The late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan knew the land like the back of his hand because he rode over it on camel or horseback. He was in his thirties when he heard that remains of an ancient civilisation had been found in Bahrain, and he knew that he had seen similar stone constructions on the island of Umm an-Nar off the coast of Abu Dhabi.He therefore invited the Danish archaeological expedition that had discovered the third millennium BCE Dilmun culture in Bahrain to come to Abu Dhabi, and in 1959 they found a Bronze Age site where he suggested they look.
Encouraged by the initial discoveries, Sheikh Zayed began a programme of systematic archaeological research in the UAE, focusing on Al Ain, his birthplace. He established the Al Ain Museum in 1971, which is close to the Sultan Bin Zayed Fort (also known as the Eastern Fort) to house the finds. “It became the focal cultural point in the Emirate, where Sheikh Zayed would invite distinguished delegates and visitors to show them the archaeology and history of the UAE”, says Abdul Rahman Rashed Al Nuaimi, the World Heritage Sites Officer at TCA Abu Dhabi.
The classification of Al Ain as a Unesco World Heritage Site is due in no small part to Sheikh Zayed’s preservation and restoration of the sites. “He brought the oasis alive again,” says Omar Salem Al Kaabi, the historic buildings and landscapes researcher at TCA Abu Dhabi. “He cleaned up the underground irrigation system, bought the water rights in the area so that he could provide free, high-quality water to the people, and ordered the protection of the oasis by forbidding building on those sites.” Sheikh Zayed was fascinated by the discovery of a pre-Islamic Christian site on the island of Sir Bani Yas (see next page) and backed its excavation, a policy that his son, the Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed, has carried on.