Oryx, Luxury and Oases
Sunday, February 15th, 2009
With the exception of rivers, the Emirate of Abu Dhabi has scenically much to offer: 200 natural islands, of which the desert islands are presently being developed, miles of beaches, artificial lakes, deserts with high, red sand dunes, the Liwa Oases and Jebel Hafeet near Al Ain – a mysterious mountain massif. Also visitors interested in culture will get their money’s worth because the promotion of cultural tourism stands at the very top of the government’s list of priorities.
Abu Dhabi City
Abu Dhabi City is the elegant, pulsating capital of the Emirate of the same name, the largest and wealthiest of the seven emirates, and of the whole country, and is also called “Garden City” because of its many parks. Many visitors to Abu Dhabi are first attracted to the newly designed Corniche with its well-tended public bathing beaches, if they do not live in a luxury hotel with its own beach. The west end of the Corniche is marked by the Emirates Palace Hotel presently serving as the “cultural temple.” Al Bateen Dhow Whorf can be visited in the vicinity of the Intercontinental Hotel, where dhows are still built today by hand by mostly Indian workers in a manner almost unchanged for centuries. They can be seen in all possible stages of construction. A new tourist center is being built in traditional design right next to it. Those interested in Emirian traditions, should pay a visit to the lively Heritage Center with museum on the breakwater peninsula. There you can watch over the shoulders of first class artisans producing your souvenir, and experience the traditional life, including performances of music and dance by the National Folklore Group. By all means, do not miss visiting the following sights.
Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque
Sheikh Zayed, called “The Father of the Nation,” himself planned the mosque that was dedicated at the end of 2007. It is a symbol of hospitality, openness and tradition, open to visitors from all over the world and members of all religions. The showpiece structure of white marble is located between Abu Dhabi Airport and Abu Dhabi City. In terms of height and capacity, it places third worldwide after the Al Haram Mosque in Mecca and the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca. Over 40,000 believers can find a seat in the building, which was built in the traditional style of the courtyard mosques with shady arcades. It has 4 minarets, a large, 70 m high dome above the main prayer hall and another 81 domes spread out over the building, the world’s largest Svarovski chandelier, and a hand-woven carpet from Iran that is 5,627 sqm in size and weighs 47 tons and is considered to be the largest carpet in the world. Elaborate flower designs are worked into the glass walls and glass doors; the marble columns are decorated with realistic flower mosaics, and flowers in relief adorn the interior walls – very unusual for a mosque. And something else is striking: the rooms are as bright as daylight. The mosque is listed in the Guinness Book of Records for the dome, the carpet and the chandelier. The neighboring Sheikh Zayed Mausoleum is not open to the public.
Al Hosn Fort – the only historical building
When the famous British explorer, adventurer and travel writer, Sir Wilfred Thesiger, who was highly esteemed by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founder of the country who died on November 2, 2004, came from the Liwa Oases on camelback during the 1940s and approached the city, he found only a few scattered Barasti huts of palm materials and the white fort that then as now rose up out of the desert sand.
When the fort was built in 1793 by Sheikh Shakhbut Bin Dhiyab Al Nahyan, who ruled Abu Dhabi from 1793 until 1816, it had a square form with two round towers around a large inner courtyard. The locals found protection within the coral stone walls and for a while it served as the ruler’s palace. Sheikh Zayed had two further structures built; a palace for his family and a building for administrative purposes. Since 1984, the fort, which today resembles a fort within a fort, has been part of the grounds of the cultural foundation with interesting art exhibits and is used as a documentation center. The fort is on the list of UNESCO cultural monuments. There is a plan to return to here the original furniture, which is at present to be found spread around numerous palaces and to open the rooms of the fort to the public as museum.
Hawk Clinic with Museum
The hawk is an important part of the culture and tradition of the United Arab Emirates. Hawk hunting in the desert is extremely popular – with young and old. Hawks, too, can get sick and then their owners know what to do. The “patient” is taken to the world’s largest hawk clinic, located near Abu Dhabi Airport. The head of the clinic is Dr. Margit Müller, a veterinarian from Germany. In Abu Dhabi, the prices for good and healthy hawks runs about 20,000 to 50,000 euros. The hawk clinic is also used to have hawks examined for diseases before a sale is finalized to be sure of getting a really healthy hawk for the high price. “All classes of the population own hawks, which means that the clinic’s customers are modest-living Bedouins as well as members of the ruling Al Nahyan family,” according to Dr. Margit. Guests are welcome in the hawk clinic; there is an unforgettable program for them. Booking: www.falconhospital.com under “tourism.”
Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoun Al Nahyan, Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH) has submitted individual attractions in and around Al Ain, where Sheikh Zayed was born, for UNESCO World Cultural Heritage sites. This was justified by the valuable archaeological sites, the nature reserves and the distinctive architectural features of the historical buildings and many forts that have been preserved, thanks to Sheikh Zayed. The largest and most beautiful, Fort Jahili, was just restored and now holds a permanent exhibition of the famous black and white photos by Sir Wilfred Thesiger showing life in the Emirates in the 1940s. The inhabitants of Al Ain are proud of preserving traditions like the traditional wedding celebrations, the hospitality of the Bedouins, the traditional hunt, the use of traditional tools, etc. Visitors’ attractions are the oases, the museums, Hili Park and the fortifications and graves of the Hili civilization located nearby, and the area around the 1,200 m high Jebel Hafeet. Standing isolated, it is a 25 million year-old, 13 km long, spectacular massif with unique flora and Fauna and prehistoric discovery sites and fossils. A five-star Mercure hotel stands on one of the mountain peaks. Another attraction is the thermal springs around the “Green Mubazarah” rock, grown over with a green carpet of vegetation – a further initiative of Sheikh Zayed to make his Emirate green.
Desert Islands – Sir Bani Yas
The 87 sqkm large island, located about 250 km from Abu Dhabi City, is the newest tourist attraction and, until the opening of the only hotel on the island, the luxury hotel of the Thai Anantara chain in October 2008, was visited exclusively by members of the ruling family and is home to 17,000 indigenous and exotic animals, partly threatened by extinction. TDIC’s (Tourism Development and Investment Company) concept provides for moderate ecotourism that ensures that the nature reserve that has been growing for over 40 years will remain pristine. When Sheikh Zayed visited the island for the first time in the year he assumed the office of president, he was so taken by the bizarre, mineral-bearing rock formations originally made up of desert sand in the interior of the island that he decided to make a natural paradise of it and to introduce endangered species like the Arabian oryx. Geologists explored the millions of years-old salt dome island. Archaeologists have been working on the island since April 1992. German tourists are at the top of the list of the target markets in the marketing strategy. “They know best how to appreciate the luxury of peace and quiet; they love nature and animals and can tank up new energy at such a place,” as Lars Nielsen, TDIC Marketing Manager for the Desert Islands and Andre Erasmus, General Manager of the Desert Islands Resort & Spa both concurred. The German guests can make themselves understood in their mother tongue – Philipp Reutener, the Resident Manager of the hotel, will see to that.
The island adventure begins with the arrival from Abu Dhabi by amphibian plane. Those who do not want to just spend the time in the dream hotel with a spa and gigantic pool can take off on a kayak trip through the mangroves, go on snorkel trips to observe sea turtles and dolphins or take mountain bike tours through the red, violet and orange colored, mineral-bearing landscape of the salt dome – all included in the package. Bird lovers will enjoy the numerous species of birds, including flamingos. The high point is the safari to the 38 giraffes, gazelles, antelopes and above all the huge herd of 4,000 specimens of Arabian oryx, which is one of the world’s largest. All animals on the island have the “right-of-way.”
The desert turns green and blossoms. Every kind of vegetable is thriving in the greenhouses, above all cucumbers. Countless thousands of miles of water hoses make it possible. Renovated forts attract visitors. Every year, Tel Mureeb, close to the otherwise peaceful Liwa Oases, is the scene of a one-of-a-kind event – at least as far as the surroundings are concerned. For six days at the foot of Tel Mureeb, one of the world’s highest sand dunes (296 m), the focus is on traditional and modern forms of desert sports under the auspices of Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed al Nahyan. It is said to be the largest sports event in the Near East where six forms of sports are held on six consecutive days: shooting sports, hawk hunting, horse and camel racing, and motorbike and all-terrain vehicles competitions. Anyone over 18 who accepts the rules can participate. Motor bikes are available to rent so that even tourists can take part. There is music and pyrotechnics in the evenings for entertainment. It is recommended to register ahead of time in the Liwa Hotel, 28 km away. Those interested in a desert safari in this area can call the safari specialist, Gulab: 050-3254741.
Text and photos: Barbara Schumacher