Contrary to popular perception, Dubai (and the rest of the emirates) did not just pop out of the ground in the 1990s. Due to oil wealth, the city-state has become known for its adult Disneyland escapades as it capitalized on its wealth – and many think that’s all there is. While Dubai has an “old town” – a section of its old market attempting to give tourists a feel for the emirate before oil was discovered — it is surrounded by tall buildings and has the feel of Epcot Center.
For those seeking adventure or respite from the glimmer and Dubai's modern interpretations of glamour, those in the know head to the hills and the nearby surrounding emirates. For real history and a look into important trade routes and life in the past, travelers should book a day trip into the desert to see thousands-of-years-old archeological sites dating back to the Iron and Bronze ages.
I met Peter Sheehan, the Historic Buildings Manager of the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, on my trip to the UAE last year. These are his recommendations for visitors wanting to venture out of the city and experience ancient culture.
Al Ain Oasis: Abu Dhabi
The road to Al Ain is a thousand year old trade route covered in asphalt. Within the oasis area are several important sites, including the Hili Archeological Site, the easiest to get to. Displayed as a family park, the Hili site contains several spectacular Bronze Age tombs cordoned off for public view. Unfortunately, the rest has been razed over with grass and a fountain, covering up and destroying other potential nearby digs.
More exciting to budding explorers are the Mezyad beehive tombs, a half hour away at the foot of the Jebel Hafeet mountain. Created over 5,000 years ago, the tombs are only accessible with a sturdy 4x4 and a guide, but lie untouched and open to any who wander nearby. "To the old inhabitants here, the sun brought with it light and life," Dr. Hasan al Naboodah, a history professor at UAE University told The National. "So, when they died, they wanted to continue to bask in its embrace and to come back to life after their death by making a special opening for the sun god to visit their graves."
Located in the nearby emirate of Sharjah is the village of Mleiha and the Mleiha Archeological Center. The site is centered around the 3,000 year old Umm al Nar era tomb and digs in the area have found human cave relics that are over 125,000 years old. Taking a page from Jordan’s thriving eco-tourism industry, oil-free Sharjah is pumping money into eco-tourism and historical finds. The emirate is placing emphasis on getting visitors to desert parks like Fossil Rock, a large, natural rock formation filled with marine fossils and surrounded by dunes. The Fossil Rock Hotel, a boutique, eco-luxury lodge is set to open to visitors soon.
Ed-Dur: Umm Al Qawain
On the southeast coast of the UAE, in the emirate of Umm Al Qaeain, is the UNESCO site of Ed-Dur. This site is home to a Bronze Age temple used by sun worshippers, as well as remnants from the Obeid, the Bronze Age, Stone Age, Iron Age, and Pre-Islamic periods.
Al Badiya Mosque: Fujairah
The oldest mosque in the Emirates lies on the far eastern tip of the UAE in the emirate of Fujairah. Built in 1446, the mud and stone mosque has four layered domes and is still in use. The surrounding area includes fascinating ruins, old watchtowers and market stalls for shopping.
Jumeirah Archeological Site: Dubai
Jumeirah is an affluent neighborhood in Dubai full of five star hotels and Ferraris. It's also the site of ruins from the Abbasid dynasty. An important stop on the trade routes from Oman and Iraq, Jumeirah rose to prominence in the 7th century. Today, the ruins are just that: ruined. But it adds historical perspective to the gleaming city and insight into the Emirate’s past.
Note: you must obtain permission from the Dubai Museum to visit the site.