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Christian monastery possibly from before Islam discovered in UAE


SINIYAH ISLAND, United Arab Emirates – An ancient Christian monastery possibly dating to years before the spread of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula has been discovered on an island off the United Arab Emirates, officials said Thursday.

Siniyah Island Monastery, part of the sheikh sand dunes of Umm al-Quwain, sheds new light on the history of early Christianity along the shores of the Persian Gulf. It is the second such monastery discovered in the Emirates, dating back 1,400 years, long before its desert expanses gave rise to a thriving oil industry that led to a unified nation home to the towers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Both monasteries became lost in history in time, as scholars believe that Christians slowly converted to Islam as this faith became more widespread in the region.

Today, Christians remain a minority across the Middle East, although Pope Francis arrived in neighboring Bahrain on Thursday to promote interfaith dialogue with Muslim leaders.

For Timothy Power, an associate professor of archeology at UAE University who helped investigate the newly discovered monastery, the UAE is now a “melting pot of nations”.

“The fact that something similar happened here 1,000 years ago is truly remarkable and it’s a story worth telling,” he said.

The monastery is located on the island of Siniyah, which protects the Khor al-Beida marshes in Umm al-Quwain, an emirate about 50 kilometers (30 miles) northeast of Dubai along the Gulf Coast Persian. The island has a series of sandbars sticking out like twisted fingers. On one, in the northeast of the island, archaeologists discovered the monastery.

Carbon dating of samples found in the foundation of the monastery dates between 534 and 656. The prophet of Islam Muhammad was born around 570 and died in 632 after conquering Mecca in present-day Saudi Arabia.

Seen from above, the floor plan of the monastery on the island of Siniyah suggests that early Christian worshipers prayed in a single nave church at the monastery. The rooms inside appear to contain baptismal fonts, as well as an oven for baking bread or wafers for communion rites. A nave also probably housed an altar and an installation for communion wine.

Next to the monastery is a second building with four rooms, probably around a courtyard – possibly the house of an abbot or even a bishop in the early church.

Historians say that the first churches and monasteries spread along the Persian Gulf to the shores of present-day Oman and as far as India. Archaeologists have found other similar churches and monasteries in Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

In the early 1990s, archaeologists discovered the first Christian monastery in the United Arab Emirates, on Sir Bani Yas Island, now a nature reserve and site of luxury hotels off Abu Dhabi, near the Saudi border. It also dates back to the same period as the new discovery at Umm al-Quwain.

However, evidence of early life along the Khor al-Beida marshes in Umm al-Quwain dates back to the Neolithic period – suggesting continuous human occupation in the area for at least 10,000 years, Power said.

Today, the area near the swamp is best known for the emirate’s Barracuda Beach Resort low-cost liquor store. In recent months, authorities have taken down a hulking Soviet-era cargo plane linked to a Russian gunman known as the ‘Death Merchant’ as it built a bridge to Siniyah Island for a development real estate of $675 million.

Power said the development spurred archaeological work that uncovered the monastery. This site and others will be fenced and protected, he said.

“It’s a really fascinating find because in some ways it’s a hidden story – it’s not something widely known,” Power said.

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