What Can We Learn From Syriac and Arabic Sources About Recent Archaeological Discoveries of Christian Monastic Complexes in the UAE?/
February 06, 2023
A recent announcement from the United Arab Emirates reveals the discovery of an ancient Christian monastery dating to the pre-Islamic era on Siniyah Island, part of the sand-dune sheikhdom of Umm al-Quwain off the coast of the UAE. This archeological discovery sheds new light on early Christianity’s history along the Persian Gulf’s shores. It also marks the second monastery unearthed in the United Arab Emirates, dating back to the pre and early period of Islam. The remains of the monastery on the Siniyah Island floor plan suggest that early Christian worshippers prayed within a single-aisle church at the monastery. Rooms within appear to hold a baptismal font and an oven for baking bread for Eucharistic communion.
Next to the monastery sits a second building with four rooms, likely around a courtyard — possibly the home of an abbot or even a bishop in the early church.
It is important to mention that in the early 1990s, archaeologists discovered the first Christian monastery in the UAE on Sir Bani Yas Island. Today, it is a nature preserve and site of luxury hotels off the coast of Abu Dhabi, near the Saudi border. It similarly dates to the same period as the new find in Umm al-Quwain. On this recent discovery, I would like to present some geographical and historical information found in Syriac and Arabic sources that might help us identify the identity and history of these monastic complexes.
Life of Monk Jonah
Among the Syriac sources that are related to the history of the Christian presence in the Arabian Gulf area is The Life of Monk Jonah. This hagiographical work is part of several accounts of Christian saints who lived in the first centuries of Christianity. Paul Bedjan, a famous Orientalist, collected these accounts and edited them into seven volumes of Acta Martyrum et Sanctorum Syriace. In Volume I, there is a narration about the life and miracles of a certain hermit named Jonah, who supposedly lived in the fourth century. The author and date of this account are unknown, but it seems that it was composed in the late seventh or at the beginning of the eighth century.
The Life of Monk Jonah narrates that he was born in Cyprus to a noble Roman family during the fourth century. At an early age, Jonah admired the monastic life. He was secretly ordained as a priest by Epiphanius, bishop of Cyprus, and was encouraged to take the path of the monastic life. After a trip to collect medicinal plants in the mountains, Jonah decided not to return to his parent’s house. He escaped to Egypt and became one of the seventy disciples of the famous Egyptian monk Awgen. After dwelling in Egypt, Jonah, with other monks, traveled with their leader Awgen to Mesopotamia, where they settled in the foothills of mount Izla near the city of Nisibis. Later, Jonah left his monastic circle at the mountain of Izla and went to Anbar in Iraq, where he lived the life of a hermit. Because of his spiritual conduct and fame in performing miracles, a group of monks persistently asked him to preside over them.
Preferring the life of solitude, Jonah left Anbar secretly and went to the monastery of Rabban Thomas, found at the fringes of “Black Island,” where about two hundred monks were living. During his visit to the monastery, Jonah performed numerous miracles, such as bringing to life the dead son of a notable man from Mazon named Nu’aym or healing the son of a pearl fisher named Zarqon from the city of Milon. Also, in this account, we are told about Jonah’s mystical journey to an island near the monastery called “Black Island,” where a solitary monk named Philon lived. In the end, Jonah left the monastery of Rabban Thomas and returned to Anbar, where he performed many miracles, and his disciples founded a monastery for him. The monastery became the center of a thriving monastic community and pilgrimage for the local people.
The Monastery of Rabban Thomas and Its Location
The location and identification of the monastery of Saint Thomas and the site of “Black Island” became a subject of interest not only to scholars in the field of history and archaeology but also to the public in the UAE, especially after the discovery of two Christian monastic complexes in the UAE. In the following, I would like to present passages from the text of the Life of Jonah that directly or indirectly indicate the location of the monastery of Rabban Thomas. These passages help verify if the monastic complex of Rabban Thomas is the same one discovered on the Island of Sir Bani Yas, UAE.
First, the title of the account includes a reference to the location of the monastery of Saint Thomas:
The account of the glorious deeds of Rabban Mar Jonah the anchorite, in brief, by the righteous Mar Zadoy the Christ adorer, who is priest, solitary, and head of the monastery of Mar Thomas in the country of Hindu [India]. Its location [of the monastery] is situated below the country of Qaṭraye, at the fringes of the Black Island.
According to the narration, when monk Jonah decided to leave his place of dwelling in Anbār, Iraq, secretly, he revealed to a certain elder the location where he was going:
Then, he [Monk Jonah] arose at night and did not tell anybody where he was going, except to a certain holy Elder, from whom, he [Monk Jonah] asked for a prayer. He told him: ‘I am going to the Monastery of Rabban Thomas.’ Because he heard from the brethren that there is a monastery named Rabban Thomas where two hundred brethren were dwelling, found at the fringes of the Black Island.
Another sign of the location of the monastery is the geographical distance given in the account between the monastery location and the city of Mazon:
After they had sailed by sea for five days and were close to reaching the monastery [of Rabban Thomas], for the city of Mazon was a six days journey from us, the boy’s illness grew serious and he died.
The text highlights that the geographical context of this monastery is the coastal sea of Beth Qatrayē:
This miracle was heard about in all the Islands around us and in all the regions of the Qaṭrayē.
The narration describes the nature and character of the monastery’s inhabitants who were Qaṭrayē:
These Qaṭrayē are bitter when they get very angry.
Jonah left the monastery of Rabban Thomas and went on a journey crossing the sea toward another island named the ‘Black Island’:
Then, on the Friday after the Ascension, while I was conversing with him [Monk Jonah] during the night, as usual, we remembered the anchorite Rabban Philon, who was living on the Black Island.
According to the account, the Monastery of Rabban Thomas is found 300 parasangs from al-Anbār:
The blessed Elder told us: ‘Don’t labour over searching for that holy man, my sons, for he is more than three hundred parasangs distant from here’ [Peruz-Shabur/Anbār].
Again, the account tells us that the monastery is in the country of Beth Qaṭrayē:
(The Elder monk said:) that night that he [monk Jonah] left us he told me: ‘I am going to the region of Beth Qaṭrayē, to the monastery of Rabban Thomas.’
Also, according to the text, the monk who was looking for Jonah was planning to find him in the countries of Beth Qaṭrayē:
So, I entered the city of Peruz-Shabur, asking and making inquiries whether there might be some people going to the regions of the Qaṭrayē.
Once again, the text mentions that the monk found a merchant from the countries of Beth Qatrayē. The merchant was trading pearls in Anbār:
I approached a certain metal worker who was sitting in the market, and with the purchaser was sitting a certain metal worker from the region of Beth Qaṭrayē selling him pearls. My thoughts urged me to go up and ask him, ‘Where are you from, sir, I said. He replied, ‘I am from the region of Beth Qaṭrayē, and I am ready to travel there this very night. I said to him, ‘please do me a favor and take me with you, for I want to go to the monastery of Rabban Thomas.’
The text also tells us that the tribe of the merchant himself from Beth Qaṭrayē was living not far from the monastery:
‘What a powerful god the Christians have inside the Monastery of Rabban Thomas!’ He told me: ‘come with us since our encampment is found close to the monastery of your god, Rabban Thomas’. He set me on a camel and fed me generously all the way until here.
Over again, the account tells us that the monastery is in the country of Beth Qaṭrayē:
‘Do not tire yourselves out, my brethren: he is not in Beth Aramayē. But by tracking him down you will find him’. We begged him with much pleadings and supplications, and eventually, he (the Elder) revealed to us, that you were in the region of Beth Qaṭrayē, in the monastery of Rabban Thomas.
We can summarize the above historical information with the following: the monastery of Rabban Thomas is found below the country of the Qaṭrayē and at the fringes of an island called the “Black Island.” The Syriac text uses the word Šfūlē to indicate the location of the monastery of Rabban Thomas in its geographical relation to the ‘Black Island.’ Šfūlē is translated in English as “fringes.” The monastery is located six days of sea traveling from the city of Mazon, and it is surrounded by other inhabited islands in the country of the Qaṭrayē. The Qaṭrayē constituted a major part of the monastery’s inhabitants and the nearby region. There are three hundred parasangs between Anbār (Iraq) and the monastery of Rabban Thomas. Pearl fishing and trading were the region’s main occupations. The title of the account mentioned that the monastery was in the country of India.
Beth Qaṭrayē and Qaṭrayē
Beth Qaṭrayē was an ecclesiastic diocese of the Church of the East that covered the coastal area of East Arabia and the nearby islands in nowadays Kuwait, eastern Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Qatar. This area had at least three bishops and a metropolitan in the second half of the seventh century. Many East-Syriac theologians were born in this region, such as Dadīšo’, a theologian from the eighth century who speaks of an ancient monastery that contained “many brethren serving God according to the monastic rule.” According to primary and secondary sources, the western part of current Abu Dhabi in UAE was the border between Beth Qaṭrayē and Mazon (Oman). However, two geographical details might help us locate the monastery of Rabban Thomas. The text mentions that the monastery of Rabban Thomas is located three hundred parasangs from Piruz-Shabur/Iraq. The three hundred parasangs convert to approximately 1700 kilometers, considering the old Persian measuring of the parasang unit in ancient times. This distance of three hundred parasangs/1700 kilometers is almost the exact distance of traveling via land from the city of Piruz-Shabur in Iraq to the Island of Ṣīr Banī Yās, where a monastic complex was discovered.
Another geographical distance the text offers when it narrates the story of Nu’aym from the city of Mazon is that the monastery is located six days of seafaring from Mazon, which according to several sources, is the city of Soḥar in Oman. If we consider the duration of a maritime voyage, during average circumstances, it is around 80 km per day. It makes sense that it takes six days to travel from Soḥar to Ṣīr Banī Yās, where a monastic complex was discovered. Going beyond the Island of Ṣīr Banī Yās will probably take more than six days. Six days is a reasonable time to sail from Soḥar toward Ṣīr Banī Yās. The Life of Monk Jonah offers two geographical distances, by land and by sea. These two geographical distances arrive around the area of Ṣīr Banī Yās, or they meet a certain island within the Emirate of Abu Dhabi itself.
According to the title of Jonah’s biography, the monastery of Rabban Thomas was in the realm of India. There could be different reasons for inserting India as the general geographical context of the monastery of Rabban Thomas. In several historical compositions from antiquity, India is quite a vague geographical term that refers to different countries. In the Greek and Roman sources, the name of India applied not only to the historical India or India minor, i.e., the Indian subcontinent, home of the Indus valley civilization, but also to other countries on the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean as South Arabia, Somalia, and Ethiopia that formed instead “Greater India.” Since the second century B.C., the distinction between India, Arabia, and Ethiopia in terms of distances and seas separating them from each other was evident to ancient authors, but all three received the name India. This terminological ambiguity often resulted in geographical confusion between India, Ethiopia, and Arabia.
In classical Byzantine and Syriac sources, India Magna is divided into much lesser Indias, such as India Interior, India Septentrionalis, India Meridionalis, and India Exterior. The precise geographical boundaries of all these Indias are challenging to determine. Some writers included some parts of Persia, Afghanistan, and Baluchistan as part of India. Several Syriac ecclesiastical writers applied the term India to Ethiopia and South Arabia, including Aphrahat (fourth century), Dionysius of Tel Maḥre (ninth century), the Chronicle of Zuqnīn (eighth century), Michael the Great (twelfth century), Bar Hebraeus (thirteenth century). According to these sources, the Indians were classified ethnologically alongside the Ethiopians and the southern Arabs. The dark skin of the Indians can be assumed as the reason for their classification with the Ethiopians. Another reason for this classification would be the geographical position of Ethiopia and south Arabia, which extended on the main route by sea to the West Indian ports. Perhaps the confusion may have originated first in the writings of classical historians.
Another explanation of why the monastery of Rabban Thomas was associated with India is because of the name of St. Thomas. We must keep in mind the constant tradition of the Eastern Church that the Apostle Thomas evangelized India, and there is no historian, no poet, no breviary, no liturgy, and no writer of any kind who, having the opportunity of speaking of Thomas, does not associate his name with India. Some writers also mention Parthia and Persia among the lands that were evangelized by him, but all of them are unanimous in the matter of India. The name of Thomas can never be dissociated from that of India. Thomas and India are, in this respect, synonymous. Later writers reading the name of the patron of the monastery Rabban Thomas throughout the account identified him as Saint Thomas, the famous evangelizer of India. And since the monastery was in India, in the sense of Southern Arabia, the later authors presented the monastery and the people around it as Indians.
Furthermore, the Syriac term Aṯrā d-Hendo is the same as the Arabic expression Arḍ al-Hind, a geographical, commercial term describing the Sassanid maritime empire which extended from India to Iraq and incorporated both the Persian and Arab shores of the Gulf. This vast commercial maritime realm was developed during the Sassanid rule in the fourth century and flourished throughout Islamic power. Moreover, some locations in the Persian Gulf that are located within this commercial maritime realm were named “the land of India.” For example, the first city built by Muslims, the garrison town of Basra (635), benefited so much from these trade relations that it became a center of the Indian trade, to such an extent that Basra was called “Arḍ al-Hind” or “the land of India.” In his History, al-Ṭabarī mentions that during the Arab Muslim conquest of Iraq, Basra “was called the land of India.” Al-Ubulla, an old Persian port nearby al-Basra was also called “Arḍ al-Hind/the land of India” or “Juz’an min al-Hinid / a part of India” as well as “a harbor of Sind and Hind.” “Arḍ al-Hind / the land of India” in the sense of a vast commercial maritime realm that extended on all the coastal territories from India to the head of the Persian Gulf, is also mentioned in Yaqūt al-Ḥamawī, And in Ibn Baṭṭūṭā, Riḥlat. Additionally, Al-Ya’qūbī (died 897) considered Basra, Oman, Hind, and Sind a common geographical area.
Connecting the monastery of Thomas in Beth Qatrayē with India because of the above-mentioned reasons created a fictitious tradition during later periods that mixed up the geographical context of the activities of monk Jonah in the monastery of St. Thomas south of Beth Qatrayē with India, Indians, and St. Thomas the Apostle.
In a poem composed around 860 by Īšo’dnaḥ metropolitan of Basra, Jonah’s activities are placed among the Indians. Īšo’dnaḥ describes Jonah’s activities in the same terms that describe the evangelizing efforts of Saint Thomas among the Indians. This occurred in a period when India was organized under the direct control of the Catholicos. It’s important to mention that the same Īšo’dnaḥ bishop of Basra (860) is the author of a hagiographic collection called The Book of Chastity. This is a series of very brief notes on individual monastic founders, often grouped around a major figure and his disciples who went on to be the founder of smaller monasteries.
The poem by Īšo’dnaḥ of Basra is divided into twenty-two sections representing the letters of the Syriac alphabet; however, only the first two sections were published by I. Guidi in Bemerkungen zu den syrischen Acta Martyrum et Sanctorum. The second section (B) mentions the activities of the holy man Jonah in India and among the Indians, and mentions his dwelling in a monastery named after Saint Thomas located on an island:
From Cyprus, Jonah came and approached, this Jonah was chosen and raised in spirituality. He destroyed the pagan shrines in India making those who evangelized them great [in numbers]. He was opposed in the country of India and many people stood against him, however with the strength that he received, he cured, evangelized, and gave the Spirit [through baptism]. He dwelled in a monastery found on an Island which was founded after the name Thomas. He adorned his monastery with beauty and made the residence of many brethren in it.
Another example of mixing up the monastery of St. Thomas with India is the poem by Gewargīs al-Qūšī, an East-Syriac poet from the seventeenth century, who says:
When India was enlightened and well enriched by your teaching, [… …] with all kinds of distinguished donations it offered to build a monastery that you [St Thomas] are worth of. It (India) buried your body on the island where your residency was settled and adorned to your honour a very beautiful and decorated monastery.
The story of Jonah and his activities in Beth Qaṭrayē in the realm of India was Indianized from the ninth century to fit the Indian country and Christianity. Jonah became an evangelizer of India modeled on the image of Thomas. The patron of the monastery of Rabban Thomas became Thomas the Apostle.
A Burial Site Inside the Church
Another archaeological finding that correlates the location of Rabban Thomas with the location of Ṣīr Banī Yās’s monastery is the tomb that was found inside the church of the Monastery in Ṣīr Banī Yās. The tomb indicates an important ecclesiastical person was buried alone inside the church. The church was a shrine and famous burial site. The tomb is not a grave for multiple monks but only for one holy man: maybe a saint, founder, bishop, or abbot. This archaeological discovery showed that the church of the monastic complex in Ṣīr Banī Yās contains within its wall the tomb of an important person who was buried inside the church according to Christian rite:
A 2.4 m-wide entrance was found on the eastern side of the perimeter wall, with an adjacent burial, presumed to be that of the founders, an important abbot or a saint.
“An important discovery during the excavation of the gate in the eastern perimeter wall of the monastery was a single inhumation burial. This was of an adult male. Unfortunately, the grave had been truncated by tree planting so only parts of the individual’s arm, ribs, and legs survived. It appeared to be a typical Christian burial, an extended inhumation, laid on its back with the head at the west end of the grave.”
The fact that the discovered monastic complex on the island of Ṣīr Banī Yās, has within its walls a shrine of the holy man Thomas strengthens its identification with the monastery of Rabban Thomas. In an Arabic historical chronicle known as Abridged Church Stories, Muḫtaṣar Aḫbār al-Bī‘ah, which is preserved in an Arabic manuscript dated 1137, a short story about Jonah is found. According to this source, Jonah went to an island in the Sea which in the context of this chronicle means the islands of Beth Qaṭrayē. On this Island, there is the Tomb of Saint Thomas.
Then he (Jonah) went to the tomb [burial place] of Mar Thomas which is located [on an island] in the Sea, where he performed many miraculous things.
In the Syriac Sources, the Sea or the islands are ecclesiastic terms that refer to Beth Qaṭrayē, being a maritime region that contains several islands. The same chronicle of Muḫtaṣar Aḫbār al-Bī‘ah mentions Beth Qaṭrayē under these terms: جزائر البحر ‘the islands of the sea’ (p. 25), الجزر والبحر ‘the islands and the sea’ (p. 122), اساقفة الى البحر’ bishops to the sea’ (p. 127), العاشر: مطران قطرية في البحر ‘the tenth (among the metropolitans) is the metropolitan of Qaṭariyah in the sea’ (p. 129).
All these mentioned historical data points to a monastery named Rabban Thomas that existed during the seventh century on one of the islands in the southern part of Beth Qaṭrayē. The monastery became well known for the shrine of a holy man named Thomas, found inside the church or attached to it.
The identity and background of the Christian monastic complex discovered on the island of Ṣīr Banī Yās in the UAE is the central concern here. The available Syriac and Arabic historical sources help us identify this monastic complex with the monastery of Rabban Thomas mentioned in the Life of Jonah. This identification is based on an analysis of geographical and topographical data found in two hagiographical texts, which also were compared to what the archaeology and the paleoenvironmental data have provided. Furthermore, the letters of the patriarch of the Church of the East, Išo’yāhb III, are an important source that helps in reconstructing the historical background and the circumstances under which the Monastery of Ṣīr Banī Yās was established.
In the end, establishing the historical background and circumstances of the foundation of the monastery and witnessing the importance of its memory in hagiographical tradition centuries after its desertion makes us wonder about the role that this monastery played in the early period of Islam. Several questions present themselves, including the interaction with Muslims, the apostasy of the Christians of Mazon, the theological and spiritual intellectual activity that flourished in this region and this period, and the role of the monastery in the missionary efforts to Christianize India and Southeast Asia during the second half of the seventh and the first half of the eighth century.
Iskandar Bcheiry, 2019, “Shedding Light on the Identity and History of the Monastic Complex of Ṣīr Banī Yās (United Arab Emirates).” Parole De L’Orient, no. 45, pp. 39-65.
Paul Bedjan, 1890-1897, Acta Martyrum et Sanctorum Syriace, I-VII (Paris – Leipzig).
Mark Beech, 2009, Archaeology of the Late Pre-Islamic to Early Islamic Period with a particular focus on recent discoveries on Ṣīr Banī Yās Island (Abu Dhabi Emirate).
Sebastian P. Brock, 2015, “History of Mar Yawnan”, in An Anthology of Syriac Writers from Qatar in the Seventh Century, eds., M. Kozah, Abdulrahim Abu-Husayn, Saif Shaheen al-Murikhi, Haya al-Thani (Gorgias Eastern Christian Studies 39), pp. 1-42.
R. A. Carter, 2008, “Christianity in the Gulf during the first centuries of Islam”, in Arabian archaeology and epigraphy 19, no. 1, pp. 71-108.
J.-M. Fiey, 1969, “Diocèses syriens-orientaux du Golfe Persique”, in Mémorial Mgr. Gabriel Khouri-Sarkis (1898-1968), (Imprimerie Orientaliste, Louvain), pp. 209-219.
P. Butrus Hadad (ed.), 2000, Muḫtaṣar Aḫbār al-Bī‘ah (the lost part of the chronicle of Siirt) (Maṭba‘at al-dīwān, Bagdad).
Ignazio Guidi, 1892, “Bemerkungen zu den syrischen Acta Martyrum et Sanctorum”, in Zeitschrift der deutschen morgenländischen Gesellschaft, vol. 46, pp. 749-757.
Figure 1: The location of the Island of Ṣīr Banī Yās
Figure 2: The archaeological site of the monastery on the Island of Ṣīr Banī Yās
Figure 3: A plan of the archeological site of the monastery on the Island of Ṣīr Banī Yās
(Image Source: Abu Dhabi Culture)
 Jon Gambrell, “Christian monastery possibly pre-dating Islam found in UAE.” Associated Press, November 3, 2022. December 30, 2022. https://apnews.com/article/pope-francis-religion-dubai-united-arab-emirates-abu-dhabi-9d660941b79c99bbdb986b81453d8c9d
 CARTER, “Christianity in the Gulf”, 74.
 BEECH, “Archaeology of the Late Pre-Islamic”, 106.
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