The message hidden in Ras Al Khaimah's ancient Jewish tombstone

A cosmopolitan outlook and a culture of tolerance have defined Emirati history since long before the 20th century

This centuries-old Jewish tombstone was unearthed in the 1970s by local residents in the Shimal area of Ras Al Khaimah. Courtesy of the Department of Antiquities and Museums in Ras Al Khaimah
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The UAE prides itself on religious tolerance. Last February, it became the first country in the Arabian Peninsula to host a Papal visit. Then in September it was announced that an Abrahamic House of Fraternity will open on Saadiyat Island in 2022. This unique place of worship will accommodate Muslims, Christians and Jews, who all share in the legacy of the Prophet Ibrahim.

The spirit of tolerance and fraternity has become especially important in the age of coronavirus. This Ramadan, the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity called for people from all faiths to join together in prayer. The UAE embassy in Washington accordingly convened an online, interfaith gathering attended by Muslim, Christian and Jewish representatives.

An artist's illustration of the Abrahamic Family House to be built on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi. Courtesy Edelman
An artist's illustration of the Abrahamic Family House to be built on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi. Courtesy Edelman

These events recently prompted a friend to ask me about the significance of a Jewish tombstone from Ras Al Khaimah. As a professional archaeologist working in the Emirates, friends and colleagues sometimes pick my brain about local history. Was it true that a Jewish community once lived in the ancient lands of the Emirates?

The short answer is, probably not. But the longer answer is fascinating.

The fact that the Ras Al Khaimah tombstone is the only one of its kind found in the Emirates thus far implies that there was never a significant local community. Moreover, since the Halakhah – Jewish law – requires prompt burial, it is most likely that the tombstone commemorates a visitor to these shores.

The tombstone’s discovery was published by Daniel Frank in 1998. He states that it was found in the 1970s by “tribesmen” in the Shimal area. It consists of an irregular slab of local limestone, about 60 by 40cm, covered in a worn Hebrew inscription:

“This is the grave of the deceased David, of blessed memory, son of Moses, of blessed, saintly memory, son of David, of blessed memory, son of (illegible). May he be remembered in the world to come. May his soul be bound up in the bundle of life. May his soul rest in Eden. May their portion be in the world to come! Murshid and David the (illegible) [erected this stone].”

Frank suggested that certain linguistic features and formulaic phrases imply that David son of Moses, or at least those who buried him, belonged to a Persian-speaking Jewish community. Such communities had existed in Persia since Biblical times and had become involved with trade in the early centuries of Islam.

In the mid-ninth century, during the peak of the Abbasid Caliphate, Ibn Khurradadhbih, the postmaster general, describes Jewish merchants active on a global trade route passing through the Arabian Gulf. This route ran through Baghdad to the port of Uballa near Basra and then on to the Emirates and Oman before reaching India and China.

UAE helps reunite a Jewish family from Yemen

UAE helps reunite a Jewish family from Yemen

Jews living in Islamic lands were comparatively well treated. They are recognised as “People of the Book” in the Quran and accorded protected status in Islamic law. Indeed, the Islamic world absorbed waves of refugees fleeing pogroms in Europe. Suleiman the Magnificent, most famously, settled Sephardic Jews in the Ottoman Empire when they were expelled from Spain by the Catholic Monarchs.

A notable Jewish community existed on the island of Hormuz, situated at a strategic bottleneck at the head of the Arabian Gulf, less than a day’s sail from Ras Al Khaimah. The Jesuit missionary Gaspar Barzaeus mentions several synagogues and two rabbis serving a community that the Portuguese traveller Pedro Teixeira puts at about 150 households.

The Kingdom of Hormuz flourished between the 14th and 16th centuries, when it dominated the commerce of the Arabian Gulf. Its fame reached Europe, where it became a byword for earthly splendour. In Milton's Paradise Lost, Satan's throne "outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind" while Marvell described pomegranates as "jewels more rich than Ormus".

The spirit of tolerance and fraternity has become especially important in the age of coronavirus

A 16th-century English merchant wrote that “all nations do, and may freely come to Hormuz, as Frenchmen, Belgians, Dutch, Germans, Hungarians, Italians, Greeks, Armenians, Nazarenes, Turks and Moors, Jews and Gentiles, Persians, Russians.” In these early European accounts, Hormuz appears as the Dubai of its age: a confident and cosmopolitan global city with a diverse expatriate population.

Facing Hormuz on the Arabian shore lay Julfar, the precursor to modern Ras Al Khaimah. This famous port town was the centre of the pearling industry in the Lower Gulf. The Portuguese writer Duarte Barbosa describes it as “a very great fishery as well of seed-pearls as of large pearls, and the Moors of Ormus come hither to buy them and carry them to India and many other lands”.

Pearls were a part of the international gem trade, of which Hormuz developed into a major hub. “All nations,” the Dutch merchant Jan Huyghen van Linschoten tells us, “lie there to buy spices and precious stones that in great abundance are brought hither out of India.” It was this trade that drew Gasparo Balbi, the state jeweller of the Venetian Republic, to the region in the sixteenth century: his account incidentally contains the first reference to the Bani Yas tribe.

Jews played an important role in the early modern international gem trade. In the 15th century – when Hormuz and Julfar were at their peak – the Jewish community of Antwerp dominated the European market. These gemstones were sourced in India and passed through Hormuz before passing along the Euphrates corridor to the Mediterranean.

The Jewish tombstone from Ras Al Khaimah, therefore, can be placed into a historical context in which its significance is revealed. We might imagine that David son of Moses was a ‘Moor of Ormus’ who came to Julfar to buy pearls, and was buried there by his fellow travellers following his untimely demise. He was probably part of the Jewish mercantile community of Hormuz that served as middlemen in the international gem trade between India and Europe.

This gem trade is still very much alive and well today. A remarkable eight out of 10 diamonds are cut in Surat in India, and Antwerp remains the largest diamond district in the world. The Dubai Diamond Exchange, meanwhile, has grown into the largest in the Middle East. In some sense, Dubai, as the leading commercial centre of the Arabian Gulf, constitutes the modern successor of far-famed Hormuz and its cosmopolitan mercantile population.

The Emirates has, as such, always been a place open to the world and host to visitors from diverse peoples and religions. This history has helped to create the spirit of tolerance that characterises the nation today.

Timothy Power is an archaeologist, historian and author of A History of the Emirati People, to be published in 2021