UMM AL QUWAIN // It was a windy autumn day in 1987 when Dr Ernie Haerinck first set foot on a sandy, circular mound in the area of Umm Al Quwain known as ed-Dur.
The Belgian archaeologist recalls how on that day the strong wind or “dust devil” was throwing sand in his eyes, almost as if “protecting something”, to distract him away from what he was about to discover.
“I felt it in my leg the minute I stepped on it that here, beneath me, there was something very special buried,” says Dr Haerinck.
When the Belgian team from Ghent University, in cooperation with other European teams and with the support of then Ruler of UAQ Sheikh Rashid bin Ahmad, began to dig, a two-metre-tall structure of about eight metres by eight metres emerged.
It had a protruding plinth, an entrance at its east end and a smaller exit at its west end.
“‘Could it be?’ I thought. ‘Please, let it be what I think it is’,” Dr Haerinck recalls thinking while keeping silent about what the structure, which dated to the 1st century and was made of beachrock and mud, might be until he had further evidence.
That proof came in script found a little more than year later after further excavation.
About two metres away from the north-east corner of the pagan temple – for that is what it was – stood a rectangular plinth made from eight rows of stones, topped with a rectangular stone basin carrying nine lines of Aramaic inscription, mostly damaged, but with one clear word: “Shamash”.
“It made specific reference to the sun god Shamash, close to the Arabic word of Shams, the Sun, giving the first physical proof to the many legends and stories on how they once worshipped the sun in this area,” say Dr Haerinck.
While in south and central Arabia Shams was seen as a goddess, the deity at ed-Dur was most probably male.
Dr Haerinck believes the stone basin, the only one found of its kind, once contained a liquid, possibly water from a nearby well or the blood of animals, as three nearby stone structures are also believed to be sacrificial altars.
Traces of large “ritual fires” made by burning palm wood and branches show this was also practised around the temple and its structures.
“There is nothing like this temple in the entire [Arabian] Gulf area,” says Dr Haerinck, who stayed on as the head of excavations at ed-Dur.
It is the uniqueness of ed-Dur that prompted the UAE to this year submit it to Unesco’s tentative list as a world heritage site.
The case for inclusion on the Unesco website states: “It is a significant temple with unique architectural details built in the first century AD, which stands as reminder of a unique civilisation and worship that ceased to exist, since it was the only temple from the first century AD in the region devoted to worship the ‘Sun God’.
“As well, it was the only temple in the Gulf region for the ‘Sun God’, whose worship was widespread during the first century.”
Overlooking Al Beidha wadi and close to the Arabian Gulf, ed-Dur is surrounded by high sand dunes that protect it from the northern offshore wind that prevails in the region.
The discovery of the inscribed stone basin has just scratched the surface of what once stood at ed-Dur.
Traces of yellow paint suggest the temple was once decorated, while its exterior walls are formed of ashlar or cut masonry, using alternating squares and rectangles with a raised central panel.
A small, rectangular, slanted opening in the northern wall remains a mystery. One theory is that it may have served as an “oracle” window, a connection between the priest inside and the people outside.
A bronze lamp with a crescent moon-shaped handle, a Roman import, was found stuck in the wall to the left of the channel.
“I don’t think people went inside the temple,” Dr Haerinck says. “It was more likely that they visited the religious figure inside via this tiny window and perhaps asked for blessing and made offerings that way.”
Another interesting find is a collection of cobblestones, known as “baetyls” or “ansab” in Arabic, found standing outside and inside the temple.
“In pre-islamic rituals, it was said that people who couldn’t build a temple or idol would erect a stone, called a baetyl, in front of the sacred house or temple and then circumambulate the temple,” Dr Haerinck said. “Or perhaps pilgrims to the temple took away these stones after performing rituals at the site.”
He was basing the ideas on observations by the 10th century historian Hisham ibn Al Kalbi in a 1952 translation of his book Kitab al Asnam (Book of Idols).
So far, more than 2000 artefacts have been found at the ed-Dur site, including coins, incense burners, seashells, statues of mystical griffin-like creatures and a bronze bell.
Among the jewellery found is a camelian ring carved with the Greek goddess Athena in full battle dress.
The area also has more than 20,000 graves.
“Based on the diversity of items found at the site, such as Roman glass jars in the shape of grapes, fish and a date, south Iraq pottery and intricate pieces from Arabia, India, Iran and beyond, it shows that the world met at ed-Dur,” says Sheikh Khalid bin Humaid Al Mualla, the general manager of the Department of Archaeology and Heritage of UAQ and a member of the emirate’s Ruling Family.
“It must have been a bustling trade port … as it is one of the few settlements from that period discovered on this side of the Arabian Peninsula.”
Sheikh Khalid points out ed-Dur’s connection to a settlement in Meliha, Sharjah.
“Ed-Dur may have been the food supplier via marine transport, while Meliha was concerned with agricultural products that were not available in ed-Dur,” he said.
“These transactions led to the existence of a unified economy with its own locally made currency.”
One of the discoveries that most fascinates Sheikh Khalid is a statue of an eagle or falcon with a missing head, which is standing on the head of a horned bull, which in turn represents the “Moon God”.
“There are layers of stories and legends behind each of the artefacts found,” he says.
With a new dig uncovering fresh objects and stories, Sheikh Khalid believes the ed-Dur site still hides “many mysteries”.
“The file is expected to be officially presented to Unesco in 2016,” Sheikh Khalid said.
“We will need all this time to prepare and reconstruct the area for it to become a proper world heritage site.”
Visitors to his office in the UAQ museum tend to pause, either from surprise, curiosity or shock, at an enlarged photo of one of the graves from ed-Dur.
“Yes, it is quite something, isn’t it?” says Sheikh Khalid.
The image shows the skeleton of a 10-year-old girl, placed in a foetal-like position with knees bent and the arms resting against the chest.
She has a bronze torque around her neck, an anklet and bracelet of bronze and a single golden earring. A bowl had been placed near her face, which most probably at one time carried water.
“Her grave was close to a big grave, one we believe belonged to a chief of the tribe who may have actually been a woman,” says Dr Haerinck.
He calls this grave “the sheikha’s grave”, and it is surrounded by 18 smaller graves.
While there is no consistent pattern, most of the skeletons faced away from the temple, in a north-south direction. The remains of several sacrificed camelids were also found with the burials.
Typically, the graves contained objects the deceased was thought to have needed in the afterlife, such as pottery, jewellery, spearheads and swords.
Some of the more unusual items dug up include what look like complete sets for drinking wine, including stirrers and sieves, while carved ivory and plaques carry images of eagles, lions and naked women.
“They could have been some kind of charm they wore for fertility. We just don’t have enough information at this point,” says Dr Haerinck.
“There is so much wealth of treasures and history in ed-Dur. It is a lifetime of discovering and detective work.”