Thursday morning, we headed out to the oasis city of Al Ain, about two hours east of Abu Dhabi, near the border with Oman. There we were met by Brian, an ex-pat who heads up the Emirates Natural History Group, which is interested in both the archeology and ecology of the Emirates. Brian was an incredibly knowledgeable guide to these aspects of the region, and he had suggested that, rather than take the typical museum and oasis tour of the city, we focus on the Al Mezyad Fort and the Hafit tombs, which (as he’d written to us in advance) “may be inaccessible soon as development plans for the area proceed.” Our time was limited, because we had a 2:00 meeting with Deans and faculty from the United Arab Emirates University. Looking at those two sites proved to be an ideal excursion, because they were satisfyingly off-the-beaten track and got us out into the desert, away from tall, ultra-modern buildings.
To get to the Mezyad fort, we turned off the main road and drove up to a closed gate. Visiting the site, while not exactly discouraged, is apparently not exactly encouraged. The fort itself is an early 19th-century structure in the Portuguese style (blocky, with three round towers and one square one) that has been extensively restored — it’ll be torn down and redone at some point, if they can get the Afghan builders who know how to do mud brick properly and if the site isn’t turned into a luxury bed-and-breakfast.
Meanwhile, some pieces of the restoration were carried and used to finish the restoration of the larger Al Jahili fort, built in 1898 by Sheikh Zayed the First (“the Great”) and the venue this weekend for the New York Philharmonic’s concert. We walked into the small living quarters, similar to the one in which the founding president of the UAE, King Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyam, lived as a child. Not exactly the lap of luxury. Brian stressed for us how recently it was that the population of Abu Dhabi lived in conditions that were primitive and how historically the population was always in danger of starvation due to the scarcity of food and water. Standing on the ramparts we could see the distant hills that made the location of the fort a chokepoint: the old camel route had to come between these two sets of mountains meaning that those who possessed the fort could levy taxes on trade.
Reaching the Hafit tombs at the foot of Jawal Hafit took a little bit of off-roading (we borrowed the 4×4 that belonged to the Associate Dean for Humanities at UAEU, who would be our host later in the afternoon). A the foot of the mountain, we saw three reconstructed tombs — the ones you see in brochures and guidebooks. Also, apparently, incorrectly reconstructed.
Brian showed us what an unexcavated tomb looks like: basically a pile of rocks, due to the fact that the tombs had been looted in antiquity and subjected to the sands of time (literally). No wonder then that so many were bulldozed during the search for oil in the area. Nevertheless, at other similar sites, there are apparently a multitude of unexcavated tombs — and they’re likely to remain so until someone is willing to spend the money to excavate a past that doesn’t produce golden treasures.
Standing amidst these tombs, probably 3,500 to 4,000 years old, we were vividly struck by a sense of the region’s past. These are the kinds of experiences we hope that NYUAD students will be able to have — indeed, we’re hoping that some of the will actually be able to work on archeological sites and help the region recover its ancient history.
We saw some camels too. Our guide had a lot to say about the state of the camel farming industry: apparently, unless your a fast, and therefore prized, racing camel, it’s not much fun to be a camel. The ones we saw weren’t the most regal specimens, and their feet were bound to prevent them from taking long strides and running away. My French Department colleague tried to make friends, but since we weren’t giving them food or water, the camels weren’t much interested in us.
We had lunch with colleagues from United Arab Emirates University, which is funded by the federal government and is a research institution. One of the things that we realized in the course of meeting with faculty from American University of Sharjah, Zayed University, and UAEU is that these institutions have something that will be in relatively short supply at NYUAD: Emirati students. It’s our hope that we’ll be able to partner with these institutions so that their students and ours can interact in educational settings, thereby providing the students at NYUAD a chance to make local, as well as “global,” connections.
We didn’t make it to the famous Al Ain Oasis. Next trip.