Lost amidst the glitz and glamor of Abu Dhabi’s glass and steel skyline are four stunningly-beautiful but little-known UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Uncovered, restored, and preserved over the past 50 years, these properties reveal the longest continuously inhabited areas in the region. Wandering through Bronze and Iron Age settlements set against dramatic landscapes brings Abu Dhabi’s rich and largely forgotten cultural heritage to life. From the Jebel Hafeet Tombs, hidden among towering bare-rock ridges, to the palm-studded canopies of the Al Ain Oasis, Abu Dhabi’s unique UNESCO sites offer a world of history that stands in striking contrast to the capital’s super-modern architecture.
Looking out from atop Jebel Hafeet, the rocky desert and panoramic sky disappear into the distance, while below, in the shadow of the 1160-metre mountain, are hundreds of 5000-year-old tombs. Set against the red-rocked cliffs of Jebel Hafeet, these are the legendary beehive Hafeet Tombs. What sets Hafeet apart is that unlike many other UNESCO sites around the globe, sightseers are free to intimately explore every tomb in the valley. With not so much as a paved footpath in sight, the scene—unchanged for millennia—offers a vivid insight into ancient Hafeet culture. Venturing inside the tombs, visitors can soak up the tranquillity, watching the occasional cloud float across the sky, framed by the circular openings in the roofs.
Perhaps the most famous of Abu Dhabi’s ancient sites is Hili Archaeological Park. Specifically developed to highlight Al Ain’s archaeological treasures, the Park surrounds its 4000 to 5000-year-old monuments with verdant flower-laden gardens perfect for picnics or scenic strolls. Amidst tombs, towers, houses and hills lies the so-called Grand Tomb, a 12-metre diameter building reconstructed largely using its original hand-hewn stone blocks. Used for communal burial, the tomb features carvings of Arabian oryx and other local wildlife. Other Hili highlights include the recently opened Hili Site 8, the earliest agricultural settlement unearthed in the UAE, and Hili Site 10, thought to be an ancient stronghold. The nearby Al Ain National Museum showcases fascinating local archaeological finds of the past half-century.
Bidaa Bint Saud
Situated on the massive rock Garn bint Saud, the ancient caravan stop of Bidaa Bint Saud overlooks sweeping vistas of rocky desert. The site features multiple Bronze and Iron Age tombs as well as a stunningly well-preserved mud-brick hall thought to have been an ancient seat of government. The main attractions are the site’s two falaj irrigation systems, millennia-old series of cut channels and cisterns ferrying water underground from nearby mountains to the main settlement. Mentioned in the history of Assyrian King Sargon II, the falaj was an integral development in ancient irrigation. Bidaa Bint Saud is considered the earliest known example of this system and a must-see for anyone interested in local history.
Al Ain Oasis
Nestled in the heart of modern city Al Ain is the 1,200-acre Al Ain Oasis, a vast grove of 147,000 date palms fed by the traditional falaj irrigation channels. Heralded worldwide for both its biodiversity and cultural heritage, the Al Ain has been a stopover for intrepid travellers from Iron Age caravans to Lawrence of Arabia. Inside, the murmur of trickling channels brings the heritage of the falaj systems to life. Historical boundary walls and channel grooves direct cool water from both the Hajar and Jebel Hafeet mountains, while the shelter of swaying fronds provide shade from the Abu Dhabi sun.
Explore Abu Dhabi’s incredible UNESCO treasures while staying at Jumeirah at Etihad Towers or Jumeirah at Saadiyat Island Resort.