As ancient pagan gods go, Shamash was one of the nicer ones. While others ruthlessly demanded blood sacrifices, sometimes animal, occasionally human, this Mesopotamian deity was associated with truth, justice and healing.
From Shamash’s name we get the Arabic word Shams, or the Sun. With his light, Shamash was said to banish darkness and evil.
The deity appears in the 4,000-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh: “May Shamash give you your heart’s desire, may he let you see with your eyes the thing accomplished which your lips have spoken; may he open a path for you where it is blocked, and a road for your feet to tread.”
Stories of Shamash in pre-Islamic Arabia have been passed down the ages through poetry and oral history, but with no physical evidence of worship.
Then a rectangular stone basin was discovered in Umm Al Quwain. It had nine lines of Aramaic inscription, mostly damaged, but with one clear word: “Shamash”.
“It is the only temple discovered in Arabia dedicated to the sun god,” says Alyaa Al Ghufly, director of archaeology and heritage in UAQ.
Discovered in the late 1980s and built from mud and beach rocks, the temple is only part of the story of the Ed Dur civilisation of UAQ, where an archaeological excavation of about four kilometres makes it one of the UAE’s largest.
“The wealth of this civilisation and its importance are revealed through the many advanced artefacts found, and how these ancient people mastered not just trade, fishing, farming and governance, they were also cultural and artistic,” says Mrs Al Ghufly, displaying a two-centimetre, intricately designed glass figurine of a turtle.
Ed Dur is on the coast of UAQ, overlooking the shallow lagoon of Al Bayadha creek.
It flourished from the late first century BC to the first century AD. Archaeological evidence shows similarities between relics found at Ed Dur and those in Mleiha, Sharjah that lies inland to the south-east of the port.
Understanding how people lived then and exploring the close relationship between the port and the internal trade centre that reached an apex of prosperity, is part of latest Sharjah exhibition Ed Dur: Glimpse into Civilisation. It is a collaboration between Sharjah Museums Department and the Department of Archaeology and Heritage in UAQ.
With the exhibition going on at the Sharjah Archaeology Museum until March, 26, it features 79 artefacts – 69 from the UAQ museum and 10 from Sharjah Archaeology Museum.
The exhibition traces the historic relationship between the major inland settlement of Mleiha and the coastal port of Ed Dur, and how it contributed to the way the region evolved as a centre of transport and commerce, linking East and West.
“It is believed that Ed Dur was established by a community that traded externally via land and sea routes. Ed Dur could be the port of Omana mentioned in ancient references,” says Nasir Al Darmaki, Sharjah museum curator.
“Perhaps the reason behind the prosperity of the port lies in its geographical position and relations with distant lands connected by sea, and through desert dwellers who brought goods by camel caravans overland for export, importing foreign goods in return.
“Reviewing the quantities of foreign goods discovered in both Ed Dur and Mleiha helps shed light on the wealth of the local population.
“Was the closeness of this vital port to the pearl fisheries that Pliny, the Roman, referred to as ‘the most perfect and exquisite pearls of all others be they that are got about Arabia’ the reason for Omana or Ed Dur’s wealth?”
More than 2,000 artefacts have been found at the Ed Dur site so far, including coins, incense burners, seashells, statues of mystical griffin-like creatures and a bronze bell, and jewellery including a carnelian ring carved with the Greek goddess Athena in full battle dress.
“Excavations found human settlements that date back to the Neolithic period,” says Mr Al Darmaki.
“Evidence from the Bronze and Iron Ages was also found. Yet the major settlement era was that which preceded the rise of Islam.”
The area also has more than 20,000 graves. Among the burial items found was a set of ancient glass utensils, mostly of Roman origin.
In a tomb, iron swords, spearheads, daggers, and tools including sieves, bowls and scoops belonging to the eastern Mediterranean style were found.
One of the featured figures on display at the exhibition is a limestone eagle statue from the first century AD, with a head of an ox carved on its pedestal.
“Its design is similar to the heads of oxen found in the temples of ancient Yemen,” Mr Al Darmaki says. “The similarities suggest both communities used these symbols as part of religious rituals.
“The ox usually symbolises the moon deity for the Arabs of the south while the eagle symbolises the sun deity or the Northern ‘Shamash’.”
Another beautiful find is a bronze spout from the first century AD, a metal bowl with animal-shaped spouts attached to the rims. These bowls were characteristic of eastern Arabia about the start of the Christian era.
Mr Al Darmaki says horses were the most common animal depicted, illustrating their growing importance as a symbol of wealth, status and military power.
One mystery is silver Tetra drachma coins, dating to the first century AD.
“We do not know who used these currencies, perhaps both the inhabitants and merchants,” says Mr Al Darmaki.
“Coins of this period with a Greek or Alexandrian influence were minted locally at Mleiha as both moulds and coins have been found.
“The weight, size, forms and inscriptions of these coins differ. However, most carry a picture of the head of Hercules wearing the head and mane of a lion.
“The coins found at Ed Dur feature a wart on his cheek. The other side of the coin depicts Zeus sitting on his throne, with his left hand holding a sceptre and his extended right arm supporting an eagle. In some later versions, the eagle was replaced by a horse.”
The earliest coins from the Arabian Peninsula were influenced first by ancient Athens and then by Alexander the Great, as with those found in Yemen from the fourth century BC.
Most coins found at Ed Dur date between 100BC to 100AD.
A name inscribed on the coins in Aramaic, Abi-el, has left experts wondering. It is unknown who the name refers to – a regional ruler or perhaps a deity?
Dr Ernie Haerinck, an archaeologist who worked on the site, earlier speculated that perhaps Ed Dur was a kingdom run by a woman.
“The coins minted locally have a name added to them in Aramaic. It is ‘Abi-el’, the daughter of so and so,” says the Belgian.
Among the items on display from Mleiha is a small human-like bronze figurine from 250 to 150BC. The site is rich in bronze figurines.
“A small statue of a man holding a bird is one of the finest examples,” says Mr Al Darmaki. “The kilt offers clues as to the male dress of the period.
“The top part was found by accident in the area of an ancient cemetery, while the legs were recovered separately seven years later. The identity and purpose of the figure remain unknown, although its presence in a graveyard implies a dedicatory or other religious purpose.”
Excavations of archaeological sites in UAQ began in 1973, by an Iraqi team, followed by several international teams. The discoveries played an important role in documenting much of what is known about the UAE’s ancient past and the lives of its inhabitants over the past 7,000 years.
“The great increase of incense, perfumes and spices traded during the last millennium BC helped make the Arabian Peninsula an important crossing point for trade between East and West,” he says.
And there is more good news for those interested in Ed Dur.
“Restoration of the temple will be completed within two months, starting in December, with help from an international team,” says Ms Al Ghufly.
“This will allow the site to finally open to the general public by next year.
“Other structures will also be restored so the area will be like an open museum. Also during the restoration, it is open for students seeking hands-on experience.”
Running alongside the exhibition will be a series of monthly workshops aimed at children and families, beginning this month.
Visitors will be able to print their favourite hunting tools on ceramics or create their own archaeological piece inspired by the exhibition.
“I am proud to be from UAQ, which has such a wealthy, important and deep past,” says Ms Al Ghufly.
For further information, visit sharjahmuseums.ae or call Sharjah Archaeology Museum at +971 6566 5466.