Timeframe: The untold stories of Abu Dhabi's Delma Island

The island, 42km off the UAE coast, is thought to be one of the first sites of human settlement in the UAE

UAE Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan is presented with a sword during his visit to Delma Island in April 1981. Photo: Wam
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In April 1981, UAE Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, visited Delma Island to lay the cornerstone of a $700 million project to develop the island’s most significant oil field.

Sheikh Zayed was accompanied by Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, who at the time was Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. A photo from the Emirates News Agency archives shows the two rulers being presented with a ceremonial sword to mark the occasion.

Scroll through the gallery below to see photos of Delma Island through the years

The project was one of the pivotal early oil enterprises that helped the UAE hoist itself to prosperity. While Delma Island’s importance in the oil and gas industry has prevailed, the area has a much wider historical arc that dates back to the Stone Age.

Nicknamed the Island of Plenty, Delma Island is 42km off the coast of Abu Dhabi. It was one of the first sites of human settlement in the UAE. It was also a pearl trading centre and was a vital source of water for Abu Dhabi in the 20th century. The island has a bustling fishing community with most of its 10,000-strong population involved in the industry. The area is surprisingly lush, with sprawling vegetable fields and fruit orchards.

In 1993, excavations on the island revealed the remains of a house thought to belong to the island’s first inhabitants. It was not until 2015, however, that archaeologists began finding more clues about the people who lived there, including a number of oyster pearl shells layered in rubbish.

This suggested that the shallow banks of pearl beds around the island had been explored by human beings for thousands of years. Excavations also revealed staples in the islanders’ diet — tuna, sea urchins, dolphins, dugongs, turtles as well as sheep and goat. Hamour bones up to a metre in size were also uncovered.

Scientists were able to determine the age of the rubbish through carbon dating on two date stones. One was found to be from 4,600 BC while the older was dated to 5,100 BC.

Archaeologists found the remains of what appears to be locally made copies of Ubaid pottery. The vessels were made from plaster and adorned with locally available haematite to resemble pieces from the Ubaid period in Mesopotamia, suggesting the indigenous people felt a kinship with that culture and its people.

The house, and its surrounding rubbish, however, is only the tip of the archaeological iceberg. Geophysical surveys of the site suggest more structures are buried underground. The site was estimated to be as large as 200m by 150m, an entire village dating back 7,000 years.

As excavations in the area continue, we may only be grazing the surface of the historical depth of Delma Island, and the story of the people who once inhabited it.

In the late 19th century, during the peak of the pearl trade in the region, the shoreline of Delma Island was a thriving market. According to the Abu Dhabi Culture website, the island was said to have more than 200 wells, through which it supplied water to Abu Dhabi until the 1950s.

The heart of the historic part of Delma Island is the home of Muhammad bin Jasim Al Meraikhi, a prominent pearl merchant. The fortified structure has many features associated with traditional UAE architecture, including a barjeel wind tower. Today it is the site of the Delma Museum.

Updated: April 07, 2023, 6:01 PM