Archaeology Gives Clues on Monastic Life in the UAE

A new discovery in the Gulf state prompts a reevaluation of the country’s Christian past

Archaeology Gives Clues on Monastic Life in the UAE
Timothy Power of the Siniya Island Archaeology Project teaching students from the UAE University about their archaeological heritage. (Nasser Muhsen Bin Tooq, for Siniya Island Archaeology Project)

There have been many names for the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula over the past few millennia. Traces of some can still be found today: Bet Qatraye is how Qatar got its name, although the original region was far larger, encompassing most of the northeast coastline. But other names are now found only in documentary records, such as Tuam, named after St. Thomas, the so-called Apostle of the East. It reflects a part of the Gulf’s history that is largely forgotten: the four centuries or so when Christianity flourished in this region.

St. Thomas was a disciple of Jesus (the infamous “doubting Thomas”), and tradition tells us he set out for the East to convert the Persians to the new religion. But he didn’t stop there: Communities in India still attribute their own conversion to this saint, in the first decades after Jesus’s death. To get to India, the apocryphal Acts of Thomas tell us, he traveled through the Gulf, past what is now Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Oman, baptizing as he went. Even if this is not strictly true (the first centuries of Christianity are not clear to us), multiple church records attest to a thoroughly Christianized region by the early fifth century.

Two centuries later, so popular understanding has it, Islam swept over the Arabian Peninsula, and all inhabitants converted. But the archaeological record suggests a different picture: Find after find is showing that Christianity coexisted peacefully with the newer religion for centuries. And discoveries keep coming, slowly yielding pieces of the puzzle of this long-lost period of history.

Early in the morning on a warm day in February, I joined archaeologist Tim Power, co-director of the Siniya Island Archaeology Project, in Umm al-Quwain, the smallest of the seven emirates that make up the UAE. We boarded a small motorboat to cross the narrow channel of the lagoon from the town on the mainland to the island of Siniya. The waters are beautifully clear, with shoals of fish visible; on a subsequent trip I saw a turtle surfacing near the shore. A great spotted eagle soared above us, and gazelles grazed nearby; later in the day a flock of flamingos flew over to settle in the water.

It’s idyllic, but once on shore I noticed black tubes snaking over the breadth of the island, looping around the many sidr trees, planted as part of the plan to green the Emirates. The gazelles dotted around them are a similarly imported species. The mangroves, on the other hand, are native and flourish all along the shore with no help from humans, but the fact is that they do not require topsoil, which is what this island lacks entirely.

Yet despite the absence of soil to grow food, humans have inhabited Siniya Island in successive waves for centuries, a history that is slowly coming to light. There are records telling us that the local rulers placed their capital here in the 18th century, which inspired Sheikh Majid bin Saud al-Mualla, son of the current ruler of Umm al-Quwain, to authorize an exploratory dig. Sure enough, his team stumbled on walls buried beneath the sand and soon uncovered the evidence for a whole structure. But this wasn’t the mosque or fort they were expecting.

When the pictures of the dig arrived on Power’s desk, he knew exactly what he was looking at, thanks to earlier, similar discoveries in the Gulf. This was indubitably a church, surrounded by monastic buildings, dating from at least the seventh century and possibly earlier. The team had not found their mosque, but they had struck historical gold.

The first record we have for the presence of Christianity in the region is from 410, in the notes from a church synod (or council). This includes a mention of the “bishops of the maritime islands,” referring to the Bahrain archipelago — and if there were already bishops, Christian communities must have been well established by the early fifth century. The written record quickly proliferates: Chronicles, further synod records, hagiographies recording the lives of saints and letters all serve as evidence of thriving Christian communities in the Gulf — including details of inevitable disputes, both theological and political.

After the seventh century the textual sources fall somewhat quiet; the last known official reference to Christians in southeast Arabia is in 676, mentioning disagreements about religious authority in Bet Qatraye. This lack of documentary evidence supports the view that Christianity and Islam simply dovetailed, the latter replacing the former throughout the seventh century. But there is an intriguing mismatch between the historical and the archaeological record that challenges this story. There has been no archaeological evidence found for Christians in the Gulf earlier than the seventh century; and on the other hand, archaeological remains go much later into history than the texts, incontrovertibly telling us that Christian communities were thriving well into the ninth century, showing a two-century overlap with Islam.

Various explanations have been suggested for the gap in the archaeological evidence from the fifth and sixth centuries: The earliest communities may well have been worshiping in normal domestic spaces, impossible to identify as specifically Christian, for example. But there’s a more exciting possibility: the existence of many more archaeological sites to be discovered. The find at Siniya renews the hope that other gems are hidden under sand and earth, and rumors abound of more such discoveries scattered across the region — though here I’m sworn to secrecy.

Archaeology in the Gulf is a recent activity compared to other parts of the world, such as Egypt and Iraq, which have received vast amounts of attention for centuries. There were initial explorations in the 1950s and ’60s, but excavations never really got going until the 1990s, making the whole of Arabia an exciting place for an archaeologist today. The fact that archaeology is so young has had a knock-on effect on heritage.

“The Emirates, and indeed Arabia in general, isn’t as visible in the great world museums of London, Paris, Berlin or New York — because it wasn’t part of the colonial venture of archaeology,” Power explains.

The rulers are seeking to change that, most visibly by building their own world museums. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is planning an exhibition on the history of the Abrahamic faiths in the UAE to accompany the opening of a multifaith center next door; the mosque, synagogue and church have already joined the Louvre on Abu Dhabi’s coastal skyline. In parallel, support for research is growing: This excavation is supported by the Tourism and Archaeology Department of Umm al-Quwain, UAE University (where Power is a professor) and the UAE’s federal Ministry of Culture and Youth. Finds from Siniya will contribute valuable material to the picture of coexistence celebrated in Abu Dhabi’s cultural centers.

To an expert, the evidence of human settlement on Siniya is clear from the topography: Where I just see large sand dunes, Power’s experienced eyes see ancient structures and trash dumps, known as middens, merely topped with sand. Such mounds are tantalizing to an archaeologist, with few clues as to what is hidden inside until you excavate — and Siniya is loaded with them.

We take a tour backward through time, stopping at the remains of two Islamic-era settlements, called Old Umm al-Quwain one and two by the archaeologists. This part of the world is lacking in stone, so it’s too valuable to leave behind when towns relocate, therefore many of the remains of these two settlements can be seen over the water, in the 19th-century fort of the old town of present-day Umm al-Quwain (now the emirate’s museum).

As a result, much of the evidence is to be found in the trash, and here are surely the most beautiful middens in history, thanks to layer upon layer of shimmering oyster shells. This was the basis of life in this lagoon for millennia, not just to eat, but to trade the pearls occasionally found inside the beautiful shells. As Power puts it: “This is the industrial waste of the pearling industry.”

There were enough foundations left behind to identify the mosque — built by Majid’s ancestor in the first half of the 18th century — that he had been after all along. Power’s team also found evidence for its destruction: a cannonball embedded in the beach, fired in 1820 by the British, who helpfully kept meticulous records detailing their destruction. Power is itching to do a full excavation, seeing this period as formative in the history of the Emirates, but with the discovery of the far rarer monastic remains at the other end of the island, the Islamic sites will have to wait.

We drive past some luxury glamping pods, built by the ruling Mualla family for weekend island visits, and Power tells me about imminent plans for luxury real estate on the island. Development has long been both the friend and foe of archaeology. Around the corner from my home in York, England, an old garage has just been pulled down to build a hotel. But valuable Roman remains were found, and the archaeologists moved in instead of the builders. And so we owe many discoveries to the development of infrastructure and dwellings, but their demands add the pressure of time.

Some of the monastic complex, with the church in the foreground. (Federico Borgi, Siniya Island Archaeology Project)

As we drive on, our backs to the science fiction-like pods, the monastery slowly comes into view: a labyrinth of low walls of golden stone. The team of archaeologists dot the landscape. Michele Degli Esposti, Power’s partner as co-director of the Siniya Island Archaeology Project and co-director of the Italian Archaeological Mission of Umm al-Quwain, detaches himself from others who were in the middle of excavating a group of small rooms. This is the exciting part of archaeology, especially on such a newly discovered site: Anything potentially lies under the surface, like a form of Schrodinger’s cat, unknown until you dig. But he’s shaking his head at my enthusiasm. “The state of preservation, it’s very poor,” he says, sighing. “I was expecting more from the size of the mound.”

But Degli Esposti brightens as we walk to the building next door, one of the largest of the monastic complex, built in the earliest phase of occupation. In fact, two finds from this structure have pushed back the possible dates for Christian presence here. The first was a beautiful, carved stone bowl containing charcoal, which enabled the team to use carbon dating, though it’s not the most precise of tools, giving a 150-year window. However, there’s a far greater probability assigned to the middle of this range — in this case, late sixth to early seventh century. And supporting evidence was found in the form of late Sasanian pottery, dateable by its style to the sixth century. Of course, this could have still been in use long after it was made, depending on how clumsy the monks were and how often they would need to replace their everyday items. But the two pieces of such evidence together suggest that monks were here in the sixth century and therefore make Siniya the earliest archaeological evidence yet for Christianity in the Gulf.

This large building was repurposed over the centuries, until it was abandoned, and the courtyard used as a burial ground, perhaps because of the pressure on space with the expansion of the monastery. (Rosa, a project archaeologist, is patiently sifting through fragments of bone, reconstructing skeletons of ancient monks.) Interpreting the evidence, along with the evidence of the site, requires imagination, as “we’re still trying to work out how this fits in with the church sequence,” Power says.

The church, of course, is the center of monastic life, marked by a high semicircular platform. “The floor level is artificially raised,” Power explains, “which I think is probably to do with its sanctity. It helps keep it clean, above the dust and sand, but also emphasizes its status.” We clamber up, and so enter the sacred space in the same way that monks and the local community would have done 14 or 15 centuries ago.

We walk through the small, single-aisle nave to enter the sanctuary at the far end. Degli Esposti sketches out the features, now marked only by thresholds of ancient doors and other indications on the ground. It’s a simpler building than others found in the region, perhaps reflecting an older age. I see where once was the altar, now removed, and entrances to the side rooms typical of an Eastern church, called the diaconicon and prothesis. There is a low wall of stones fencing off one corner of this sacred space, marking out an ancient cupboard that protected the most precious items of this community for many hundreds of years after they left — to be uncovered by Degli Esposti.

“There was a little bit of a tumble of the rubble here,” Degli Esposti describes, a tumble left unexplored by the first excavators, a piece of luck for the current team. “Below it, I found a complete bronze oil lamp, one complete large basin of glazed pottery and two bigger ones, but fragmentary.”

Entrance to the sanctuary showing the corner cupboard with large glazed bowls for mixing wine. (Michele Degli Esposti, Siniya Island Archaeology Project)

Here was direct evidence of the daily life of worship: an oil lamp, used by Christians the world over to represent Jesus (as the light of the world in the faith), and vessels for mixing the wine, representing the blood of Jesus, for services. Earlier finds around the altar included two broken, oversized glass goblets, clearly for dispensing this part of the Christian ritual known as the Eucharist (from the Greek for thanksgiving). The other half of the ritual is the bread or wafers, representing the body of Christ. Power is hopeful that there may be evidence waiting to be found for this, based on a previous discovery in the region — Al Qusoor, on Failaka Island in Kuwait. “In this location they found an oven,” Power says, likely to be “for the making of the wafer given to the community. It’s possible we may find something similar here.”

Even without this element, as Power says, “we have the material culture of Christian ritual, present in the church.” They must have left quickly, I observe, if they’re leaving behind such precious objects, in both religious and material terms. Both the archaeologists agree — this wasn’t a gradual reduction of numbers, with a diminishing way of life, monks slowly packing up and going elsewhere. This was a sudden exodus, the artifacts central to their way of life stored in their cupboards or on the altars where they belonged.

There’s a specific clue as to the date of this decisive exit. “There is a particular type of ceramic in the area that was introduced about 750, which we haven’t found any of at all,” Power explains, a type of ceramic used all over the region from this date. The site therefore must have been abandoned sometime in the mid-eighth century. Power turned to the historical sources, and didn’t have far to look.

In 750, the Abbasid dynasty took power from the Damascus-based Umayyads, founding a new caliphate and building a new capital — Baghdad. Their armies swept through the region, and the Arabian Peninsula was right on their doorstep. “The Abbasid army arrived to put down a local revolt,” Power explains, carefully pointing out that “this was not an anti-Christian pogrom or anything like that, it’s a purely political event.” But to make their point against the rebels of the region, they opted for a scorched-earth policy. “It was collective punishment,” Power says. These rebels are known to history as the Kharijites, the first breakaway sect in Islam, and were mostly suppressed by the Umayyads, but occasional further rebellions flared up into the Abbasid period — including in Bet Qatraye, around modern-day Qatar. Hence the caliphate’s army’s incursion down the coast, to establish control.

The monks probably fled from this army with the rest of the population of Siniya Island, perhaps retreating into the desert interior, leaving their precious items behind, victims of the campaigns against the Kharijite rebels. And it’s clear from the archaeological record that they never returned. “By that time, the tipping point from Christianity into Islam was gaining momentum,” Power suggests, meaning that the communities they were serving were shrinking all the time. Perhaps they felt unwelcome, or perhaps it was more like redundancy; with an absence of a parish, they may have been recalled to more heavily Christian areas by authorities — there’s no way of knowing. But what’s clear is that no one occupied this monastery after the mid-eighth century, and it fell into ruin, to be discovered some 1,250 years later.

We walk from the church to the room next door, with two telling stone benches built into the walls of its long sides. “All of the monasteries of the Gulf region have something like this,” Power points out, and I am reminded of a room at the older St. Anthony’s monastery in Egypt, which has an added table between the two long benches. It’s a refectory, where monks gathered to eat. “But I think probably it was used for more,” Power continues. “It was essentially a kind of a communal space where everyone can get together, discuss, talk, chant prayers and eat their food.” (Another time I chose to sit here to write, hoping the industry of the monks over 150 years of habit and work might rub off on me, but without a roof to shield me from the sun it soon got too hot.)

Monastic life was highly formalized by this point, in texts still used and followed today, such as the rules of St. Benedict (written around 530, which resulted, eventually, in the Benedictine order), or those of St. Basil the Great, which continue to guide practices in the Eastern Orthodox church. No one knows what exact texts and rules these monks in Siniya were following, but central to all are both solitary and communal duties of prayer, contemplation, fasting and worship. These duties are reflected in the architecture of this monastery as others all over the world, with small cells for private meditation and larger rooms for communal worship (the church) and chanting of psalms, studying, praying and eating (the refectory).

Outside the church is a huge circular pit, lined with stone. The shape makes me think of water, but it’s far larger than most wells I’ve seen, so perhaps, I conjecture, it’s for water storage, given the limitations of the island. But Power shakes his head. “Chemical analysis has shown that its content was seawater,” he says. I’m baffled as to why anyone would store seawater when their habitation was right on the coast. “Personally, I think what we’re looking at here is a tank for full immersion baptism,” he says. Of course, I’m used to a rather different form of baptism, with the fonts in churches that are only big enough for a baby’s head. Degli Esposti is already shrugging expressively, but Power continues his reasoning.

Mysterious circular cistern behind the sanctuary. (Federico Borgi, Siniya Island Archaeology Project)

“First of all, the location, immediately behind the sanctuary, I think is significant. Then the next thing is its shape. We have actually one similar in size and shape to this, found near Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul,” Power explains. Saltwater makes sense, as freshwater on this island was too precious to use for baptism or bathing. And again, there is supporting evidence in the texts. Power continues: “If you read the saints’ lives in the Syriac sources, the saints often go off to convert the pagans, that’s something that they were very keen on doing.” Baptism is described in these sources, and there are stories about Syriac monks specifically traveling from modern-day Iraq to baptize Arabs in this region.

But Degli Esposti is not convinced, arguing that the structure is in a later phase to the church it sits adjacent to; in fact, it cuts across some of the original structures, and it sits at an angle to the all-important altar inside. “Look, I’m not so expert in church history,” he admits, “but I do know that not all the churches have the right to give baptism, and I can see this was clearly added at a later stage.”

He acknowledges that the church could have obtained that right later, with a growing Christian community around it, explaining why it’s a later addition. I wonder then why it would sit at an angle to the church, but that remains a mystery not to be solved just yet. I ask Degli Esposti what else he thinks it could be, and he shrugs again, unwilling to speculate as freely as Power. “I mean, someone suggested it could be to put fish in.” They both laugh, but I don’t see that as such an outlandish suggestion — it would make food preparation far easier to have your meals waiting right outside the church, I think.

And this mysterious water tank used to be far closer to the source of fish. Turning our backs on the monastery, we see a long and narrow spit of land stretching out in front of us. But this is not what the monks would have seen. There are patches of ground in front of us with no archaeological evidence at all — no fragments of shell, pottery or stone that litter the rest of the site — indicating that the sea level used to be higher, meaning the shore was far closer to the monastery. This is perhaps due to the dredging of the lagoon in the 20th century to make the mainland more accessible for big boats, reducing the sea level today. Power suggests that these patches were actually intertidal, indicating the monks were regularly cut off from the rest of the spit — which is where the contemporary settlement was.

There are strong echoes in this semi-cutoff, semi-connected life of another monastery, much closer to home. Lindisfarne island, near the border between England and Scotland, is also known as Holy Island, thanks to the presence of a monastery from the seventh century when St. Aidan was sent to convert the pagans of Northumberland. Not only is it cut off by the tide for hours a day (the causeway disappearing alarmingly quickly as the tide comes in), but the monks were also driven out by a band of armed non-Christians, in 793. This was the first recorded invasion of England by Vikings, and visitors to the island can see the so-called Domesday Stone depicting the event.

On both Lindisfarne and Siniya there is a sense of isolation, and both are far from religious centers such as Rome or Jerusalem. There are also many other seventh-century island monasteries: St. Aidan traveled to Lindisfarne from his community on Iona, off the west coast of Scotland, and the previous monastery discovered in the UAE is on Sir Bani Yas Island, in Abu Dhabi emirate. Other seventh-century sites in the Gulf include Failaka Island and Kharg Island across the Gulf, in modern-day Iran. It seemed to me that monks were actively seeking out isolated places that could barely sustain life, but Power corrects this line of thought: “Yes, you start by thinking, we’re on a desert island and this is some sort of monastic retreat, but then you realize that it’s right on all these trade routes and also, it’s surrounded by pearl beds.”

Evidence of pearl fishing has been found not only in the huge piles of oyster shells across the island but also in a diver’s weight, found in the settlement contemporary with the monastery, across the intertidal patch. There’s also evidence in the historical record describing saints’ lives, which includes interacting with pearl merchants. This setup isn’t so different from Lindisfarne, some 4,000 miles to the north, barring the pearls. The island may be inaccessible for part of each day and windblown for many months at a time, but this semi-isolation didn’t stop the monks from trading with communities on the mainland.

Further, both seemingly peripheral regions have yielded Christian thinkers who are still read today. Two seventh-century mystics and prolific writers who shaped much of monastic thought in the East hail from the Gulf: Ishaq (or Isaac) of Nineveh and Dadisho Qatraya. And there were many others writing and commenting on theology, leading scholar Mario Kozah to describe Bet Qatraye as an “important school of education,” to rival the more famous schools of Edessa or Nisibis. A recent translation of work from this area claims that “the Syrian writers of Qatar … produced some of the best and most sophisticated writing to be found in all Syriac literature in the seventh century.” In northern England, the Venerable Bede is a similar figure in Latin literature, half a century later. These islands were active participants in the intellectual milieu of Christianity, as well as important agents in the local economies.

Even earlier sources mention monasteries acting as caravanserais, stopover places on trade routes, meaning monks would have a constant flow of information from, and an easy way to communicate with, a far wider world than their remote locations suggest. Perhaps our idea of the periphery, then, needs to be rethought, especially given how ways of travel have changed. Siniya and Lindisfarne might be a challenge to get to by road from urban centers, but both lie on trade routes, easily reached by sea. Maybe the aim of founding communities on these islands was to extend the expanse of Christianity rather than avoid the world, to push the boundaries rather than escape them. The monks are mute on this point, but from my experiences on both islands, it seems they had the best of both worlds: the peace of an island for their contemplative lives, yet a constant stream of visitors, both merchants and pilgrims, to trade and to worship. These monks were at the center, not the edge, of world affairs.

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