Al Ain City as first Emirati site on World Heritage List

PARIS – The National Council for Tourism and Antiquities (NCTA) and the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH), have announced the registration of the Al Ain City, in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, as the first Emirati site on the World Heritage List.

The inscription was due to the unique and distinguished cultural sites in Al Ain, with particular reference being made to the geological, archaeological and historical importance of Jebel Hafit, Hili cultural landscape, Bidaa Bint Saud, the Oases areas, and the Falaj system.

These sites provide the Al Ain City with the types of perfection and diversity that are difficult to find in other places of this kind in the world. In addition, an integrated scientific dossier was prepared in accordance with the international standards provided by the ADACH for over 6 years since it was established.

This registration came during the 35th session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, which is held in Paris from 19 to 29 June 2011.

The session was attended by all world committee member states. They unanimously agreed on the importance that the UNESCO to register this ancient city, which has maintained a high level of originality and perfection, despite the rapid development undertaken by the UAE.

The UNESCO seeks to encourage world countries to identify their cultural and natural heritage sites and protect them, as they represent a high human value. This was further supported in an international treaty, “The Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage”, which was adopted by the UNESCO in 1972.

Shaikh Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, the Chairman of ADACH, said that the City of Al Ain still maintains its local characteristics from an urban perspective, and this is principally thanks to the vision of late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan (may God bless his soul), the founder of the UAE, who passed a set of laws and statutes that ensured the City would maintain its original construction, perfection and heritage.

He praised the high degree of support received by the cultural heritage protection projects from His Highness Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the President of the UAE, may God protect him, and His Highness General Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and the Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. He also lauded the great attention paid by the wise leadership to the heritage protection projects, which successfully crowned the efforts of ADACH to register Al Ain City, as the first Emirati site on the World Heritage List.

Mohammed Khalaf Al Mazrouei, Advisor for Culture and Heritage in the Court of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, and Director General of ADACH, said that the archaeological sites, historical buildings and natural areas, in the city of Al Ain still maintain their cultural values, surroundings and their original urban structure. Since ADACH was established in October 2005, the cultural sites were inventoried, protected and restored, through a strategy based on state-of-the-art methods and internationally approved technological techniques.

He identified that work is underway to preserve several fortresses and historical places, including the Jahili mosque and fortress, and Bin Hadi House in the Hili Oasis, along with dozens of other archaeological sites and historical buildings.

Work is also underway to revive the original uses of the buildings and to re-dedicate them to their original purposes (such as the old traditional market in Al-Qattarah). At the same time, they will be used for new purposes, with the objective of integrating these buildings into the vital infrastructure of the city, thus ensuring they are preserved for a long time.

Al Mazrouei underlined that, at the social level, Al Ain is an area where residents maintain – to a great extent – old social customs and traditions, and continue to practise these customs and traditions in the same manner as previous generations. Examples of these practices include wedding celebrations, Bedouin hospitability, falconry, camel races, handicrafts and others.

ADACH’s Director-General congratulated and expressed appreciation towards His Highness General Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and the Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. He expressed aspirations with several achievements to come for ADACH, in a way that would serve our country and underline its rise to the ranks of the most sophisticated world countries. The rapid development of this nation does not prevent the preservation of its heritage. Nor does it prevent working to safeguard it using all means and methods, he said.

Al Mazrouei showed his appreciation for the distinguished coordination efforts, exerted by the National Media Council and the cooperation of all concerned bodies. As well as the noticeable support shown by Arab countries in the nomination of Al Ain City.

The UAE’s delegation, at the UNESCO meetings, was headed by His Excellency Mohammed Khamis Al Muhairi, Director-General of NCTA. The delegation included a number of experts and specialists from the UAE and ADACH, represented by Dr Sami Al-Masri, the Deputy Director General for Arts, Culture & Heritage in ADACH.

During the 35th session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, the participants discussed a number of issues, the most important of which were considered to be the preservation of cultural and natural property, registered on the World Heritage List. Also included was the nomination of a number of important and extraordinary cultural and natural sites, with unique characteristics to register them on the World Heritage List.

Given the importance of the current committee session, a meeting was held in Abu Dhabi, organized by NCTA, from the 7 to 10 June 2011, to coordinate the participating Arab delegations and to discuss among them the unifying of the stances with regards the issues raised for discussion at the annual session of the UNESCO.

Mohammed Khamis Al Muhairi, Director-General of NCTA, praised the results concluded by the meeting of the Arab member states in Abu Dhabi. This meeting was focused upon encouraging members to coordinate with each other to line up support for the inscription of the nominated Arab sites, on the World Heritage List. He noted that the stances of the Arab countries were identical and were reflective of the Arab ambition, as they agreed to do their best during the meetings, to win the votes of the member states.

Al Muhairi underlined that it is an important achievement for the UAE, which continues to win the highest international awards in all fields, offering his congratulations to President His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and His Highness Gen. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces.

He praised the constructive cooperation between the various concerned parties in the UAE, and identified the distinguished efforts exerted by ADACH in order to prepare the nomination dossier.

During the UNESCO meetings, the World Heritage List committee members discussed 169 cases of protecting property, including 34 sites that were inscribed on the World Heritage List, as they faced danger due to the serious threats to their prominent world value.

The member states of the World Heritage convention are able to suggest new sites, and two advisory boards review the applications. The cultural sites are reviewed by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), and the natural sites are reviewed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The advisory boards then inform the committee of their decisions.

The World Heritage List committee also examines the reports produced with regard to cases of safeguarding the sites registered, and asks the member states to take appropriate protection and safeguarding measures where necessary. The committee works through the World Heritage Fund to consider emergency cases and to train experts and encourage technological cooperation.

The World Heritage List includes 911 properties, considered to be of Outstanding Universal Value, including 704 cultural sites, 180 natural sites, and 27 mixed sites, which belong to 151 of the member states. So far, 187 countries have signed up to the World Heritage Convention.

When considering the justifications for the Outstanding Universal Value, which will make Al Ain the first city from the UAE to be on the World Heritage Sites list, Dr. Sami El- Masri, Strategic Planning Director at ADACH, cites the following:

1 – Invention of the falaj system as an engineering feat. The falaj system is not only significant as a method of transporting water, but also allows for settlements to develop, The falaj system can also be seen as a pioneering system for water management and distribution in a studied manner.

2 – The Hili cultural landscape, with its developed water management system, is a fortified settlement renowned for its architecture and burial customs.

3 – Jebel Hafit cultural landscape, with its prehistoric desert encampments, its 4th millennium funerary landscape and its Islamic-era falaj system and its oases settlements.

4 – Al Ain’s various oases, with their mosques, farms and other historic buildings, represent the cradle of Emirati Bedouin culture and the symbol of life in the past and the capacity of man to settle and adapt to the harsh desert environment, as well as to change his subsistence, economy and seasonally, moving from the deep desert, to the oases areas and costal zones.

5 – Thriving practice of falconry and camel trading and racing.

6 – Al Ain desert red sand dunes, the natural heritage of Jebel Hafit (for its flora and fauna significance), as well as the oases areas.

7 – Jebel Hafit for its paleontological value. The mountain, which is situated along the western flank of the Hajar Mountains, is a spectacularly rocky structure of limestone, which rises abruptly out of the relatively flat surrounding desert plains. Some of the fossils found in Jebel Hafit, date back to the Cretaceous period.

8 – Jebel Hafit, for its exceptional value, not only for its geological, archaeological and historic significance but also for its paleontological, zoological and biological importance. The 1,200m high mountain, which extends for 13 kilometres from north to south, is believed to have been formed some 25 million years ago; marine fossils found in the site however are far much older, dating from between 135 and 70 million years ago. Studies indicate that Jebel Hafit is habitat to around 118 species of plant, 18 species of mammal (including the Arabian tahr, an endangered wild goat and some living troglobites, which have been located solely in the ancient cave passages in Jebel Hafit). 140 species of bird (including the threatened Egyptian vulture) and over 10 different species of reptiles have also been identified at this location.

9 – Jebel Hafit, for its wealth of flora and fauna, which includes several species that are currently in danger of extinction.

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