Sir Bani Yas Island Church & Monastery
A 1,400-year-old monastery, the first Christian site discovered in the UAE has reopened to the public after conservation of the site was completed by the Department of Culture and Tourism in Abu Dhabi. The site on Sir Bani Yas Island, about 200km west of Abu Dhabi city, has been covered by a new shelter, information boards added, lighting installed to allow night tours and new roads and parking lots built to improve access and enhance the visitor experience. The roads and parking lots were built using the value-engineered solutions provided by Soil Solutions together with Scan Construction.
It was a small group of enthusiasts that first learned something lay under the sands at the site. The President, Sheikh Zayed, in 1991 invited members of the Emirates Natural History Group to visit Sir Bani Yas to study the plants and wildlife there. It was on this trip that pottery sherds were unearthed dating to the 1st millennium AD. Very little archaeological work had been undertaken on the islands at this time. Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the current Minister of Tolerance, took this news to Sheikh Zayed who proposed a survey of Sir Bani Yas.
This took place in the spring of 1992 with the UAE Air Force providing logistical support. Clear evidence of buildings was detected at the site which would later be confirmed as a monastery, along with decorated plaster and more pottery sherds.
It was this 1992 survey that led Sheikh Zayed to start the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey. Peter Hellyer, then chairman of the ENHG, became co-ordinator and more surveys of the Sir Bani Yas site were undertaken. These were directed by Dr Geoffrey King of London University but the real breakthrough came in 1995.
“Site director Dr Joe Elders picked up a small fragment of plaster and turned it over to discover a fine Christian cross,” recalls Mr Hellyer.
In the years since, several digs have taken place at the site revealing more and more about the lives these monks led, how they survived and coexisted.
“The Sir Bani Yas church and monastery sheds light on our cultural history, one that we can be proud of,” said Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, Minister of Tolerance, “Its existence is proof of the long-standing values of tolerance and acceptance in our lands.”
Only a few years ago a portion of the site was reburied to protect the archaeology. But now the new shelter and enhanced visitor experience will shed fresh light on the early Christians who lived in modern-day UAE.
It was the late President, Sheikh Zayed, who designated Sir Bani Yas as a nature reserve. Visitors can see the fruits of this effort as gazelle and Arabian oryx roam the island. Now an ancient Christian monastery will deepen the island’s significance as a tourist destination.