x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Sir Bani Yas island shows the region's religious diversity

The Christian monastery on Sir Bani Yas island is, inarguably, one of the most important archaeological sites yet identified in the Emirates and in the whole of the southern Arabian Gulf.

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of taking part in the formal unveiling of the remains of a 7th century Christian monastery on Abu Dhabi's western island of Sir Bani Yas. It is, inarguably, one of the most important archaeological sites yet identified in the Emirates and in the whole of the southern Arabian Gulf.

The site was first identified during work on the island undertaken by the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey (Adias), in the early to mid-1990s at the request of Sheikh Zayed. As Adias's director, I was tasked with bringing out a team of archaeologists to investigate the area.

In a few seasons, the team was able to prove that a group of sand-covered, collapsed buildings surrounded by an extensive scatter of pottery fragments, were the remains of a monastery that had probably been founded around 600 AD. Although there are plenty of literary references to the presence of Christianity in the southern Gulf at this time before the era of Prophet Mohammed, the site was then - and remains - the only physical evidence discovered anywhere in the UAE, Qatar and Oman.

The original discoveries prompted some local press publicity, supplemented by papers in academic journals and references in books about the region's archaeology, but there was nothing that visitors could actually go and see. Archaeological sites are very fragile. If left unprotected, they are rapidly damaged by wind, sun and rain, and so, when excavations ceased nearly 15 years ago, the buildings were covered up again to preserve them for posterity.

Now, things have changed. Sir Bani Yas is being re-opened as a tourist destination as part of the Desert Islands project being managed by the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC). Guests at the island's hotel have the option to engage in a growing variety of activities, including the opportunity to see some of the impressive collection of endangered wildlife built up over many years by Sheikh Zayed. Eighteen months ago, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed directed that work at the monastery should be resumed so that it, too, could be opened up for public viewing as part of the overall islands "experience".

Getting it ready has been a difficult task. The central part of the monastery complex, the church itself and some adjacent buildings, needed to be uncovered again. Once this was done, it was necessary to engage in a detailed programme of careful conservation to ensure that the buildings are properly protected from the elements - and that is a process of care and maintenance that will continue for years to come.

New discoveries have been made - a couple of new buildings, for example - and these too will require detailed study and conservation. Proper access routes have had to be prepared so that visitors can see the site clearly, but do not walk over it and damage it.

When instructing TDIC to resume work at the monastery, Sheikh Mohammed insisted that this should be done in accordance with top-quality international standards. The archaeological director, Joseph Elders, was not only the field director of the original team that worked on the site but, for the last decade, has also been the chief archaeologist of the Church of England, responsible for several thousand churches in England. He and his field team, including both archaeologists and experts in building conservation, have ensured that the work does meet international standards, which he himself helped to draw up.

There is already much for visitors to see. In the future, further excavations will uncover more of the site while a dedicated display building is being planned that will provide information about the site, the people who lived there and the trade and other relations that they maintained throughout the Gulf and beyond. There is nothing else like it in eastern Arabia. Coupled with the other attractions that Sir Bani Yas has to offer, including its wildlife and various outdoor activities, it makes the island a resort destination without parallel in the region.

Important though the monastery is in itself, it is much more than just an archaeological site. The late Sheikh Zayed, who personally funded all of the work in the 1990s and took a great interest in the results, saw it as being an intrinsic and valuable part of the history of the Emirates, evidence of the presence of monotheism in this part of Arabia before Prophet Mohammed. His belief in its significance was underpinned by his firm belief in the importance of religious tolerance and dialogue between faiths and civilisations, something which is a fundamental part of the country's political philosophy.

Evidence of that can be found elsewhere too, of course. One example is the many churches to be found throughout the country, often built on land donated by the country's rulers. Another indication of the UAE's commitment to religious dialogue was provided a couple of years ago when Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed joined the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in attending Christmas Eve service in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It was the first time that a senior official from the Gulf had ever been present.

It is my hope that the Sir Bani Yas monastery will become a popular destination for visitors, not just from outside the country but from inside, too. In particular, I hope that university and school students will be among the visitors, since it is in them that knowledge of the country's heritage most needs to be implanted for the future. As for me, I am delighted that, working with TDIC, I again have the opportunity to be involved in the study of a site that is such an important part of this country's history.


Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the heritage and culture of the UAE