Remains of medieval monastery opened to the public in UAE

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The remains of an early medieval monastery on Sir Bani Yas Island in the United Arab Emirates was opened to the public last week. Local authorities hope that this site will serve as a tourist destination, to compliment the island’s rich wildlife and natural areas.

The pre-Islamic monastery, which is believed to have been built around 600 AD, was initially discovered on the 87 square kilometer island of Sir Bani Yas during excavations in 1992. It is believed that site was the burial ground for a local saint or Christian holy man, and was visited by pilgrims during the early Middle Ages. A new phase of work is currently underway by archaeologists, and treasures are still being unearthed, making the site a significant focal point for history enthusiasts worldwide.

Christianity spread into the Arabian Gulf region between the first and fourth centuries AD, and in recent years several archaeological studies have shown evidence of the development of this religion in the area. Peter Hellyer, the excavation’s project manager, told The National, “Academically, it’s fascinating and really important. It explains a lot more about the heritage of this country. Most people wouldn’t know that history, that there was Christianity here before Islam.”

Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, Chairman of Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), said,  “We are delighted to be opening this ancient site to the public, which gives visitors an insight into the rich history of Sir Bani Yas Island and the UAE. We are proud of our heritage and are therefore focused on creating a multi-experience tourism destination where guests are able to enjoy a variety of activities, while protecting and preserving the history and culture of our country, as well as the natural environment of the island.”

The team of archaeologists excavating the site, which is believed to have been built by the Nestorians (also known as the East Syrian Church), is led by Archaeological Director Dr Joseph Elders. Dr. Elders oversaw the initial surveys of the site in the 1990s. He is currently the Chief Archeologist for the Church of England, responsible for the preservation of thousands of English churches.  He said, “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. We look forward to welcoming visitors to experience this precious asset on Sir Bani Yas.”

The precious artifacts unearthed so far include more than fifteen types of pottery, glass vessels, ceremonial vases and richly decorated elaborate plasterwork stucco. The decorative designs that adorn these items provide great insight into how the 7th century inhabitants of the island led their lives. These artifacts have been carefully stored for their protection and may be displayed to guests in the future.

Sir Bani Yas Island has been inhabited for over 7,500 years, and more than 36 archaeological sites have been found on the island since surveys and excavations began. These include a circular tomb thought to be 4,000 years old, a fortified watchtower, a mosque and evidence of the ancient pearling industry. In the future it is hoped that these sites will be opened to the public.

Further articles about this find and medieval archaeology in the United Arab Emirates

A Pre-Islamic Christian site on Sir Bani Yas

The Lost churches of the Arabian Gulf: recent discoveries on the islands of Sir Bani Yas and Marawah, Abu Dhabi Emirate, United Arab Emirates

Nestorian Christianity in the Pre-Islamic UAE and Southeastern Arabia

See more information at the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey

Sources: Tourism Development and Investment Company (UAE), The National

Sharan Newman