Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 July 2019

The unique temple of ed-Dur must not be lost to the desert sands again

Across the UAE, conservation programmes are preserving the nation's history for generations to come

The pre-Islamic temple in ed-Dur, one of the largest archaeological sites in the UAE. Reem Mohammed/The National
The pre-Islamic temple in ed-Dur, one of the largest archaeological sites in the UAE. Reem Mohammed/The National

A couple of weeks ago, the early Christian church and monastery on Sir Bani Yas was re-opened to the public. In this Year of Tolerance, it provides a reminder both of the spirit of peaceful interfaith dialogue that characterises the country today, and of the diversity of religions that were present in its past.

The reopening followed several years of work by Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism, involving both careful conservation of the site and the erection of a shelter over the exposed building. Going forward, there will be an assessment of the need for further conservation on a continuing basis.

In a harsh and unforgiving climate, such as that of the UAE, such measures are essential, if certain types of building are to be properly protected.

Those largely made of mud brick or those built of stone and covered with plaster, for example, quickly deteriorate. During winter rains, mud brick turns into, quite simply, mud, while plaster just crumbles away.

Fortunately, the buildings of the Sir Bani Yas monastery were, for the most part, covered over again after they were excavated, in order to protect them. Sadly, over the years, many of the UAE’s key archaeological sites have not been afforded similar care, such as mud brick structures in Al Ain, dating back 3,000 years or more. The Department of Culture and Tourism is now working to tackle the results of decades of neglect, but it is a hugely challenging task.

Throughout the country, the benefits of a programme of conservation dedicated in recent years to the preservation of old buildings and archaeological sites are widely visible. The loss of our historical and architectural heritage has been halted, for the most part.

We can enjoy the old buildings that have been preserved and restored in downtown Sharjah, or adjacent to Dubai Creek. Great fortresses, such as Fujairah Castle, are no longer ruins. Abu Dhabi’s Qasr Al Hosn has benefited from an extensive refurbishment and rehabilitation. The whole village of Jazirat Al Hamra in Ras Al Khaimah is no longer a sad scene of urban decay.

The Temple of Shamash, as it stands today
The Temple of Shamash, as it stands today

When there is so much that is positive to report about the UAE’s heritage and history, I am deeply disappointed to feel that I must draw attention to the neglect of a 2,000-year-old building that is unique in terms of our history and that of the Arabian peninsula as a whole.

The site is the temple of Shamash, the pre-Islamic sun god, in the old town of ed-Dur in Umm Al Quwain.

The temple was excavated 30 years ago by a team from the University of Ghent in Belgium, led by a friend of mine, the late Professor Ernie Haerinck. I visited the site during the excavations, sharing in the excitement and being able to photograph the temple as it was when it re-emerged from under the sands.

Sadly, unlike the Sir Bani Yas church, the ed-Dur temple was not reburied and, over the years that followed, suffered serious damage from sun, wind and rain.

I was, therefore, delighted when I heard in 2016 that a programme of conservation was being undertaken by the Umm Al Quwain Department of Tourism and Antiquities, in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development and the regional office of UN-affiliated International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property.

The objective, according to media reports at the time, was “to protect the temple from further deterioration and restore it to the state in which it was discovered”, with one official being quoted as saying: “We are trying to reproduce the temple as it was found in the 1980s.”

Last weekend, a friend sent me a photograph he had just taken of the temple. It was recognisable as the building I first saw 30 years ago, but so much was missing. The delicate plaster motifs around the doorway were not there. Indeed, much of the plaster itself was no longer present, with the stone blocks exposed. It was certainly not “as it was found”.

I have no images of the building as it was at the end of the 2016 conservation work, but it would appear, once again, to be on a path towards deterioration. There is, moreover, no cover to protect it from the elements – something that was, rightly, considered to be essential at Sir Bani Yas.

The ed-Dur temple, like the Sir Bani Yas church, is evidence of the country’s diverse religious history. There is nothing else like it in Arabia. Whatever the good intentions of those who carried out the 2016 work at the site, it is clear that the temple is today once again under serious threat.

May we hope that, in this Year of Tolerance, it is, finally, given the attention that it so richly deserves?

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture

Updated: June 24, 2019 01:51 PM

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