This post is pure fantasy. Because I missed my only chance to get to Al Ain, "garden city of the Emirates." Let's say, it's what I would have done, had I gone.
[We spent ten days sailing and touring in the hottest weather I've ever experienced, unseasonal even for the Middle East. The itinerary was made for me — new places like Khasab (Oman), Doha (Qatar), and Abu Dhabi (U.A.E.) ... more on some of those places elsewhere. But our final port, Abu Dhabi, promised an excursion to Al Ain and for whatever reason, it's been high on my bucket list. However, passengers were dropping out of shore excursions, unable to cope with the heat; only five minutes in the sun, between leaving the coach and entering the site to visit, melted us into dripping sweat and numbing of the brain. Stay out too long and we would literally begin to cook. More evidence of climate change. Finally I too admitted defeat; having the added sensory burden of fibromyalgia was too much of a health risk.]
My fantasy trip, perhaps, but based on collected facts. Abu Dhabi is one of the seven United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) and its territory includes extensive land regions east and south of the city. Al Ain is situated about two hours inland from the city, verging on the fabled Empty Quarter desert (Rub Al Khali) ... a desert of epic journeys in the 1940s by British adventurer Wilfrid Thesiger. An exhibit of his photographs and other mementos is in the museum of Al Jahili, said to be the welcome sight of civilization he spotted after completing a crossing from the south. Al Jahili Fort is now restored to its unique 1891 origins. There I would be, scanning from its circular heights for signs of a camel train.
|Al Jahili Fort|
I can scarcely imagine what Thesiger endured after leaving Salalah in the south. His Arabian Sands is regarded as a classic of travel literature, describing the lives of Bedu tribes, "probably the finest book ever written about Arabia and a tribute to a world now lost forever." I.e., a world before oil was discovered. My own taste of the Empty Quarter was five years ago before scrambling around the debatable "lost city of Ubar," in Thesiger's time a site still buried and unknown. It is beside Shisur, a village familiar to Thesiger. Certainly the Bedouin are more accommodating now than some of the explorer's encounters with suspicion or hostility.
|A 1948 Thesiger photo of Qasr Al Muwaiji|
The rugged Al Hajar mountains are on Al Ain's eastern flank; landmark Jebel Hafeet mountain overlooks the city for excellent views, highest peak in the Emirate.
Al Ain itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as one of the oldest continual habitations on earth. Centred on and blessed with a large, flourishing palm oasis ‒ hence its appellation as "garden city" ‒ it recently grew from a village to tourist proportions. "This date palm oasis has been recognised by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) for its importance as a repository of genetic resources, biodiversity and cultural heritage." Strolling shady pathways in the oasis you can explore groves of tropical fruit trees and inspect working parts of the original irrigation system constructed 3,000 years ago.
Besides Al Jahili, a number of forts that once protected plantations in the oasis have been re-purposed. Of heritage and cultural interest are Al Ain National Museum with sections on archaeology and traditional Bedouin crafts; the Palace Museum was once the home of the UAE founder Sheik Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyam, renovated in traditional design to exhibit the ruler's lifestyle and diplomatic relations. Qasr Al Muwaiji is the birthplace of the current Sheikh Khalifa of Abu Dhabi Emirate, displaying lush gardens and material related to the ruling family. And more ... Al Qattara Fort houses a gallery and centre for all manner of arts. Oh yes, I would be lingering over the jewellery exhibits, the colourful pottery, historical garments, the ancient artifacts. A handicrafts market takes place on seasonal weekends, including tastes of local food.
|Al Ain Palace Museum|
And then! The renowned camel market of Al Ain, apparently one of the few remaining livestock markets in the Emirates. Here the beasts are traded ― for breeding, racing, meat, or milk. I might lose myself freely wandering among the dusty pens, admiring and taking photographs (only with permission). Camels are and always will be an essential part of the heritage and fabric of the Bedouin, whether nomads or urban dwellers. Of course racing has become a national pastime with all the entailed competition and prize money.
Al Ain has other tourist attractions of modern variety not to be mentioned in the same breath. Great changes have come to the U.A.E. in the last fifty years, but Al Ain is determined to maintain an old and proud culture. So let's keep my fantasy trip far from the Emirates' glitzy shopping malls and outré architecture.
 Michael Asher, 27 August 2003, The Guardian.
Also, "Al Ain," Yalla, the tourist guide for Abu Dhabi, Edition 2, 2018.
© 2018 Brenda Dougall Merriman