In 1991, an unsuspecting visitor on a trip to Sir Bani Yas Island stumbled upon one of the most significant archaeological finds in the Arabian Gulf.
Today, the remains of a 7th-century monastery and church lie uncovered on the same site where Carolyn Lehmann first spotted shards of pottery inside a llama pen nearly two decades ago. The ruins are the first evidence of Christianity in the pre-Islamic period in the UAE, and the site marks the farthest east a Christian settlement has been found in the Arabian Gulf.
"This is the best-preserved Christian monastic site anywhere in eastern Arabia, and as far as we know, it is the most extensively excavated," said Peter Hellyer, the excavation's project manager and a columnist for The National. "No one else in the Gulf has anything like this."
Under the instruction of Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the UAE, who used Sir Bani Yas Island as a personal retreat, archaeological teams unearthed a multi-building complex probably belonging to the Nestorian Church and dating to about the year 600. Surveys and excavations that continued until 1996 uncovered ornate plaster fragments decorated with crosses, palm leaves and vine scrolls and various pieces of pottery.
The main compound, the monastery, was discovered to have been dominated by a church that was covered inside and out with a fine decorated plaster. In 1994, the excavation team identified 15 rooms and two courtyards on the site and determined the complex included a functional area, with a trough for watering animals on its northern side, and a kitchen that contained remnants of bones and shells.
Other buildings, believed to be single courtyard houses, ringed the outside of the monastery, and researchers found pieces of glass vessels and cisterns near the dwellings.
Other Nestorian churches have been discovered in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, but the Sir Bani Yas site was the first to include a monastic settlement. Archaeological findings also provide evidence of Nestorian adherents in the northeast Arabian peninsula, Mesopotamia (which broadly corresponds to modern-day Iraq) and Iran during the same time.
"There are no names for this place or anyone who lived here," said Dr Joseph Elders, the project's chief archaeological director. "We don't know much, but it is quite clear that this was an important monastery."
Islam came to what is now the UAE in approximately 636 when messengers arrived carrying letters from the Prophet Mohammed. Experts believe the Sir Bani Yas Island settlement was most likely abandoned by 750 when the inhabitants either converted to Islam or moved. With a diminishing population and a lack of recruits, the community might have just faded away.
There is no evidence the settlement was destroyed. The walls of the monastery, church and houses appear to have simply fallen over as a result of weathering or weakening because of rising salt levels in the stonework.
Excavation was hindered by centuries of damage. As the buildings slowly decayed, the ruins were used by transient fishermen and pearl divers as a place to sleep and cook.
Later, the British Navy used one of the buildings on the site for target practice. That same structure was severely damaged by large animals from the island's wildlife collection trampling on it.
Portions of the monastic buildings were bulldozed and enclosed within fences during major dredging, landfill and planting operations on the island between 1971 and 2006.
Fieldwork on the site was closed in 1996 but resumed late last year as part of efforts to bolster tourism on Sir Bani Yas Island, which has a resort and a wildlife preserve.
Future surveys are planned for the next several years, even as tourists will be allowed to visit the site. Researchers hope to uncover more buildings and pottery and a source of water for the settlement. The team has yet to find a cemetery, which would reveal more about the way the community lived.
By next year, the houses will be better preserved and may be on display for tourists.
Mr Elders said the visitor experience will change as the team continues to make new discoveries.
"Now, what we want to do is excavate the entire complex," he said. "It will constantly be a new experience."
* The National