History teaches us to cherish diversity

The reopening of the UAE's oldest Christian site is a testament to the country's legacy of tolerance

A handout picture dated November 28, 2009 made available by Abu Dhabi Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC) shows a general view of the United Arab Emirates' only discovered Christian monastery on Sir Bani Yas Island in Abu Dhabi. The pre-Islamic monastery, which is believed to have been built around 600 AD, was initially discovered on the 87 square kilometre island of Sir Bani Yas during excavations in 1992 is now open to the public, a statement by the TDIC said December 12, 2010.         AFP PHOTO/HO/TDIC/MARTIN PFEIFER      -- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE -- / AFP PHOTO / TDIC / Martin Pfeiffer

A 1,400 year-old monastery, the oldest Christian site in the UAE, was reopened to the public on Thursday. The ancient site on Sir Bani Yas Island, 200km from the capital, attests to the UAE's long and diverse history. The monastery, which archaeologists believe was originally established by a community of around 30 monks, was discovered in 1992. It had previously been informally open to visitors, but now whole new areas are accessible, offering a fascinating insight on the lives of the Arabian Gulf's early Christians and the religious heritage of the country.

The Arabian peninsula is known as the birthplace of Islam, but other religious groups have also flourished in the region. This site is a memorial to these historic communities. It is widely believed that the monks stopped adhering to the rules of the Church of the East and began to take wives. According to Dr Richard Cuttler, archaeologist at the Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi, they eventually integrated into the local Muslim community. Still, the monastery ran for around 150 years and functioned as a staging post for travellers passing through the region.

Experts also believe that the Christian monks adhered to a way of life broadly similar to those of today. Their main daily activities revolved around prayer, meditation and tending to their livestock. "Even we would recognise them as monks from the robes," Dr Cuttler told The National. That it is so easy to trace a direct line from these remains to the current era shows just how precious such archaeological discoveries are, for the region and our understanding of its complex past.

History also has much to teach us about the present. Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, Minister of Tolerance, who opened the site, said the existence of these ancient Christian ruins are "proof of the long-standing values of tolerance and acceptance in our lands". That Christian and Muslim communities peacefully co-existed so long ago is truly heartening. This should encourage us to embrace diversity, which is, in Sheikh Nahyan's words an intrinsic part of "our cultural history, and one that we can be proud of".