While looking up at the gleaming tower blocks lining Abu Dhabi’s skyline, it’s sometimes hard to imagine what life was like before the discovery of the black gold in the ground that brought the advent of modernism. The fact is, especially around urban Abu Dhabi, most of the evidence about how the inhabitants of the region lived centuries ago now permanently rests under the foundations of a skyscraper or mall.
However, in the undeveloped outreaches of the emirate, the remains of these ancient cultures lie untouched just waiting for archaeologists to discover and then offer up clues into their lifestyles in centuries gone by.
One of the most fruitful sources for artefacts has been Sir Bani Yas Island, which was once the private nature reserve of the late, great Sheikh Zayed. One of his personal interests was the history of his people, and, knowing the island had been inhabited by pearl fishermen since ancient times, he sanctioned archaeological digs throughout his island sanctuary in the early ’90s.
In 1992, the diggers struck historical gold when they discovered the ruins of a seventh century Christian monastery buried in the sands. This find has now been heralded as not only one of the most important finds in the Gulf region, but also possibly in the world.
Almost two decades later, the Tourism and Development Investment Company (TDIC), the semi-government organisation that is turning the island into a holiday resort, has opened the monastery up for public viewing, envisaging it as an attraction for history buffs.
Dr Joseph Elders, who led the original dig on the island and is the Church of England’s chief archaeological officer, claims the find is significant for a couple of reasons. Not only is it the only pre-Islamic Christian site in the UAE, it also reveals how far Christianity spread in the Gulf region during the seventh century. He says, ‘We had no idea the religion had penetrated this far into the Arabian Gulf. Opening the site to visitors marks an exciting tourism development for the island as we seek to discover and share more about the past lives and human stories that have played their part in creating its fascinating history.’
The 65sq m monastery complex is located on the eastern coast of the island, meaning it would be visible to pilgrims sailing along trade routes to India, where they’d probably stop to pray, leave tributes and recuperate before continuing on their journey.
All that remains of the building nowadays is the outline of the walls, which, to the untrained eye, could be mistaken for a few piles of rubble. But visitor notice boards explain the exact layout of the monastery, and what each room was used for by the 30-40 monks who inhabited the building from around 600AD to 750AD.
Also on display are some of the artefacts that have been uncovered, which include bowls, ceremonial vases, crucifixes and glass vessels, which originate from as far afield as Iraq and India. They have also found
the remains of a body buried in a crypt, which they believe to be that of a saint or holy man who might have founded the monastery and whom visitors came to worship.
The monastery is thought to have been part of the Nestorian Church, also known as the Church of the East, a Christian denomination that rapidly spread throughout the Middle East and China before its numbers were reduced by the growth of Islam and the advance of the Mongol Empire.
When Islam spread throughout the Gulf in the seventh century, the monks failed to find new converts and the community was peacefully abandoned. He says, ‘The fact that monks continued to live here even after Islam’s growth in the region reveals the tolerance shown to other religions by Muslims at this time.’ But the monastery is only one of 35 archaeological sites on the island, with the oldest dating back some 7,500 years, some of which could be opened to the public in future years, making for further reasons to visit the tranquil island holiday resort on Sir Bani Yas Island.
For more information about the site contact Desert Island Resorts on 02 801 8400 or visit www.tdic.ae.
Further trips through time
Want to expand your brain and learn about the rich history of the UAE? Pay a visit these other historical sites.
Al Jahili Fort
The nineteenth-century Al Ain fort was the former home of the ruling Al Nahyan family, and, after undergoing a major refurbishment, the splendid white palace has been restored to its former glory. It also houses a decent exhibition about famous British explorer Wilfred Thesiger.
Follow signs from Al Ain city centre.
Hili Grand Tomb
In one of Al Ain’s many gardens lies this ancient tomb, which dates back some 5,000 years to the Bronze Age. The circular 12-metre wide stone vaults have been restored, while the historic objects that were found within are on display at the nearby Al Ain National Museum.
Hili Archaeological Park, Seventh Street, Al Ain.
Jebel Hafit Tombs
On the slopes of the giant mountain of Jebel Hafit are numerous grave sites and tombs, some of which are around 5,000 years old. Scores of these beehive-shaped buildings have been excavated over the years and are open to the public, and, although some can be reached by the main road, others are only accessible by 4x4.
Jebel Hafit, 137th Street, Al Ain
Located around the Liwa oasis are nine ancient forts, which are in varying states of repair. As well as giving a great insight into Bedouin life in the desert in years gone by, the dusty ramparts also make for perfect picture opportunities.
Near Mezaira, Western Region, Abu Dhabi.