The first Christian archaeological site in the UAE, believed to have been built by the Assyrian Church of the East in 600AD, has been unveiled to the public.
Initially discovered on the 87 square kilometre Sir Bani Yas island in Abu Dhabi during excavations in 1992, 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.
Dr Joseph Elders, the archaeological director who led the initial surveys of the site in the 1990s, told UAE-based newspaper The National that the Assyrian Church of the East was the largest church in the world during that period, with Christianity spreading through the Gulf between 50-350AD.
“Twenty years ago, we had no idea that Christians came this far south and east in the Arabian Gulf.
“This shows that Christianity had penetrated far further than we thought before… We don’t have many monasteries from this period.”
Other Nestorian churches have been discovered in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, but the Sir Bani Yas site is the first to include a monastic settlement.
However, archaeologists have only unearthed one skeleton during their dig.
Dr Elders said it appeared that the whole church may have been built around the body, possibly a holy man or local saint, and may also have been the reason why pilgrims visited the island – with a separate room for visitors to leave gifts.
Archaeologists found 15 rooms and two courtyards within the monastery, including a chapel decorated with plaster crosses, a main settlement room for the monks which also had a niche for holy water and a brazier for cooking, and a ring of residential houses around the settlement.
Artifacts unearthed so far include more than 15 types of pottery, glass vessels, and ceremonial vases and richly decorated plasterwork stucco, which gives evidence of the boat traffic for trade between Basra in Iraq and India.
Tourists may be allowed to visit the site in the near future, with more buildings expected to be uncovered.