The UAE’s ancient history is enriched by interesting cultures and civilisations, and the many recent archaeological excavations provide a glimpse into its rich and intriguing past. Gulf News digs through the ruins to find out more about the culture and traditions of the people of yore.
Sir Bani Yas Island, Abu Dhabi
Sir Bani Yas was first mentioned in European literature in 1590, when Venetian jeweller Gasparo Balbi listed ‘Sirbeniast’ as ‘an island of pearls’. It was also described in the 1820s and 1850s by various British naval officers.
No less than 36 archaeological sites have been discovered throughout Sir Bani Yas Island, each providing multi-faceted insights into the 87-square kilometre island’s rich history.
One of the oldest sites on the island is the remains of a pre-Islamic era AD600 monastery, the only known pre-Islamic Christian site in the UAE. Discovered in 1992 during an archaeological survey, the monastery was an important destination for pilgrims en route to India. The complex comprises monks’ cells, kitchens and animal pens surrounding a courtyard with a church, and a separate room for visiting pilgrims.
Dr Joseph Elders, Chief Archaeologist for the Church of England, who led the investigation, believes that visitors were attracted to Bani Yas because it was founded by a saint or holy man. According to him, the inhabitants probably belonged to the Nestorian Church, or Church of the East. Researchers also believe that the wealthy community spoke Syriac and Arabic, and chose the site because of its location at the head of a sheltered harbour. The site is now open for viewing, and The Desert Islands Resort & Spa by Anantara conducts guided tours for interested guests.
Ted Greenland, an official guide at the resort says many guests with a passion for archaeology and an interest in history find it fascinating. “The tour to the monastery targets a very small but interested segment of tourists. The most surprising elements for visitors are that it is relatively small in the vast expanse of the desert, it
is partially covered, and it is still an ‘active dig’ which makes it
Dalma Island, Abu Dhabi
With a 7,500-year-old history, traces of ancient civilisations on Dalma Island are still being explored. In 1992, the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey identified more than 20 sites dating back to the Neolithic Period, also known as the Late Stone Age.
Dalma features some of the region’s earliest evidence of date palm cultivation. Almost 200 fresh water wells indicate that the island was a place of permanent residence and imported (Mesopotamian) pottery and finely carved stone tools also point to thriving maritime trade. At the island’s Ubaid site — which was occupied from 5500
to 4500BC — a new geophysical survey has revealed an interesting extension of the Neolithic site discovered earlier. A flint arrowhead was found during the survey, and is ranked the best existing example of the era.
Al Ain, Abu Dhabi
The wealth of archaeological remains located in Al Ain illustrates the extraordinary importance of this area. Investigations have revealed that Al Ain has been continuously inhabited since the late Stone Age period. Today, its historic significance is evident from sites and artefacts dating back to the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages, and the Hellenistic, pre-Islamic and Islamic eras. In the late fourth and early third millennia BC, Al Ain enjoyed a thriving trade with the Mesopotamian civilisation, and became
a principal supplier of copper. Overseas trade was later extended to cover the Indus Valley in the second half of the third millennium BC — the Iron Age.
More than 500 Bronze Age cairn tombs located at Jebel Hafeet, date back to between 3200 and 2700BC. Jebel Hafeet has great palaeontological value, with some of its fossils dating back to the Cretaceous Period, almost 135 to 70 million years ago.
With its cornucopia of sites, Al Ain joined Unesco’s World Heritage List (after a UAE delegation succeeded in registering several sites in June), earlier this year, making it the first Emirati site on the World Heritage List.
With origins in the sixth century AD, this settlement was said to be a caravan stop on a trade route linking Iraq and Oman, and spans the pre-Islamic and Islamic eras.
In November 2000, the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) stated that the town had flourished in the ninth and tenth centuries during the Abbasid Period. Chief Archaeologist Dr Hussein Suleiman Qandil said his team had found pottery from as far afield as China, Afghanistan, Mesopotamia and the Far East.
“The pottery’s design, decoration and inscriptions indicate that there was communication and trading between local residents and the Chinese, Mesopotamians and Afghans,” he said at the time.
“All the houses had a large courtyard on one side, with fireplaces in the corner. On the other side of the house, there are smaller rooms with baths, kitchens and corridors,” explained Qandil. Pottery, jewellery, tools, coins and artefacts unearthed at the site are displayed at the Dubai Museum and Heritage Village.
Approximately 20 kilometres south of Dhaid, Maliha is a tiny village along the highway, on either side of which are the remains of a settlement occupied during the pre-Islamic era. These include houses, tombs and work areas for iron, bone and stone crafts.
The tombs excavated by the Sharjah Museum were found to contain rich horse trappings — gold medallions and roundels backed with iron. A small square fort with towers, located directly under the highway, revealed fragments of interesting coin moulds dedicated to a king named Abi’el. There were also important artistic finds, including Attic pottery from Greece, South Arabian alabaster jars and Rhodian amphora handles. This abundance of latter material establishes that the site continued to be occupied into the first century AD.
Khor Fakkan, Sharjah
An important harbour on the East coast of the UAE, Khor Fakkan has a long history of human settlement. Excavations by the Sharjah Archaeological Museum have identified 34 graves and a settlement belonging to the early to mid second millennium BC.
In 1580, Venetian gem merchant Gasparo Balbi noted ‘Chorf’, which is almost certainly Khor Fakkan. The Portuguese built a fort at Khor Fakkan, and interestingly, it figures in the log book of the Dutch vessel ‘Meerkat’, which reads: “Gorfacan is a place on a small bay, which has about 200 small houses all built from date branches, near the beach. It had on the Northern side, a triangular Portuguese fortress.”
Al Dur, Umm Al Quwain
The largest pre-Islamic site on the Gulf coast of the UAE, Al Dur has been known since the early 1970s when an Iraqi expedition conducted excavations at the site, followed by a European expedition in the 1980s and 1990s.
The sprawling site has private houses dotting a large area adjacent to the coast, built with beach rock (farush), and interspersed with thousands of graves, ranging from simple crypts to large stone tombs for families. Goods found at the graves include drinking sets, Roman glass, weaponry, pottery, jewellery and beautiful ivory objects.
The two largest public monuments at the site are a small square fort — reminiscent of forts built by the Parthians — and a square temple dedicated to the Semitic solar deity Shams. Abundant coinage at Al Dur included foreign coins as well as those bearing the name of King Abi’el.
This small oasis on the Batinah coast in northern Fujairah is well-known because its twin-domed mosque features frequently on travel brochures. Although the mosque is considered the oldest in the UAE, the history of Bidiya stretches much further back in time.
A round tower marks the existence of an important site here dating back to 2000 BC. A long, semi-subterranean grave located nearby revealed shards of Parthian pottery, and the poorly preserved remains of a Portuguese fort can also be seen. Objects from various excavations are on display at the Fujairah Museum.
Julfar, Ras Al Khaimah
The forerunner of modern Ras Al Khaimah, Julfar is mentioned by Arab historians in the context of the Islamic conquest of the northern Emirates, and, in political events of the Umayyad, Abbasid and Buwayhid periods. It is said that the place was inhabited by the Azd people during the eighth and ninth centuries AD, and that they lived in wooden houses. Julfar’s most famous son was the renowned mariner Ibn Majid.
Al Mataf, located close to modern Ras Al Khaimah, was founded in the 14th century and is mentioned in numerous Portuguese, Dutch and English sources of the subsequent three centuries. It was a thriving port in 1517 when the Portuguese built a fort at Julfar.
Mowaihat is located on the outskirts of Ajman. In 1986, while laying a new sewage pipe, workers of Ajman Municipality discovered a circular tomb, which led to an excavation that revealed numerous soft stone and beautifully painted Umm al Nar era vessels, as well as beads, stamp seals, copper implements and also skeletal remains.
At the time of its discovery, the Mowaihat tomb represented the first indication of Umm al Nar period occupation in the Northern Emirates, and material from the site is on display at Ajman Museum.