Ancient Christian monastery possibly pre-dating Islam found in UAE

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SINIYAH ISLAND, UAE – An ancient Christian monastery unearthed on an island off the coast of the UAE, perhaps going back to the years when Islam spread across the Arabian Peninsula, officials announced on Thursday.

The monastery on Siniyah Island, which is part of the sand dune emirate of Umm Al-Quwain, throws new insight on the history of early Christianity on the Arabian Gulf’s coastlines.

It is the Emirates’ second such monastery, dating back up to 1,400 years — long before its desert expanses gave home to a thriving oil economy.

The two monasteries were lost in the sands of time as academics believe Christians gradually converted to Islam as Islam became increasingly dominant in the region.

Christians are still a minority in the Middle East today.

According to Timothy Power, an associate professor of archaeology at United Arab Emirates University who assisted in the investigation of the recently discovered monastery, the UAE is now a “mixing pot of nations.”

“It’s truly astonishing that something similar was happening here 1,000 years ago, and this is a tale that deserves to be told,” he said.

The monastery is located on Siniyah Island, which protects the Khor Al-Beida marshlands in Umm Al-Quwain, an emirate located 50 kilometers northeast of Dubai along the Arabian Gulf coast. The island is surrounded by a series of sandbars that resemble crooked fingers. Archaeologists uncovered the monastery on one of them, near the island’s northeast.

Carbon dating of samples discovered in the monastery’s foundation ranges from 534 to 656.

Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, was born about 570 and died around 632.

From above, the floor design of the monastery on Siniyah Island reveals that early Christian worshippers prayed within a single-aisle church at the monastery.

There appears to be a baptismal font as well as an oven for baking bread or wafers for communion ceremonies within. A nave would also have housed an altar and a communion wine installation.

Next to the monastery is a second structure with four rooms arranged around a courtyard, which could have been the home of an abbot or even a bishop in the early church.

Noura bint Mohammed Al-Kaabi, the country’s culture and youth minister, paid a visit to the site on Thursday, as did Sheikh Majid bin Saud Al-Mualla, the chairman of Umm Al-Tourism Quwain’s and Archaeology Department and the emirate’s ruler’s son.

The island has remained in the hands of the ruling family for many years, allowing the historical sites to be discovered.

The UAE’s Culture Ministry has partially funded the dig, which is still ongoing at the site. A group of buildings that archaeologists believe belong to a pre-Islamic town sits just hundreds of meters from the church.

Piles of discarded clams from pearl searching form gigantic, industrial-sized mounds elsewhere on the island.

A nearby settlement was blown up by the British in 1820, before the territory became part of the Trucial States, the forerunner of the UAE. The destruction of that community resulted in the establishment of the modern-day settlement of Umm Al-Quwain on the mainland.

Historians believe that early churches and monasteries expanded all the way from the Arabian Gulf to the shores of modern-day Oman and all the way to India. Similar churches and monasteries have been discovered by archaeologists in Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.

Archaeologists uncovered the first Christian monastery in the UAE in the early 1990s on Sir Bani Yas Island, which is now a nature park and home to luxury hotels off the coast of Abu Dhabi, close the Saudi border. It was discovered at the same time as the new find in Umm Al-Quwain.

However, evidence of early life near the Khor Al-Beida marshlands in Umm Al-Quwain dates back to the Neolithic period, implying continuous human habitation for at least 10,000 years, according to Power.

Source: AP

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