Bulletin 4 - March 1978: Glimpses of the Historical Geography of the Al Ain Region, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Glimpses of the Historical Geography of the Al Ain Region, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

by Abdullah Hussain Dawood

What most impresses hundreds of visitors to the Eastern Province of Abu Dhabi State (Al Ain town and neighboring villages) is the wonderful state of preservation of its old forts, buildings and monuments. Within the region of Buraimi, they find an example of a city that has grown naturally and harmoniously.

Since 6th August 1966, when His Highness Shaikh Zaid bin Sultan al Nahayyan became the Ruler of the State, indeed life in the region has changed considerably, but certain buildings of architectural and historical importance have been preserved and carefully restored. Old houses and unimportant buildings have been replaced by new ones tastefully designed to harmonize with their surroundings.

Thus the visitor today finds a city and villages of unique charm which, due to their fertile land and abundance of water supply, are well known for their agricultural potential.

Turning from the recent scene, an attempt now follows to piece together the scattered information found in the Arab authors and other relevant sources on the general geography of the region down to the sixteenth century.

The name Buraimi is a foreign misnomer when applied to the whole oasis since it is the name of only one of the villages. The people of the Coastal Oman simply refer to the Buraimi region as "Oman". The present-day oasis consists of Al Ain town and 11 villages and palm groves each dependent on its own Falaj (water system).

The Falaj (plural Aflaj) system of Oman is similar to the Qanat system of Iran. The whole network is of considerable antiquity and only comparatively few of the Falajs are today in working order. The construction of the Falajs almost certainly dates back to pre-Islam, and the Falajs which supply al Ain town and the neighboring villages of the region are called Saruwi and Dawoudi. The Kashf al Ghamah records (Annals of Oman – translated by E.C. Ross from local manuscript – page 115 – that during the truce between Malik bin Faham the leader of the "Azd" tribe of Oman and the Persians, the latter destroyed many water channels of the region. The large number of dead Falajs indicates that the Oasis was formally much more extensive and the work of the Danish Archaeological Expedition (1) shows the site to be of considerable antiquity. Locally found coins from west of the Oasis in an area now covered by sand also point to the former extent of Buraimi region. Many villages in the sub-montane zone have probably disappeared as the result of the movement of sand.

The pre-history of the region is only just beginning to appear as the result of the work of the archaeologists. A great number of flint tools have been found so far, but in view of the extensive Mesolithic and Neolithic finds made in neighboring states, it may well be that similar sites exist in the region. Third millenium sites, one at Unn un Nar island, near Abu Dhabi city, are now being excavated and it is possible that they are a part of the country of Magan which supplied copper and diorite to Mesopotamia. Although no copper is produced today in the region (Masudi – Arab author), writing in the tenth century mentions it as a product of Oman. Old copper mines are sited at the head of the Wadi Jizi in addition to open-cast mining at Jebel Ma’adin (east of Jebel Hafit), near Nizwa and Birkat al Mauz (interior Oman), and Masirah island (south-east of Muscat).

The Abu Dhabi city and the eastern region settlement was occupied for 200-300 years in the second half of the third millenium; two points in connection with it are of particular interest from a geographical point of view. The first is that there are very close similarities between the pottery if Abu Dhabi town and eastern region sites and the pottery types from Bampus in west Pakistan, whilst the nearest excavations at Bahrain (Dilmun) reveal an entirely different culture. This fact, combined with ethnographic and other pointers, indicates an early settlement of the region from the northeast and southern Persia. The second point is that amongst reliefs of animals discovered is that of a camel; although there is no reason to suppose that the animal was domesticated, the depiction of the animal at so early a date in such a remote location is of significance.

Since the economy of the Eastern Oman was so closely linked with Sohar (Batinah coast) between the ninth and thirteenth centuries, a short description taken from the Arab authors of the rise and decline of the port is a necessary background to the historical geography of the region. Previous to the ninth century, Sohar, although the capital of Oman and a sizeable seaport, was only of regional importance.

During Sohar’s heyday, the Eastern Trucial Oman employed some of its reflected glory and benefited economically from it. A local trade route went through Wadi Jizi to Buraimi region whence one branch went north to Julfar (Ras al Khaimah) and another south into the Oman proper. That the local produce of Oman entered into overseas trade is illustrated by the Chinese work on Chinese-Arabic trade in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries by (Chau Ju Kua) which describes a land route leading from Sohar (Arabs) to the (Ta-Shi). The produce of Oman, including pearls, horses bred in the mountains, and dates, were exported in exchange for cloves, cardamom seeds, and camphor.

Controlling this trade route was Tu’am, known today as the Al Ain Oasis. The author of "The Imams and Sayyids of Oman" confirms that the old name for the region was Tu’am and the name possibly survives in the form of "Taymah" which is still known to a few people as an alternative name for Al Ain town. The Arab authors describe Tu’am as the capital of that part of Oman which follows the Coast, i.e. the northern Oman coast, whilst Sohar is the capital of the coast which follows the mountains, i.e. the Batinah Coast. This nomenclature has a parallel in the present-day division of the region into the Dhahirah and the Batinah (i.e. the trans- and cis-montane region). The whole Buraimi region is dominated by the hog-back mountain called Jebel Hafit at the foot of which is a village of the same name.

North from Buraimi region, the route to the coast, after following a series of wadis in the mountains, leaves them by the Wadi Sumayni; from there onwards it leads across the outwash plain until the sea is reached at Ras al Khaimah. It is this region from Al Ain region to the coast which is designated by some Arab authors and by the author of the Kash al Ghamah as "Al Sirr", but sometimes the name applies to a town instead of the whole area. I believe that the extensive ruined town where the Wadi Sumayni debouches into the Ramlat Unaiq is the original site of Al Sirr. The only mention of the name Sumayni I have been able to find is the report of a battle at Al Sumayni in 1736 between the forces of Nadir Shah and those of Bal’Arab bin Himyar, the al Ya’aribah Immam.

Idrisi – (translated by Jaubert "Geographer d’Edrisi – Paris 1836) has an interesting, if somewhat confusing account of the Al Sirr region. A river, he says, rise at Jebel Sharm (a village of Sharm still exists between Buraimi and Sumayni) and flows towards the sea with its mouth at Julfar (Ras al Khaimah) on whose banks are many fields and villages. This concept of a river flowing into the sea at Ras al Khaimah was carried on into Portuguese times and is shown on many Portuguese maps, [is] cited by the author. Although, of course, no such river exists now, a series of north-flowing wadi beds and depressions, combined with a zone of comparative fertility, would readily give rise to the idea of a river flowing along the foot of the Hajar mountains.

(1) "Looking for Dilmun" by Geoffrey Bibby.


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