The Church and Monastery on Sir Bani Yas Island, the only early Christian site yet discovered in the UAE, has reopened its doors to visitors following the implementation of conservation measures and site enhancements by the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi (DCT Abu Dhabi).
The inauguration ceremony for the site was conducted by Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, the Minister of Tolerance. The event was attended by Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, Chairman of DCT Abu Dhabi, and Saif Saeed Ghobash, Undersecretary of DCT Abu Dhabi, as well as conservators, archaeologists, heritage experts and clerics.
The Sir Bani Yas Church and Monastery dates to the 7th and 8th centuries CE. It continued flourish well after Islam spread throughout the region.
The site was first discovered in 1992, during a survey undertaken with the permission of the late President Sheikh Zayed, when the remains of several buildings, along with pottery and plaster fragments, were found on the east of the island.
The next year, excavations were started by the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey, Adias, established on the instructions of Sheikh Zayed and under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces.
Excavation of the site took place over several seasons, unveiling the eastern and northern quarters used by the monks, the surrounding wall, as well as the central building, shown by the discovery of fine plaster crosses to be a church.
Several courtyard-type houses were also excavated nearby, as well as a water cistern, all part of the monastic settlement.
Artefacts found at the site show how the inhabitants of the settlement used the sea, in addition to cattle, sheep and goats, as food sources, while glass vessels and pottery indicate that they traded widely across the Arabian Gulf and beyond.
“The Sir Bani Yas Church and Monastery site received special attention from the founding father of the UAE, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, due to the great significance and value it holds as a historic part of the UAE’s cultural heritage,” Sheikh Nahyan said.
“The late Sheikh Zayed played a key role in supporting archaeological excavations, studies and research related to history and heritage. He welcomed archaeological expeditions in the emirate and established the Al Ain Museum to display the archaeological discoveries and artefacts from these missions and provide insight into the lifestyle of those communities residing in the region before us.”
He added: “The Sir Bani Yas Church and Monastery sheds light on our cultural history, one that we can be proud of; its existence is proof of the longstanding values of tolerance and acceptance in our lands. 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.”
Due to the great significance of the Sir Bani Yas Church and Monastery, plans to conserve the site were carried out with care soon after the first excavation ended, and in 2010 a shelter was installed over the church, while most of the monastery was reburied. Between 2015 and 2016, DCT Abu Dhabi completed its conservation programme for the site as part of a larger plan to manage the entire island. This plan provided a chance to gather data on the site and monitor its condition, as well as set policies to regulate any future excavations and research, restoration, management and conservation activities.
In 2018, DCT Abu Dhabi began the design and implementation of a new sheltering solution that would ensure optimum protection of the site’s archaeological remains from current environmental threats, minimise visual and physical impact on the archaeological remains, and enhance the visitor experience.
Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, Chairman of DCT Abu Dhabi, said: “Sheltering archaeological sites is a complex undertaking that has great implications for their conservation, presentation, interpretation, and overall management. The new shelter over the Sir Bani Yas Church and Monastery is a state-of-the-art protective measure that demonstrates DCT Abu Dhabi’s expertise in the field of heritage conservation and its commitment to the long-term protection of archaeological sites.”
The shelter design is highly specialised and meant to be flexible and reversible, while effectively protecting against rain, heat, windblown sand and nesting birds. The structure integrates a water drainage system and an elevated pathway with interpretation points to enhance visitors’ appreciation and understanding of the site. The dynamic and modular shading structure was designed so that it can be expanded in the future if new discoveries are made, while minimising visual intrusion for visitors. The roofing membrane is made of PTFE, a highly durable and breathable material that provides natural lighting and air circulation. Artificial lighting was also installed to allow night tours of the site. Other site enhancements include a new access road made of environmentally-friendly stabilised soil and a new fence designed in harmony with the site’s context to prevent roaming wildlife and windblown sand.
With the inauguration of this new shelter, sections of the monastery never seen before will now be visible to the public. These remains, mostly of the northern dormitory, provide an understanding of daily life in the monastery. All the exposed archaeological remains were stabilised, repaired, and consolidated and an ongoing programme of monitoring has been initiated.