UAE’s oldest mosque is 150 years younger

Scientific dating on blocks of coral used in construction reveals new data

Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News Archives
Bidiya Mosque, which till now was believed to date to the 1400s, now has a more probable timeframe — the year 1599.
Gulf News

Fujairah: Bidiya Mosque in Fujairah, the UAE’s oldest, was built more than 150 years later than was originally thought, thanks to a scientific dating performed on the blocks of coral used in its construction.

The mosque, which till now was believed to date to the 1400s, now has a more probable timeframe — the year 1599.

The new dating was part of a project undertaken by geochemist Dr Julie Retrum from the Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi, and archaeologist Dr Michele Ziolkowski. The project was commissioned by Shaikh Mohammad Bin Hamad Bin Mohammad Al Sharqi, Crown Prince of Fujairah. The study investigated the mosque as well as of two old coastal watchtowers at Rul Dibba and Rul Dhadnah by collecting samples of coral blocks used in their construction.

“This project has made an important contribution to knowledge of Fujairah’s history and heritage,” Shaikh Mohammad told WAM. “I am delighted with its results. It emphasises, once again, the value of using the latest scientific techniques for research not just into our present and future, but also into our past.”

Many of the historic and archaeological sites in Fujairah’s East Coast were built using coral stone, a locally abundant building material collected along the coast. When corals are alive, trace amounts of uranium and other materials from the seawater are preserved in their hard ‘skeleton.’ The surviving skeleton from dead coral then forms the ‘farush’ stone used in buildings.

The coral samples were sent to the University of Minnesota in the US, where they were dated using a technique known as uranium-thorium radiometric dating. This provided new information about their dates of construction.

For the Bidiya mosque, the research has given a clearer understanding of its date of construction. During archaeological excavations in 1997 and 1998 led by Dr Ziolkowski, several dates obtained through radiocarbon dating of charcoal fragments suggested that it was built between 1450-1655. Fragments of pottery and porcelain excavated at the site have also been dated to the 16th century.

Uranium-thorium radiometric dating of two of the coral blocks from the mosque also fall within the 16th century, 1530, plus or minus 71 years, and 1599, plus or minus nine years.

Retrum and Ziolkowski suggest that the mosque was probably built by 1599, the more clearly defined date. At this time, the Portuguese controlled trade in the Arabian Sea. Historical archives in Portugal refer to the presence of a fort in Bidiya at this time.

“This research has helped to throw new light on the ages of some of Fujairah’s historic buildings,” Ziolkowski said. “It also provides evidence of the longevity of this form of construction, stretching back a thousand years.”

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