Christianity in the Pre-Islamic UAE

Collapsed and hidden under layers of soft creamy sand, the remains of a Nestorian church, monastery, and various courtyard houses patiently lay hidden for centuries on the eastern shore of Sir Bani Yas island, 170 km west of the city of Abu Dhabi. Since its discovery in the early 1990s, another church has been found on Marawah island, and together they form the only evidence, to date, of Christianity in the UAE during the pre-Islamic and early Islamic eras.

Located on the part of the island known as Al Khor, it lies next to a sheltered lagoon, where boats would have found a good landing spot, and close to an area where sweet water wells were once present. Dredging, landfill and tree planting operations that were undertaken after 1971 resulted in extensive surface disturbance of the archaeological site, and as archaeological sites are fragile and easily damaged by wind, rain, and sun, the site was covered up again after initial excavations during four roughly month-long seasons from 1993-1996.

Today, excavation work has been resumed and a large roof structure was built to provide a measure of protection, as well as fences and walkways. There is talk of an information building that is planned for the site, and that the artefacts that were found on the site will be displayed in the new Sheikh Zayed Museum that is slated to open in Abu Dhabi in 2016.

The Nestorian province of Bet Qatraye, sometimes also called ‘The Isles’, included Bahrain, Kuwait, eastern Saudi Arabia, as well as Qatar, while the province of Bet Mazuniye included the modern-day Sultanate of Oman, as well as the territory now known as the United Arab Emirates. It is not certain in which of these provinces Sir Bani Yas and Marawah islands would have fallen, as they are located in the area where the division of these two provinces would have been.

No name could yet been linked to the settlement on Sir Bani Yas, but records show that in 676 AD bishops of the Nestorian church attended a council on the island of Darin (Tarut), off the Saudi Arabian coast, in which reference is made of them visiting various Nestorian communities on unspecified islands in the Gulf, where a decline of its members and conversions to Islam were reported. This more or less matches the time frame in which the site on Sir Bani Yas island was abandoned, according to carbon dating, which also coincides with the spread of Islam in the region.

The high technical and artistic standard of the stucco decorations that were found, suggest that the settlement on Sir Bani Yas was an important one. The walls and floors of the monastery church, as well as the other buildings, were covered in a fine plaster finish that was richly decorated, combining Christian (both Latin and Greek crosses), Classical Roman (geometric designs and vine scrolls), as well as Sasanian (floral designs and palmettes) motifs. Stylistically these stucco decorations can be dated to the 6th – 7th centuries. A date that is supported by the pottery and glass fragments that were found, as well as carbon dating from charcoal from a fireplace within the monastery complex, which was sealed off by a fallen wall.

The building materials that were used in the courtyard houses, the monastery complex, and the church are identical, namely sandstone, gypsum plaster, and mud as wall-bonding and roof-proofing agent. Here, as is the case with all buildings built from traditional materials in the Gulf, the width of the rooms were not more than 2.7 metres, since mangrove poles or date-palm roofing beams were limited to this width. Despite the spartan lifestyle of the monks, the buildings were of a uniformly high standard. The rooms were clean of domestic rubbish and finds, although a number of artefacts that were found, speak of a rich community. In one of the houses high quality imported glass vessels were found that suggested domestic instead of liturgical use. Excavations of the kitchen area suggests their diet included domesticated sheep and goats, dugongs, dolphins, marine turtles, as well as a wide variety of fish and crabs.

Their is no proof, but it is certainly possible that the monastic communities could have been involved in the profitable pearling trade. Sir Bani Yas and Marawah islands both lie close to the richest pearling banks in the Southern Gulf, and it has been noted that the Nestorian Catholicos Mar Ezekiel undertook a trip to the coastal and presumably island churches of the Gulf, while carrying out a survey of the pearl fisheries for the Sasanian emperor in the late 6th century.

There is still much to explore and discover about the site, including the location of a cemetery. The only body, that has been found, is that of an adult male. It was found buried adjacent to the platform just outside of the eastern gate of the church. Tree planting destroyed much of the burial site, but it could be established that the body was buried on its back with its head at the west end of the grave, typical of Christian burials. What is of interest is the orientation of the grave, which is on an east-west axis, exactly down the middle of the church, indicating that the person who was buried here must have been important. Who it was, is anyone’s guess.

There is evidence of squatter occupations, such as fires and debris, which presumably did not occur too long after the complex was abandoned. They could well have been transient fishermen and pearl divers using the crumbling buildings as temporary places to shelter and cook.

Once abandoned though, neglect, the progression of time and the harsh weather conditions took care of the gradual disintegration of the site. The walls of the church, monastery and houses crumbled and fell over due to rising salt levels in the stonework, which weakened the structure. It appears that the monastic community simply left, and with them, Christianity. One can only speculate as to the relationship between the monastic community and the coastal fishing and pearling communities, but surveys of both Sir Bani Yas and Marawah island have failed to yield any evidence of settled, non-monastic communities on them.

Apart from the two sites in the UAE, Christian sites have been identified in the Gulf area on Failaka and Akaz, two islands off Kuwait, and Jubail and Jebel Berri on the Gulf coast of Saudi Arabia. There are also reports of at least one, but a possible two church sites in Qatar. Of interest is the oral tradition of the Manasir, one of the Bedu tribes of Abu Dhabi, that speak of them being Christian before the coming of Islam.

Interested in visiting the site?  The only way to visit the site is to take a Culture & History Tour (AED 235 without taxes) offered by Anantara Resorts on Sir Bani Yas Island.

Further reading in the form of research papers can be found on the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey’s web page.