The ancient Christian monastery found off the coast of the

The ancient Christian monastery found off the coast of the United Arab Emirates may be 1,400 years old and predate Islam

An ancient Christian monastery that may predate the spread of Islam to the Arabian Peninsula has been discovered on an island off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, officials said Thursday.

The monastery on the island of Siniyah, part of the sand dune sheikdom of Umm al-Quwain, sheds new light on the history of early Christianity along the Persian Gulf coast. It’s the second monastery of its kind in the Emirates, dating back as much as 1,400 years – long before its desert expanses spawned a thriving oil industry that led to a unified nation that was home to the skyscrapers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

The two monasteries were lost to the sands of time as scholars believe Christians slowly converted to Islam as the faith grew in importance in the region.

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

Emirates old Christians

This March 14, 2022 handout photo from the Department of Archeology and Tourism of Umm al-Quwain shows an ancient Christian monastery uncovered on the island of Siniyah in Umm al-Quwain, United Arab Emirates. Nasser Muhsen Bin Tooq/Umm al-Quwain Archeology and Tourism Department via AP

The UAE is now a “melting pot of nations” for Timothy Power, Associate Professor of Archeology at the University of the United Arab Emirates, who helped investigate the newly discovered monastery.

“The fact that something similar happened here 1,000 years ago is truly remarkable, and this is a story that deserves to be told,” he said.

The monastery is located on the island of Siniyah, which protects the Khor al-Beida swamp area in Umm al-Quwain, an emirate some 30 miles north-east of Dubai along the Persian Gulf coast. The island has a series of sandbars that extend from it like crooked fingers. On one, in the northeast of the island, archaeologists discovered the monastery.

Carbon dating of specimens found at the founding 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.

Viewed from above, the plan of the monastery on the island of Siniyah suggests that early Christian believers prayed in a single-nave church of the monastery. Interiors appear to contain a baptismal font as well as an oven for baking bread or waffles for communion rites. A nave probably also contained an altar and an installation for communion wine.

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

On Thursday, the site was visited by Noura bint Mohammed al-Kaabi, the country’s culture and youth minister, as well as Sheikh Majid bin Saud Al Mualla, the chairman of Umm al-Quwain’s tourism and archeology department and a son of the emirate’s ruler .

The island remains part of the ruling family’s possessions, who protect the island for years so that the historical sites can be found.

The UAE Ministry of Culture partially sponsored the excavation, which is continuing on site. Just hundreds of meters from the church is a cluster of buildings that archaeologists believe belong to a pre-Islamic village.

Elsewhere on the island, heaps of shells discarded during pearl hunting form huge mounds of industrial size. There is also a village nearby that the British blew up in 1820 before the region became part of the so-called Trucial States, the precursor to the United Arab Emirates. The destruction of this village led to the establishment of what is now the mainland settlement of Umm al-Quwain.

Historians say that early churches and monasteries spread along the Persian Gulf to the coasts 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 the coast of Abu Dhabi, near the Saudi border. It is also from the same period as the new find at Umm al-Quwain.

However, evidence of early life along the Khor al-Beida wetlands 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 marshland is better known for the discount liquor store at the emirate’s Barracuda Beach Resort. In recent months, authorities have demolished a giant Soviet-era cargo plane linked to a Russian arms smuggler known as the “Merchant of Death” as it builds a bridge to Siniyah Island for a $675 million real estate development.

Power said the development spurred archaeological work that discovered the monastery. This site and others will be fenced off and protected, he said, although it remains unclear what other mysteries of the past lie hidden just beneath a thin layer of sand on the island.

“It’s a really intriguing discovery because in a way it’s a hidden story — it’s not something that’s widely known,” Power said.

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