9 ways to discover Abu Dhabi's ancient history
The city of Abu Dhabi is a glittering modern metropolis. But how old is Abu Dhabi? Sites and surroundings are rich with evidence of historical civilisations that settled in or moved through the region.
Forts, tombs and more reveal the emirate's Bronze Age roots, while artefacts have uncovered the tracks of the Bedouin traders who traversed the incense trails of the famous Silk Road. The Bedouin, desert nomads accustomed to the harsh terrain, were suited to trading. For two millennia, camel caravans moved precious commodities gracefully across the dunes and expanses of the Arabian desert, making their way between far-flung civilisations of China, Europe, Asia and Africa.
Later, in the 1700s, Bani Yas tribes settled in Abu Dhabi, meaning 'Land of the gazelle' in Arabic. Folklore says the UAE capital was founded when a deer led a wandering tribe to fresh water on an island with just 300 Barasti (palm frond) huts, some coral buildings and the Ruler's fort. This tribe included today’s ruling Al Nahyan family. The settlers worked with their environment, becoming master seafarers and pearl divers. You can discover the wonders of ancient Arabia by visiting old Abu Dhabi and the many heritage sites across the emirate to enjoy time-honoured traditions.
1. Soak up rich history in the city centre
In the city itself, the first place for history buffs to go is the Qasr Al Hosn national monument. The ancestral home of the Royal Al Nahyan family has served as the seat of government, a consultative council and a national archive. Standing proud among the immaculate white walls of Qasr Al Hosn is the watchtower. Built in 1760 to protect the Bani Yas settlement, the oldest-standing building in Abu Dhabi is a museum showcasing the story of Abu Dhabi.
2. Meet the artisans behind traditional Emirati crafts
The House of Artisans, part of the Al Hosn complex, celebrates the relationship between the UAE people and the country's natural resources. Marvel at beautiful artwork, meet traditional artisans and capture textured photographs. Explore the vibrant art of Sadu - on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding - a traditional Bedouin form of weaving using wool from sheep, camels and goats to create striking geometrical designs to decorate tents (bait al-shaar) and camel-riding accessories (ataad).
Khoos, a traditional weaving technique using date-palm leaves to make functional objects, such as baskets (jefeer), is also on offer, as is the centuries-old Bait Al Gahwa (coffee) ceremony. Sit on cushions in the cosy majlis, watch the process of making the perfect cup of gahwa, and sip from dainty cups, called finjan.
3. Marvel at ancient treasures hauled from the sea
Since the city is surrounded by sea, why not hop on a boat to learn more about how the ancient people of Abu Dhabi relied on its riches for survival? Pearling and fishing played a major role in the emirate’s economic past, with ports being home to fishing and pearling fleets and boatyards where skilled craftsmen forged the beautiful traditional wooden dhow. Pearl diving centred around the Ghous Al Kabir (The Big Dive) summer voyage, which lasted four months. Each voyage began with a seeing-off ceremony (Hiraat), and when the sailors returned, families onshore decorated their houses, sang welcome songs and shared a feast. Several operators offer pearl-diving excursions. Sail on a dhow, listen to age-old sea-faring songs and stories, and learn about the pearl-diving techniques that helped write one of the first chapters of Abu Dhabi's modern success story.
4. Wander ancient walkways in oases over 4,000 years old
After the emirate's capital, Al Ain - Abu Dhabi's garden city about a 90-minute drive away - is of huge cultural and historical importance. Thanks to its underground springs and oases, it was inhabited by Bedouin tribes for hundreds of years and was the first UNESCO World Heritage Site listed in the UAE. The farms and plantations around the oases are still operational.
Al Ain Oasis, the largest of seven Al Ain oases, has been part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2011. It's the perfect family-friendly place to learn more about the region's inhabitants who began taming the desert 4,000 years ago. Boasting a thick canopy of trees and working examples of falaj, the ancient irrigation system used in local farming for centuries, there are plenty of photo opportunities.
5. Explore picturesque forts that protected this fertile area
Other places of interest in Al Ain include museums and forts such as the Al Jahili Fort − erected in 1891 to defend the city and home to an exhibition of the works of British adventurer Sir Wilfred Thesiger – and Qasr Al Muwaiji. The latter, a historic fort-palace, was the former diwan (council or seat of governance) and home of the royal family. Qasr Al Muwaiji is where His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates, was born and spent his formative years, learning from his father, UAE’s Founding Father Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.
6. Go back in time to the Bronze and Iron Ages
History buffs will appreciate the Hili Oasis, located near Fossil Valley, home to fossils that date back to when the area was covered by the sea. The Hili Archaeological Park provides the earliest evidence of an agricultural village in the UAE and contains Bronze Age and Iron Age villages, burial grounds, forts and agricultural infrastructure. The largest collection of tombs and buildings from the Umm an-Nar period (between 2500BCE and 2000BCE) are found here, with the centrepiece being the Hili Grand Tomb.
Another place to see impressive beehive-shaped Bronze Age tombs built between 3200 BCE and 2700 BCE is at Al Ain's Jebel Hafit Desert Park. Artefacts include pottery, beads and daggers, showing Bronze Age trade links with ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), Iran, and the Indus Valley (modern-day Pakistan and India).
7. Discover cross-cultural history at Sir Bani Yas Island
Keen on an island getaway that lets you explore history? The wildlife haven of Sir Bani Yas Island - one of eight Al Dhafra islands southwest of the city - is ideal. One of the earliest written accounts of the island - a two-and-a-half-hour drive and ferry-hop from Abu Dhabi - was in 1590 by Venetian jeweller Gasparo Balbi, who mentioned an island surrounded by pearls. But the island also has Late Stone Age and Bronze Age roots.
During the 7th and 8th centuries CE, it was also home to a church and monastery, discovered in 1992. This ancient Christian site proves a history of religious tolerance in the region. Fascinating artefacts suggest the inhabitants of this settlement traded widely across the Arabian Gulf and Indian Ocean.
8. Be amazed by the world’s largest sand mass
No trip to the UAE is complete without a desert safari adventure. Abu Dhabi's magical Rub' al Khali (Empty Quarter) - the world's largest uninterrupted sand mass - is just a one-and-a-half-hour drive from the city. Explorer and travel writer Sir Wilfred Thesiger, who crossed this expanse twice with Emirati and Omani companions in the 1940s, wrote: "This cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match". Be bewitched by the harsh, hypnotic landscape of endless dunes, where human activity dates back 3,000 to 2,000 years.
Given its geography, ancient Arabia was part of the Silk Road routes used by merchants travelling between China and Europe, carrying silk and other luxury goods across Asia, the Middle East and North Africa between 130 B.C. and 1453 A.D. Port cities in the Arabian Gulf connected the overland and maritime routes. The sea routes started in China, wrapped around the Indian coast and went through the Arabian Peninsula. Arab merchants traded in frankincense, incense and pearls along incense routes, some of which went through the desert.
9. Meet the animals that made history
While the Bedouins' pioneering spirit was key to Abu Dhabi's development, the animals at their side played starring roles in the capital's story. In addition to much-valued camels, falcons and salukis helped the Bedouins survive.
The indigenous Saluki − one of the oldest known breeds of domesticated dog − hunted together with falcons for the Arabian desert people for 5,000 years. Falcons helped spot prey in a resource-scarce land, as reflected in Bedouin poetry, songs and stories. In 2016, falconry was inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.