Farewell to the Oases City
In a city where buildings, with the exception of hotels and the minarets of mosques or communication towers, are not allowed to exceed 5 storeys (ground plus 4 storeys) or 20 metres, the atmosphere of a small town is retained, despite the fact that around 650,000 people call the city of Al Ain home. It is an atmosphere that is further enhanced by the green clumps of agricultural activity nestling next to busy streets and both old and modern buildings.
For millennia this fertile spot in an otherwise arid landscape, has drawn people into its water-rich folds, which also rendered them vulnerable to outsiders coveting their riches. The collection of villages that, over time, morphed into the present-day Al Ain, historically referred to as the Buraimi Oasis, dominated the trade routes with its strategic position, and abundant supply of fresh water. Trade caravans from Oman to the East Coast settlements of the UAE, as well as to the oasis of al-Hasa in Saudi Arabia have always passed through the area. They are carved into the landscape in invisible lines stretching towards present-day Dubai, Sharjah, and Ras-al-Khaimah to the north, and Abu Dhabi to the west, while elongating like long, slender fingers to the south, where Dank, Ibri, Nizwa, Jabreen and Izki guided them to the Omani coast. The trade route running through the foothills of the western Hajar Mountains to the east of Al Ain, via Wadi al Jizzi to Sohar on the Omani coast is ancient, and could well have been used by all the different groups of people who have lived here continuously for more than four thousand years.
Strong trading link between Buraimi and the coast led to the powerful Al Bu Fallah Sheikhs of Abu Dhabi aligning themselves with the Dhawahir and Na’im tribes in the non-Omani villages from the beginning of the 19th century. This foothold grew stronger with time until the landscape and its people became inextricably bound with the history and legacy of the Abu Dhabi rulers. Now divided into two cities, namely Al Ain (part of the UAE) and Buraimi (part of Oman), the erstwhile collection of villages, like two conjoined twins forcefully separated by a green border fence, have managed to retain their shared history in the warmth of their people.
Various forts and crumbling mudbrick buildings still dot the oases of Al Ain, preserving a rare glance of a vanished way of life. At first glance one may be tempted to think that if one has seen one oasis, one has seen them all, they are in fact all different from one another. But to see and appreciate these differences one has to slow one’s pace and pay attention to the subtle interplay of the same elements in a myriad different nuances of shade, light, colour and subject matter. Life in these tranquil havens is fluid, and activities change with the seasons. At times water rustles soothingly in the irrigation channels or falaj, pooling around the stems of the date palms; other times they are silent, and it is only the rustling of the wind in the leaves that underpins the cheerful bird life effectively blocking the drone of nearby traffic from interfering in this bucolic bubble. During early morning or late afternoon strolls, the sunlight slants sharply, before trickling down towards the ground to illuminate a shock of neon green grass that flourish in the shade of the palms with their dusty crowns, while the shady paths provide a cool and welcome respite on a sweltering summer’s day.
In days gone by, a variety of produce was grown at the feet of the tall date palms, which included cereals and an array of different vegetables, while fruit trees like banana, mango, orange and lemon trees thrived. These days cereals are mostly imported and vegetables are grown elsewhere, but the fruit trees can still be found, while the well-designed falaj system not only provides water for the plants, but a luke-warm bath for weary feet.
But alas, after four years of living in this city of oases, the time has come to get into my car and follow the moving van to the bustling capital city of Abu Dhabi. A journey that will take a mere two hours on a three-lane highway coiling like a black snake through the desert. One that would have been very different fifty years ago, when the locals migrated for the summer from Abu Dhabi to Al Ain to escape the sweltering humidity of the coast and to find respite under the date palms. Their journey was an arduous four day one on foot or camel that often saw the elderly or weak die on route.
Al Ain Oasis:
GPS co-ordinates: N 24° 13′ 02.12″ E 55° 46′ 26.12″
Al Jimi Oasis
GPS co-ordinates: N 24° 15.345′ ; E 55° 44.851′
GPS co-ordinates: N 24° 16′ 54.9″ E 55° 46′ 01.6″
Al Qattara Oasis
Do not miss a meal at the wonderful Heritage Village Restaurant at the entrance, which is open 24 hours.
GPS co-ordinates: N24°15′50.1″ E55°44′57.7″
GPS co-ordinates: N 24° 13′ 03.8″ E 55° 44′ 23″