Abu Dhabi: The oldest Christian site discovered in the UAE was opened to the public on Thursday.
The church and monastery on Sir Bani Yas Island dates back to the seventh and eighth centuries and was discovered on the eastern side of the island in the early nineties.
Flint tools from the neolithic period and a stone structure from the Bronze Age had also been found on the island at around the same time.
Following extensive improvements to the site by Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism (DCT - Abu Dhabi) the church is now ready for visitors. The department said the site had revealed the earliest known evidence of Christianity in the emirates.
Shaikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan, Minister of Tolerance opened the site along with Mohammad Khalifa Al Mubarak, Chairman of DCT - Abu Dhabi, and a number of priests and archaeological experts.
They were given a tour of the church, which includes dormitories and a kitchen in its north wing, a burial site and complex in the east wing and a retaining wall around the entire area.
“This site received special attention from the UAE’s founding father, the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, due to the great significance and value it holds as a historic part of the UAE’s cultural heritage,” said Shaikh Nahayan.
“The Sir Bani Yas church and monastery sheds light on our cultural history, its existence is proof of the long-standing values of tolerance and acceptance in our lands,” he added.
“This further emphasises the importance of cross-cultural dialogue and collaboration, as the site provides evidence of the UAE’s openness to other cultures. It is perfect timing that the inauguration of this landmark comes during the Year of Tolerance, which was marked this year by the historic visit of His Holiness Pope Francis, Head of the Catholic Church, to the UAE.”
Catholic bishop, Paul Hinder, who resides in Abu Dhabi and oversees the activities of all Catholic churches in Oman and the UAE, also attended the opening ceremony and lauded the UAE’s efforts to preserve the cultures of other religions.
“Even I didn’t know that a church existed in the UAE centuries back,” he said. “So, I’m sure people would love to know about it and its past. Such measures open up the minds of people, which is very important, and it favours the relationship between the religions.”
The department said the church and monastery is believed to have been part of a Christian network in the Arabian Gulf during the early years of Islamic history. Although first discovered in 1992 it wasn’t until two years later that it was proven to be a church, the department added.
Artefacts found at the site confirmed this and showed how the inhabitants used the sea and livestock as a food source, while glass and ceramic objects indicated that its inhabitants also traded widely across the region.
Due to the significance of the site, a shelter was installed over the find in 2010, while most of the monastry was reburied. Between 2015 and 2016 however, the department completed its conservation programme. Last year the department began the design and implementation of a new shelter to ensure optimum protection of the site’s remains from environmental threats and to enhance the visitor experience.
Sir Bani Yas Island
A natural island located 170-km southwest of the UAE’s capital Abu Dhabi, it lies 9km from the mainland tip of the Jebel Dhanna Peninsula near Al Ruwais and is accessible by a 20 minute ferry trip leaving Jebel Dhanna from noon, 3pm, 6pm and 11pm with an extra 10.30am trip on Fridays (according to Lonely Planet). It takes another 15-20 minute bus ride to get to the location. At 17.5-km long and 9-km wide it is the largest natural island in the UAE. In 1971 Shaikh Zayed made Sir Bani Yas one of the Arab world’s largest wildlife reserves. It is now home to thousands of free-roaming oryx, gazelle, deer, giraffes, cheetahs and birds, plus a range of flora and fauna. It also offers horse riding and a range of marine activities like diving and watersports.