Development of Aflaj

As aridity gradually became a permanent feature of the Emirati environment, accessing groundwater increasingly became a challenge. Around Al Ain, falaj (plural aflaj) were dug to tap and distribute water using tunnels excavated underground to tap into subterranean aquifers. This unique and innovative method has been used in the Eastern Region of Abu Dhabi for 3,000 years. It precedes, by several centuries, similar water distribution systems known as qanat in Persia (Iran). The use of aflaj during the Iron Age some 3,000 years ago allowed the development of productive oases and the large-scale cultivation of date palms as a valuable commodity. The Iron Age itself lasted from 1250 300 BC.

Some of the Iron Age aflaj in Al Ain seem to have been abandoned by around 300 BC as aridity intensified across the region and, presumably, groundwater became more scarce or harder to extract. Some of the settlements, at Al Jabeeb, north of Al Ain, for example, were abandoned and covered by the advancing dunes. The use of falaj systems did not revive until the subsequent Islamic period.

Along with the domestication of the camel, which took place around the beginning of the Iron Age, the falaj system made
an enduring cultural imprint across the Emirate. As the climate become more arid and agriculture could no longer depend upon seasonal rainfall, the aflaj made it possible for the oasis settlements to survive.

Anatomy of a Falaj

A falaj has five basic components:

  • Mother well(s)
  • Tunnels
  • ‘Cut-and-cover' section
  • Shari'a
  • Surface channels leading to the irrigated fields

A suitable aquifer is essential for a falaj and a test well is usually sunk to determine if there is sufficient groundwater. Once the mother well has been excavated and ample water discovered, additional wells are excavated nearby which are connected by tunnels to the area of the main well to increase the overall water supply.

The tunnels are pierced with vertical shaft holes known as thuqba (plural thuqab) and are excavated at regular distances between the mother well and the irrigated fields. The thuqab allow ventilation, the removal of debris and provide access to the tunnel whenever maintenance is necessary.

The ‘cut-and-cover' section starts where the top of the underground tunnel comes close to the surface while the shari'a is where water flows to the surface to be distributed.

Aflaj in Abu Dhabi

At least 5 Iron Age aflaj have been found in the Al Ain area. At Hili 15, a falaj dating from around 1000 BC has been excavated, revealing surface channels, a shari'a with sluice gates still in situ, a cut-and-cover section and 2 shafts. A nearby, fortified site was also found that might have been the administrative centre for controlling the falaj system, which was a communal infrastructure.

Wild or Domestic?

When approximately 200 bones of young camels were recovered from excavations on the island of Umm al-Nar it was thought that this might provide evidence that the camel was domesticated in Arabia as early as 4,700 years ago. Discovery of a carving of a single-humped camel etched into stone in one of the tombs supported this theory.

However, it now appears the camels were not domesticated until much later. Recently excavated camel bones from Bronze and Iron Age levels at Tell Abraq (on the Sharjah - Umm al-Qaiwain border) and the Iron Age fortified settlement of Muweilah (in Sharjah Emirate) have revealed the presence of both wild and domesticated dromedaries at both sites.

Bones from the sites were analysed using a combination of biometric techniques and demographic data to distinguish wild from domesticated camels, which are smaller. It is now thought that domesticated camels did not appear in the Emirates until the Iron Age, perhaps 3,000 years ago.


The monastery settlement discovered on Sir Bani Yas – the only known physical evidence of early Christianity in south-eastern Arabia – is an archaeological site of international significance. A comparison of the finely decorated plaster fragments found at the site with other examples found in Kuwait and elsewhere suggests that the monastery was part of the Nestorian Church, otherwise known as the Church of the East. Named after Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) from AD 428 to 431, the Nestorians were expelled from the Greek Orthodox church for heresy although their teachings proved popular in Iraq and Iran and spread as far east as India and China. Nestorian missionaries appear first to have reached the southern Gulf by the mid-5th century AD, although the Sir Bani Yas monastery appears to have been founded after that, perhaps in the late 6th century AD.

Studies of the pottery from the site suggest that it was occupied until around the early or mid-8th century AD, when it was abandoned. By this stage, the revelation of Islam to the Prophet Mohammed had already taken place, and in AD 630, the population of what is now Abu Dhabi and the rest of the Emirates had accepted the new faith. The apparent survival of the monastery for another century after the arrival of Islam is evidence of the tolerance of the area's early Muslim leaders, a tradition that continues today.

Since that time, the history and culture of the people of Abu Dhabi and of the broader region can be placed firmly into the Islamic context.

Pre-Islamic Civilisations

The Iron Age was followed by a period when Abu Dhabi came under the influence of major empires that emerged across Europe and Western Asia. These certainly controlled the maritime trading routes of the Gulf, although there is little evidence they exerted extensive political control on the mainland.