x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Unearthing an ancient treasure trove

Thirty-six pre-Islamic ruins discovered on Sir Bani Yas island will be transformed into a major tourist attraction.

Britain's Prince Charles, front, the archaeologist Dr Geoffrey King and Ahmed Saeed Al Badi, former UAE minister of health, far right, view one of the courtyard villas during a visit to the excavation site on Sir Bani Yas island in 1993.
Britain's Prince Charles, front, the archaeologist Dr Geoffrey King and Ahmed Saeed Al Badi, former UAE minister of health, far right, view one of the courtyard villas during a visit to the excavation site on Sir Bani Yas island in 1993.

To the untrained eye they may look like rubble. But the ruins of a monastery and church discovered in Abu Dhabi tell a fascinating tale about a little-known period in the region's history. When the foundations were built, the Roman empire had just come to an end, Christianity was sweeping the world and Islam had not yet been born. Now, 1,600 years later, the ruins - unearthed on Sir Bani Yas island in the 1990s - are to be resurrected and turned into a tourist attraction. The monastery and church, survivors of a Nestorian Christian period, are just two of 36 archaeological troves on the island. Others include the remains of villas with stucco decorations, pottery and basic furnishings, providing a glimpse into life in pre-Islam times. "This particular time period is very interesting as we have a real overlap of documentation and archaeology which throws up some fascinating contradictions," said Mark Beech, an archaeologist from the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach). Christianity persisted in the Gulf until at least the late 9th century, he said. "In 1991 we first discovered ruins from that period on Sir Bani Yas. "Some sites are even older, dating back to the late Stone Age and neolithic times and there is one Bronze Age site. "Now we are thinking about how to present these sites to people in the future. When we completed our work in the 1990s, we used a geotextile material to preserve the remains and covered them with sand. "The church and monastery are completely buried again but one of the things we are discussing is how to show these sites while protecting them. In the next few years you will be able to visit them on the island." The church and monastery are thought to date to the 7th century but could even have roots as far back as the 4th century. Pottery relating to the 8th century has been subjected to extensive scientific tests and shed light on the diet of residents from the period. Archaeologists discovered the bones of fish such as sharks, rays and hammour in the bottom of pots as well as date juice and remains of sheep and goats. Only the bones of dugongs, now an endangered species, show a marked contrast to the present-day diet in the region. "People were eating very much the same as they do today. They had a varied diet and quite nice living conditions," Dr Beech said. The ruins were first discovered by Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey, which was replaced by Adach. The first phase of the excavations will involve the unearthing of an Islamic village called al Zahir by next year. The second stage, uncovering the church, monastery and villas, which have clearly marked courtyards, kitchens and even ovens, will be opened to the public the following year. The plans were announced yesterday at the conference New Perspectives on Recording UAE History, staged by the Center for Documentation and Research in Abu Dhabi. The movement to preserve the nation's past was begun by Sheikh Zayed in 1968 after he discovered there was no paper trail of significant historical or political documents anywhere in the UAE. He famously said: "A nation with no past has no present or future", and he embarked on a mission to recoup any official paperwork relating to the country to help future generations understand its roots. The conference at the centre's Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Auditorium, which will end tomorrow and is open to the public, is the culmination of an effort stretching back four decades to piece together the past. Prof Hans-Peter Uerpmann, a professor of archaeology at Tübingen University and an expert on the UAE's neolithic period, said the nation's accelerated development could endanger historical sites. "I believe many ruins have been destroyed as a result of development, especially on the coast where most of the ancient settlements were," he said. "There is a lot of destruction being caused by building. Every road that is built destroys many sites. "It is a double-edged sword as excavation for building sites uncovers a lot of these sites in the first place but many developers do not care and a lot of the nation's history is being lost as a result. "We need more antiquities laws to protect these sites when they are found and government support. It is so important to know about the past." Prof Uerpmann, who has traced the roots of the fishing and herding industry in the region, said little changed in methods over 4,000 years, until oil was discovered. "From an archaeology and development point of view, our methods have improved steeply in the last 20 years thanks to science and things like radiocarbon dating." Christian Velde, the resident archaeologist at the Ras al Khaimah Department of Antiquities and Museums, said: "Life in the UAE and the way people survived in a difficult environment did not change very much over 4,000 years. They lived near water, where they were concentrated in settlements and worked 10 times harder to survive than any other country because of the climate." He said globalisation and development had drastically changed life in the UAE, making water more accessible and creating cities in the desert. tyaqoob@thenational.ae