Sir Bani Yas Island is rich with history

The public unveiling of a 7th century monastery on the natural island off the coast of the Western Region is a chance to expand the tourism offerings on Desert Islands, a destination known for its outdoor activities, wildlife reserve and five-star resort.

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SIR BANI YAS ISLAND // While archaeologists on Sir Bani Yas Island dig up the past, tourism authorities see an opportunity to look to the future.
The public unveiling of a 7th century monastery on the natural island off the coast of the Western Region is a chance to expand the tourism offerings on Desert Islands, a destination known for its outdoor activities, wildlife reserve and five-star resort.
"This site being the first Christian monastery in the UAE is a big deal here," said Noaf Tahlak, the marketing manager for the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), the developer of Desert Islands. "We have a huge story to talk about. This is part of the culture and the heritage of the island."
The archeological find, the oldest pre-Islamic Christian site in the UAE, opened to the public yesterday and will someday be part of a constellation of history sites accessible to the island's visitors.
"How this fits in with the offerings on Sir Bani Yas reflects the ethos of Sir Bani Yas," said George Chakar, the communications manager for the Western Region for TDIC. "It's about preservation and conservation; that's what the island is all about ... In the future, our ultimate objective is to pass from an era to an era throughout many sites. We want to document as much as possible the heritage of Sir Bani Yas Island from the oldest times to the modern day."
A heritage trail that links up the island's sites would take tourists back 7,500 years, to a time when the first settlers came to the island. More than 35 archaeological sites have been discovered on the island, including a 4,000-year-old building from the Late Bronze Age believed to be a collective tomb and a fortified watchtower from the early Islamic period.
"This is a threefold benefit for Abu Dhabi," said Peter Hellyer, the excavation's project manager. "This is reflecting part of the country's heritage. It's unique and attractive to visitors. And it increases the Sir Bani Yas experience."
The island also includes Late Stone Age settlements, the remains of villages and cemeteries, an early mosque and evidence of the island's role in the rich ancient pearling industry. Some of these sites may be excavated and opened to public viewing.
A heritage trail could be complemented by an interpretation centre and interactive displays, two ideas that have been discussed. A proposed visitors' centre could contain replicas of the artefacts discovered at the monastery site, and the excavation of more buildings in the central complex would help to draw tourists back to the location.
Tourists looking to visit the island's monastic ruins are transported via zero-emission electric buses and are led on a tour by guides trained by Dr Joseph Elders, the excavation's chief archaeological director.
The site, which will undergo several more seasons of excavations, is enclosed within a protected fence and covered with an open-sided shelter meant to protect the sensitive ruins from sun, wind and rain damage.
Visitors enter the site through an entrance on the east side of the monastery. A newly-constructed raised platform rings the main monastery site, and informational plaques at the east and south corners of the excavation explain the history and details of the settlement.
Several new features will be available on Sir Bani Yas Island next year. Two new lodges - the beachfront Al Yamm Lodge and the 30-unit oasis Al Sahel Lodge - are slated for a 2011 opening. Additionally, a conference centre, stables and a watersports centre are on target to open before the end of next year.
"A lot of things are coming up in 2011, and we're looking forward to many more exciting things in the future," Ms Tahlak said.
The cultural and historical elements of tourism coming to the island are the next natural step for the TDIC, the tourism authorities said, and it is important that all future developments - including the heritage trail and visitors' centre - fit the character of Sir Bani Yas.
"We are proud to say that this important archaeological site makes Sir Bani Yas one of the very few destinations in the world to offer a holistic tourism experience, covering wildlife, nature-based activities, a five-star resort and sites of historical significance," Ms Tahlak said.
For each guest who comes to Desert Islands, a mangrove is planted to offset the environmental impact of their visit.
"Yes, there are a lot of developments coming up, but all of them are developed with very much care in order to have a low impact," Mr Chakar said.
 
jthomas@thenational.ae

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