SINIYAH ISLAND, United Arab Emirates — An ancient Christian monastery possibly dating as far back as the years before Islam spread across the Arabian Peninsula has been discovered on an island off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, officials announced Thursday. The monastery of Siniyah Island is part of Umm al-Quwain’s sand-dune sheikhdom. It sheds light on early Christianity on the Persian Gulf shores. It marks the second such monastery found in the Emirates, dating back as many as 1,400 years — long before its desert expanses gave birth to a thriving oil industry that led to a unified nation home to the high-rise towers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The history of these two monasteries has been lost in time. Scholars believe that Christians converted gradually to Islam in response to the growing popularity of Islam in the region.
Christians are still a small minority in the Middle East. However, Pope Francis arrived in Bahrain to encourage interfaith dialogue between Muslim leaders .
For Timothy Power, an associate professor of archaeology at the United Arab Emirates University who helped investigate the newly discovered monastery, the UAE today is a “melting pot of nations.”
“The fact that something similar was happening here a 1,000 years ago is really remarkable and this is a story that deserves to be told,” he said.
The monastery sits on Siniyah Island, which shields the Khor al-Beida marshlands in Umm al-Quwain, an emirate some 50 kilometers (30 miles) northeast of Dubai along the coast of the Persian Gulf. The island, whose name means “blinking lights” likely due to the effect of the white-hot sun overhead, has a series of sandbars coming off of it like crooked fingers. On one, to the island’s northeast, archaeologists discovered the monastery.
Carbon dating of samples found in the monastery’s foundation date between 534 and 656. Islam’s Prophet Muhammad was born around 570 and died in 632 after conquering Mecca in present-day Saudi Arabia.
Viewed from above, the monastery on Siniyah Island’s floor plan suggests early Christian worshippers prayed within a single-aisle church at the monastery. The rooms within the monastery appear to contain a baptismal fountain, as well as an oven that bakes bread and wafers for Communion rites. An altar and a place for the distribution of communion wine were likely to have been found in a nave. A second structure with four rooms is located next to the monastery. It may have been the residence of an abbot, or even a bishop from the early church.
On Thursday the site was visited by Noura bint Muhammad al-Kaabi (the country’s youth and culture minister), as well Sheikh Majid Bin Saud Al Muralla (chairman of Umm al-Quwain’s Tourism and Archaeology Department and the son of the ruler).
The island remains part of the ruling family’s holdings, protecting the land for years to allow the historical sites to be found as much of the UAE has rapidly developed.
The UAE’s Culture Ministry has sponsored the dig in part, which continues at the site. A collection of buildings, which archaeologists think belong to an ancient pre-Islamic village are located just hundreds of metres (yards), from the church.
Elsewhere on the island, piles of tossed-aside clams from pearl hunting make for massive, industrial-sized hills. Nearby also sits a village that the British blew up in 1820 before the region became part of what was known as the Trucial States, the precursor of the UAE. That village’s destructions brought about the creation of the modern-day settlement of Umm al-Quwain on the mainland.
Historians say early churches and monasteries spread along the Persian Gulf to the coasts of present-day Oman and all the way to India. Archaeologist 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 preserve and site of luxury hotels off the coast of Abu Dhabi, near the Saudi border. Similar to the Umm al-Quwain find, it dates back to roughly the same time period.
However, evidence of early life along the Khor al-Beida marshlands in Umm al-Quwain dates as far back as the Neolithic period — suggesting continuous human inhabitance in the area for at least 10,000 years, Power said.
Today, the area near the marshland is more known for the low-cost liquor store at the emirate’s Barracuda Beach Resort. In recent months, authorities have demolished a hulking, Soviet-era cargo plane linked to a Russian gunrunner known as the “Merchant of Death” as it builds a bridge to Siniyah Island for a $675 million real estate development.
Power stated that the development was a catalyst for the discovery of the monastery. He said that the monastery and other sites will be protected and fenced in, but it is not clear what secrets remain under the thin sand layer on the island.
” “It’s an amazing discovery in that it’s hidden historical — it isn’t something that’s well-known,” Power stated.
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