Falaj Channels in Al Ain
An ancient irrigation system sustains a desert oasis and the heritage of a community.
In the Al Ain Oasis traditional terracotta walls that appear not to have changed much in design for centuries line the winding walkways. Beyond them rustle hundreds of lush date palms and tall succulent grasses. The only other sound to be heard is the gentle trickling of water which flows along small ground level cannels that zip zag their way through the groves, a sound that has without interruption brought life to this area for over 3000 years.
Al Ain is situated inland in the western region of the emirate of Abu Dhabi and is home to the country’s oldest and largest oasis, irrigated by the falaj system (aflaj singular). Since the Iron Age this ancient network of man made canals, in use until today, has been used to exploit the limited water resources in the area to support agricultural practices.
“The people in Al Ain believed that Kind Daud, father of King Suleiman, built the falaj” says Dr. Hassan Al Naboodah professor of history at the Al Ain University. “This is a story that has been passed from one generation to the next. The belief is that the King was looking for water so he asked the djin (local spirits) to build an aflaj for him. Of course this is a myth but it explains how hard it was to believe that the falaj, so complicated and accurate were designed and built by people.”
The falaj utilize above and below ground ducts that often stretch for long distances harnessing groundwater, spring water and rain water and transporting it thanks to a gradual tilt in the design and the pull of gravity. The below ground falaj are especially impressive, positioned deep in the earth, they required the cutting of bedrock during construction and the building of large access shafts known as thaqba into which workers could descend to carry out maintenance and cleaning on the under ground waterways.
“The water in the falaj had to be distributed amongst families” continued Dr. Naboodah. “The man responsible for this was called the Areef. The amount of time water was directed to flow into each garden depended on its size. The Areef used a stick he placed into the ground and the shadow made by the sun to measure the amount. This was during the day, at night he used the stars. It was like this for hundreds and hundreds of years.”
Al Ain has been an important social and cultural center in the region for millennia. Located along a well known trade route between the port of Sohar in Oman and the Arabian Interior archeological findings offer proof of a steady flow of multicultural traffic throughout the millennia. For local populations Al Ain was a vital place of respite and harvest returned to seasonally. At the beginning of the summer the population of the town grew as camel caravans of women and children from surrounding areas travelled to Al Ain in order to escape the heat, while the men set out on long pearl diving operations into the Gulf. Coastal residence exchange dried fish and goods obtained from ships such as cloth, oil and rice for oasis vegetables, fruits and most importantly, the long lasting, nutrious and easy to transport Al Ain dates.
“The date tree and the camel were an important part of their life,” say Dr. Al Naboodah. “The camel was for travel and for milk and the date tree for everything else. Every piece of it was used. The trunk and bark for building houses, the leaves for making baskets and platters for food, the dates were eaten in the summer and the winter, every piece of this tree was valuable. The people in Al Ain used to call the date amnaan, our mother.”
The Al Ain oasis today, a UNESCO World Heritage site, covers roughly 1200 hectares on which an estimated 147,000 date palms grow. With an intricate patchwork of municipal and privately owned gardens passed down through the generations one can find not only date palms but also lime, orange, mango and banana trees and various wild plants and grasses. The gardens are situated along a network of pathways which range from narrow alleys just about a meter in width to spacious promenades that visitors can walk or ride rented bikes along. Today the oasis is no longer maintained out of necessity but out of respect for its importance to a national sense of identity and local history. The gardens are open to the public and in accordance with local traditions of hospitality are full of signs welcoming visitors and inviting them to enjoy the dates.