fed by a well, were found in the large sunken basin, representing the re-use of earlier industrial installations for agricultural purposes, while, to the south, an open field system with an irrigation ditch was revealed. So far, Bin Ati is the only known site which has produced direct evidence for both agriculture and industry in the Al Ain oases and attests to a diverse and fluid economic base for the Iron Age community.

Falaj

The falaj system is a network of underground water channels mainly used for irrigation, especially in arid zones where people needed to transfer water from distant sources to their land. It is an incredible human engineering structure that allows the collection of water for future use, directing it to large basins (which turn into oases), while, on the way, serving the needs of towns and villages. The ingenuity of the falaj constructors was such that today many aflaj (the plural of “falaj”) are still operational, remaining the primary source of irrigation in Al Ain and other areas.

The oldest aflaj systems are considered to have originated from Iran, however, many can be found in Al Ain, Oman, the broader Middle East, as well as in the Balochistan province of Pakistan, in Afghanistan, the CIS States, and those countries in Europe (like Spain) that were influenced by the Arabic Civilisation.

Al Ain, UAE, ancient technology, engineering, irrigation
Part of the Qattara oasis with a renovated falaj system.

 

Based on the recent findings, it was during the Iron Age (around 3,000 years ago) that the people of Al Ain started creating their first aflaj – an innovation that led to the rapid expansion of agriculture throughout the area. This irrigation system was the result of knowledge passed down from generation to generation on where water was located, how to safely dig tunnels, and how to use the seasons to grow crops.

For thousands of years, Al Ain was supported by seven central aflaj systems (Qattarah being one of them) – hence, known as the “City of the Seven Aflaj”, hosting possibly the largest number of falaj networks in the UAE. As expected, the construction of the aflaj is associated with the subsequent creation of historical buildings: for instance, the rulers of each era erected forts and towers to protect the water sources and the cultivational land.

Al Ain, Qattara oasis, UAE, ancient technology, engineering, irrigation
Detail of the renovated falaj system (note how the flow of the water is blocked and redirected to other channels).

 

Dating the existing falaj system is not always easy since a large part of the network is still in use – or was in use until very recently. Even trying to date the shorooj (the distinctive, water-proof plaster used for the channels) is challenging and may lead to unclear results. However, recent studies have revealed that Al Ain possibly hosts the oldest aflaj system worldwide, dating to 1000 BC.

Old buildings and architecture

Many of the historic buildings one can find in Al Qattara are very fragile, almost wholly ruined (dating to the 15th – 16th centuries onwards). Others were demolished in the 1980s (a period of increased awareness about the Emirati past) and were rebuilt from scratch, their style and technique remaining traditional, even if the materials are not authentic. Finally, some structures represent a combination of the above, being partly genuine and party restored.

Preserving these edifices poses a significant challenge to the archaeologists, as they need to determine in each case the amount of compromise with which they feel comfortable. The ideal way of sustaining old structures is to continue using them, for all man-made creations survive on the ongoing dialogue among elements and humans. However, the lack of any amenities makes the use of old abodes impossible, which has led to the crumbling down of many of them, or the complete restoration of others that may look now aesthetically pleasing and solid but, of course, have lost their authenticity.

We were lucky to see some of these buildings – most of which are in the buffer zone around the oasis – near the Old Souq. Like most edifices in Al Ain, the Souq was built in such a way as to catch the currents of the wind, creating a natural air-conditioning system. There are no wind-towers for there is no humidity in this part of the country; yet, the use of mud-bricks and the proper orientation of windows and corridors kept the chambers cool during the summer months, despite the scorching sun.

Al Ain, UAE
The Old Souq in Al Qattara
Al Ain, UAE, Qattara
Another part of the souq

Al Ain, UAE, Souq, Qattara

Al Ain, Qattara, UAE
The interior of the Majlis building in the souq

 

The Souq itself dates from the 1920s, with its majlis (maybe the oldest building) still preserved without significant interventions. During the market’s restoration process, the old walls were mostly kept intact, the roofs were replaced, and new plaster and lights were added. One can notice the difference in the plaster, since the most recent one contains large quantities of mud and clay, while the older one included more pebbles from the wadis.

Al Ain, UAE
Collapsing historical buildings in Al Qattara
Al Qattara, UAE, Al Ain
The left part of this building dates to the 18th century the right to the 19th.
Al Ain, Qattara, UAE
A wall collapsing at the bottom.
Al Ain, UAE, Qattara
The interior of a building
Al Ain, Qattara, UAE
Mud bricks used for the reconstruction of buildings.

 

Oasis

Despite the scattered findings that suggest that the basin – which presently constitutes Qattara Oasis – was formed since the Iron Age, it is almost certain that the shape of the landscape as we observe it today was finalised in the 16th to the 18th centuries (Late Islamic Period I). The creation and maintenance of an enhanced falaj network and the formation of date-producing oases at an industrial level are projects of such magnitude that they require significant political power and unity as well as adequate numbers of workers, traders, trade routes, and suitable means of transportation. The Oases underwent further modification in the troubled Late Islamic Period II (1800-1950), when many of the forts and watchtowers which dot the UAE today were erected, becoming an integral part of the landscape.

Al Ain, UAE
Strolling around the Al Qattara Oasis.

 

More specifically, the present sunken date-palm oases of Al Ain and many of the subterranean aflaj providing them with water appear to be the product of a significant centralised investment project undertaken in the late seventeenth to mid-eighteenth century.  The oasis settlements are broadly contemporary with the development of the palm gardens, and the architecture of the early part of the Late Islamic period is dominated by the tower house: a three-storey tower usually situated in one of the corners of a large walled courtyard.

The range of ceramics recovered from Late Islamic deposits indicates a considerable increase in local prosperity and commercial contacts as Qattara became incorporated into a wider Indian Ocean mercantile network.  The Yaaribids of Oman, who controlled the Al Ain Oases in the 17th and 18th centuries, invested heavily in date cultivation – an enterprise further stimulated by the opening of new markets from East Africa to India. Confirmation of intensive date palm cultivation in this period is provided by the numerous madabis (date-presses) that have been found in every house of the Late Islamic Period.

Archaeological evidence shows that many sites and buildings in the oases were abandoned at the end of the Late Islamic Period I (around 1800), due to a series of regional wars (the Omani Civil War [1724-44], the Afsharid invasion [1737-44], the British destruction of the Qawasim mercantile fleet in 1819, and the repeated attacks of the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia between 1800 and 1869) that affected trade. This troubled period is associated with the construction of numerous forts and watchtowers in the oases.  The second phase of fort building around the end of the nineteenth century marked the rise of the ruling of the Al Bu Falah tribe in the Al Ain Oases, a period when many of the abandoned palm gardens and chocked aflaj were revived and brought back into use.

Today, the importance of this heritage has been acknowledged which has led to the support of archaeological excavations in the region and the ongoing restoration of old edifices that stand as a testament of the economic activity that has been unfolding in Al Ain for thousands of years.

Al Ain, UAE
The crumbling remains of a watchtower in Al Qattara, built near the falaj network to safeguard the water supply and the oasis.

 

Photo credits: © Konstantina Sakellariou

 

Original Article found on: http://www.myunusualjourneys.com/uae-qattara-al-ain/

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