From the end of the Stone Age to around 5,500 years before Christ, some inhabitants had already occupied the area today known as the United Arab Emirates. The climate then was less arid, and far from being desert-like and inhospitable as it is today. In fact, the lands and watercourses of the region offered an enormous variety of exploitable resources which were available for economic development. Many sites, among which Khor Al Manahil and à Kharimat Khor Al Manahi, in the desert regions to the south east of Abu Dhabi, confirm that the climate and the elements were once more clement.
In all probability, the original inhabitants of the Arab Emirates were mainly shepherds who transferred to the coasts during the winter. They engaged in fishing and the gathering of shells and pearls. In the summer, they moved inland where they undertook pastoral activities and, later, garden cultivation.
The arid climate which reigns today in the region began to manifest itself towards 3,000 B.C., leading to a new era, known as Umm Al-Nar, which lasted for between 500 and 1,000 years. Many oasis-cities emerged in that period, like, for example, Hili Tell Abraq, Bidiya and Kalba, all dominated by impressive circular fortresses. Being essentially agricultural in nature, it was possible for these colonies to survive thanks to the abundance of water which came from shallow water tables and thanks to the cultivation of dates (Phoenix dactylifera), which provided the necessary shade for the cultivation of other plants which were less resistant, such as cereals, legumes and fruit trees.
The period of Wadi Suq and that of the end of the Bronze Age (2000-1300 B.C.) are characterised by a sensible diminution of the cities, but those which continued to be inhabited, such as Tell Abraq, showed no sign of cultural decline. On an economic level, the resources of the sea began to assume ever greater importance in the economy of the area.
It was between the end of the second and the beginning of the first millennium B.C. that it became possible to exploit the camel for diverse uses, thus revolutionising the economy of the region and creating new transport opportunities. What is more, the discovery of the principles of irrigation, based on the use of underground networks for the transportation of water from natural springs in the mountains to the gardens of the cities, enabled further agricultural and economic development which brought about a demographic explosion in the area. The population began to dedicate itself also to the breeding of sheep, goats and cattle and to gazelle hunting. Fish and crustaceans, however, remained the most important sources of nourishment for these populations.
In the III century B.C., the territories were liberated from all forms of foreign domination, particularly that of the Persian Empire. The conquests of Alexander the Great, moreover, did not succeed in arriving as far as the Arab part of the Gulf and neither were his successors able to impose Greek supremacy in the region. This period is historically defined by the name of Mleiha, in reference to the prosperous city of Mleiha, located on the plain to the south of Dhaid, in the present day Emirate of Sharjah.
On the basis of the description left by the Roman writer Pliny the Elder in his work (around 23-79 B.C.) regarding the places and inhabitants of the area and also the information supplied by the Ptolemaic papers, it is possible to affirm that the region currently occupied by the Arab Emirates was then rich in villages and tribes. In that period, the most important city was Ed Dur, a pearl fishing centre, as is testified by numerous archaeological finds. In effect, the pearls which had already been used in prehistoric times, became an object of highly lucrative commerce in ancient Rome.
Afterwards, the rise of the Sassanid dynasty in the South West of Iran (in 240 A.D.) contributed to the expansion of Persian hegemony in most of the region, as is testified by archaeological finds from Kush a Ra’s al-Kaimah, Umm al-Qaiwain and Fujaïrah.
From a religious point of view, there was a coexistence of different faiths in the country during that period: Arab paganism and sassanian Zoroastrianism and then Nestorian Christianity.
Photograph provided courtesy of Dubai’s DTCM