Christian monastery possibly pre-Islamic found in UAE

SINIA ISLAND, United Arab Emirates (AP) — An ancient Christian monastery likely dating back to the years before Islam spread to the Arabian Peninsula has been discovered on an island off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, officials announced Thursday.

The monastery on Siniyah Island, part of the dune sheikhdom of Umm al-Quwain, sheds new light on the history of early Christianity along the shores of the Persian Gulf. It marks the second such monastery found in the emirate, dating back 1,400 years – long before its desert lands gave birth to a booming oil industry that led to a unified nation that was home to the high-rise towers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

The two monasteries were lost to history in the sands of time as scholars believe that Christians slowly converted to Islam as that faith became more widespread in the region.

Today, Christians remain a minority across the wider Middle East, although Pope Francis arrived in nearby Bahrain on Thursday to promote interfaith dialogue with Muslim leaders.

For Timothy Power, an associate professor of archeology at the United Arab Emirates University who helped investigate the recently discovered monastery, the UAE today is a “melting pot of nations”.

The monastery is located on Siniyah Island, which shelters the Khor al-Beida marshes in Umm al-Quwain, an emirate about 50 kilometers (30 mi) northeast of Dubai along the Persian Gulf coast. The island has a series of sandbars jutting out from it like crooked fingers. At one, in the northeast of the island, archaeologists discovered the monastery.

Carbon dating of samples found at the foundation of the monastery date between 534 and 656. Islam’s prophet Muhammad was born around 570 and died in 632 after the conquest of Mecca in present-day Saudi Arabia.

From above, the monastery on the plan of Siniyah Island suggests that the first Christian believers prayed in a single-aisled church in the monastery. The rooms inside appear to have a baptismal font, as well as an oven for baking bread or wafers for communion ceremonies. A nave also probably had an altar and a facility for communion wine.

Next to the monastery is a second building with four rooms, probably around a courtyard – possibly the home of an abbot or even a bishop in the early church.

On Thursday, the site was visited by Noura bint Mohammed al-Kaabi, the country’s minister of culture and youth, as well as Sheikh Majid bin Saud Al Mualla, the chairman of the Department of Tourism and Archeology of Umm al-Quwain and a son of the emirate. governor.

The island remains part of the holdings of the ruling family, protecting the island for years to allow the historical sites to be found.

The UAE Ministry of Culture has partially funded the excavation, which is ongoing at the site. Just hundreds of meters (yards) away from the church, a collection of buildings that archaeologists believe belongs to a pre-Islamic village.

Elsewhere on the island, piles of discarded clams from the pearl hunt create huge, industrial-sized hills. Nearby is also a village that the British blew up in 1820 before the area became part of what was known as the Trucial States, the forerunner of the UAE. The destruction of this village led to the creation of the modern settlement of Umm al-Quwain on the mainland.

Historians say the first churches and monasteries spread along the Persian Gulf to the coast of present-day Oman and as far as India. Archaeologists have found other similar churches and monasteries in Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

In the early 1990s, archaeologists discovered the first Christian monastery in the UAE, on Sir Bani Yas Island, today a nature reserve and luxury hotel site off the coast of Abu Dhabi, near the border with Saudi Arabia. It is likewise dated to the same period as the new find at Umm al-Quwain.

However, evidence of early life along the Khor al-Beida marshes in Umm al-Quwain dates back to the Neolithic period – suggesting continuous human habitation in the area for at least 10,000 years, Power said.

Today, the area near the marsh is best known for the low-cost liquor store at the emirate’s Barracuda Beach Resort. In recent months, authorities have destroyed a massive Soviet-era cargo plane linked to a Russian gunner known as the “Merchant of Death” as he builds a bridge on Siniyah Island for a $675 million real estate development.

Power said the development spurred archaeological work that uncovered the monastery. That site and others will be fenced off and protected, he said, although it remains unclear what other secrets of the past remain hidden just beneath a thin layer of sand on the island.

“It’s a really exciting discovery because in a way it’s hidden history — it’s not something that’s widely known,” Power said.

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