(CNN) — The UAE may have just celebrated its 50th anniversary of independence, but Abu Dhabi has an ancient past.
The largest of the emirates has an array of UNESCO World Heritage Sites as well as some of the best-preserved fortresses in the country that showcase its key geographic location over the centuries and tell the story of the Emirati people’s connection to both land and sea.
A short drive to the oasis town of Al Ain is where some of the most magical gems of past generations come to life, a living museum that pays tribute to the country’s Bedouin roots.
The birthplace of the country’s founder and first president, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, Al Ain is a must for visitors to the UAE to get a taste of its authentic culture and heritage.
Known as the Garden City, Al Ain was once a vital green oasis on the caravan route from the UAE to Oman and is now home to several UNESCO-listed sites.
Here are some of Abu Dhabi’s most important archaeological and historical treasures.
Qasr Al Hosn
The 18th century Hosn Palace, or Qasr al Hosn, started out as a single watchtower in the 18th century and, as the complex grew, it eventually became the seat of power until the late 1960s.
“There are wonderful stories about the palace told by people who used to live here,” said Nataly Leslie, a tour leader in the emirate. “The door of the palace was very much open for people to talk to the sheikhs and voice their concerns.”
Today, the palace continues to be a major attraction not only for tourists, but also for Emiratis, who come to sit in the palace’s coffee shop to enjoy the place they heard their ancestors speak so fondly of.
The palace also showcases the local culture with regular exhibitions and events.
Al Ain Oasis
Al Ain is home to 100 species of date palm.
The UAE’s first UNESCO site was the dramatic Al Ain Oasis.
Located in the heart of the place known as The Garden City, the site dates back over 4,000 years and is evidence of one of the earliest irrigation systems of modern times.
The system, known as “falaj”, drew water from the nearby Hajar Mountains through a series of narrow waterways that are still visible today.
Visitors can take curated hiking trails through the site which spans over 1,200 acres and contains more than 147,000 date palms and 100 species of dates.
The age-old falaj system was not revamped until the 20th century with the introduction of pumps. An eco center is also available for visitors to gain a deeper understanding of the ancient Bedouin irrigation systems.
Bidaa Bint Saud
A treasure trove for archeology enthusiasts, Bidaa Bint Saud, an ancient caravan site, is located 25 kilometers (15 miles) north of Al Ain.
The fascinating area that once had a huge community of farmers stretching as far as the northern emirates, all taking advantage of the network of falaj irrigation systems, features a rare Iron Age building and 5,000-year-old Bronze Age tombs, as well as the towering Gharn Bint Saud.
This 40 meter high rock rises above the landscape with several old stone graves on the top. Several of the area’s discoveries, such as pottery, dagger blades, jewelry, and bronze arrowheads, are now on display at the Al Ain National Museum.
Hili Archaeological Park
Dating back to the Bronze Age (3200 BCE to 1300 BCE) and the Iron Age (1300 BCE to 300 BCE), this area shows ancient life that once lived in the deserts of the area.
Archaeologists have uncovered villages, cemeteries and agricultural infrastructure from what is now called the Umm an-Nar period, named after the island off the coast of Abu Dhabi where the remains of the culture were first discovered.
It is also home to the UAE’s largest collection of tombs and buildings from this period.
Jebel Hafit Tombs
The Jebel Hafit Tombs reveal the importance of maritime trade across the Arabian Gulf.
David Steele/Adobe Stock
Jebel Hafit (Hafit Mountain) is not only the highest peak in Abu Dhabi, but also home to about 500 5000 year old tombs that mark the beginning of the Bronze Age in the UAE.
First discovered through excavations in 1959, archaeologists found ceramic vessels and copper artifacts in the igloo-like tombs demonstrating the importance of maritime trade across the Arabian Gulf.
The one-room tombs are a dramatic place that offers a window into a bygone time.
Tour guide Leslie calls this one of Abu Dhabi’s ‘hidden gems’.
“Most people are not aware of all these discoveries in this area,” she says. “Although the UAE is a relatively young country, it has ancient finds that prove this area was once a busy place where history was made.”
This small but crucial fortress at the gateway to Abu Dhabi’s main island was built in the late 18th century with basic materials such as coral stones, beach rock and sand and the tower would guard and protect Abu Dhabi for many years to come.
“As Qasr al Hosn developed into a place of great importance to the local population, Maqta Fort became a resting place for people entering Abu Dhabi,” said Leslie.
Al Ain Palace Museum
Al Ain Palace was once the home of the ruling family of the UAE.
Once the home of the late Sheikh Zayed, the first president of the UAE, Al Ain Palace was inhabited by the ruling family until the 1960s before making the emirate’s city their permanent home when Abu Dhabi’s main island turned into a political and economic capital.
Visitors can glimpse life in the residence which stands as a reminder of the time before oil was discovered in the mid-20th century.
While it is not “old” compared to other sites in the emirate – the oldest building in the complex dates back to 1937 – it is constructed from the traditional materials of the time, dotted with the traditional courtyards that used to house such properties in the region. time characterized period.
Now a museum, visitors can see the crucial links between past and present and appreciate Abu Dhabi’s rapid transformation from Bedouin life to modern prosperity.
“If you’re a history buff and want to learn more about the royal family and the traditional architecture of the times, this is the perfect place to go,” said Shamsa Al Naqbi, an Emirati guide.
“It’s an insight into the life of the royal family, their rooms, the style of architecture, items they would use, so it’s a really nice place to visit to see the true history of the UAE. It also shows really made the transition from our ancestors to the modern UAE we have today.”
Church and Monastery of Sir Baniyas Island
A little off the beaten track is Sir Baniyas Island in the western region, which can be reached by boat or flight from Abu Dhabi via the Anantara resort, which manages the remote island’s tourism.
The church and monastery were discovered in the early 1990s and are the only pre-Islamic Christian site in the UAE, explains Leslie. It is the source of hundreds of artifacts that provide a fascinating insight into life during this period.
“Like life in the UAE before the discovery of oil, the inhabitants of this settlement used the sea as a food source,” she said. “They also kept animals such as sheep and cattle and traded across the Arabian Gulf to the Indian Ocean.”
Sir Baniyas Island is now a wildlife sanctuary, home to a wide variety of protected animals, from Arabian oryx to gazelle, which visitors can see firsthand on safaris.