Archeologists have just announced the discovery of the oldest “Pearl City” – a city whose economy was based solely on pearl-diving – on the island of Siniyah that belongs to the United Arab Emirates. The story is here: “Archaeologists Discover Oldest Pearl City in the Gulf in the UAE,” i24 News, March 20, 2023:
Archaeologists on Monday claimed to have found the oldest pearl city in the Persian Gulf on an island off one of the northern Sheikhdoms of the United Arab Emirates.
The artifacts found on the island of Siniyah in Umm al-Quwain, which was probably home to thousands of people and hundreds of houses, date back to the region’s pre-Islamic period in the late 6th century.
This site then, which has been proudly announced by Emirati authorities to the world, dates from the pre-Islamic period known as the “Jahiliyah,” or Time of Ignorance. For many Muslims, that pre-Islamic period holds no interest, for it is seen as a veritable Dark Age before the Light of Islam. But in the UAE today, there is considerable excitement about any archeological finds from that very period. Recently, the UAE also found on the island a Christian monastery that is believed to be 1,400 years old, which would mean that it was built just as Islam was coming into being, across the Arabian Peninsula in Mecca and Medina. The attention given in the UAE to the Christiin monastery is a far cry from previous centuries, when interest in, or study of, anything dating from the pre-Islamic period was scorned.
While earlier pearl towns have been mentioned in historical texts, this is the first time archaeologists claim to have physically found one dating to this early period in the entire Persian Gulf region….
The pearl city is located on Siniyah Island, which protects the Khor al-Beida marshes in Umm al-Quwain, an emirate some 50 kilometers northeast of Dubai along the Persian Gulf coast. Archaeologists had already discovered on the island, whose name means “flashing lights,” an ancient Christian monastery dating back 1,400 years.
The city is located directly south of this monastery, on one of the fingers of the island, and extends for over 12 hectares. Archaeologists have found a variety of dwellings made of beach rock and lime mortar, ranging from cramped quarters to larger houses with courtyards, suggesting social stratification…
The city predates the rise of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula, indicating that its inhabitants were probably Christians. The Prophet Muhammad was born around 570 and died in 632 after conquering Mecca, in present-day Saudi Arabia.
It’s a welcome sign when the Muslim Arabs of the Gulf, and especially those in its culturally most advanced state, the UAE, take an interest in the pre-Islamic history of their own land, instead of dismissing that history as unworthy of study. Perhaps the pre-Islamic period will come eventually to be seen by many more Muslims not as merely a Time of Ignorance, but possessing a value all its own, just as Christians came, especially during the Renaissance, to value the pre-Christian world of classical antiquity. Instead of dividing history uncompromisingly between the pre-Islamic and the Islamic periods, Muslims may think of their own national histories, just as non-Muslims do, as a continuum.
Saudi Arabia has similarly been engaged in promoting its pre-Islamic UNESCO World Heritage Site al-Hijr, also known as Madain Saleh — one of four World Heritage sites in Saudi Arabia. This early site contains a spectacular series of 111 rock-cut tombs dating from the 1st century B.C. to the 1st century A.D. The tomb owners were Nabataean residents, and the tombs hewn into the rock are akin to those at the Nabatean city of Petra — “that rose-red city, half as old as Time” — in Jordan. The Crown Prince has taken a great interest in developing pre-Islamic sites as tourist attractions. In 2018
France and Saudi Arabia signed a $20 billion deal to accelerate the development of sites at al-Ula, in the northwestern part of the country. Archaeological surveyors have identified some 60,000-100,000 unknown sites in this region alone.
For many years Saudi elites and Wahhabi ideologues have considered the existence of pre-Islamic archaeological sites as undermining strictly “Arab-Muslim” interpretations of the Saudi national identity. Some conservative clerics have gone to great lengths to deter residents from visiting al-Ula, preying on people’s piety by spreading the story that the sites are “haunted” by jinn. But invocation of the “jinn” will work only on the most credulous of Muslims, and the Saudi authorities will denounce the rumors about the jinn. Such stories, of course, won’t keep any non-Islamic tourists away from these sites.
When the UAE devotes resources to study and restore for visitors a 1,400-year old Christian monastery, or to preserve a pre-Islamic site, like the just-discovered “pearl city,” and when Saudi Arabia commits $20 billion to develop pre-Islamic sites as tourist attractions, this does turn the attention – favorable and proud attention – of Muslims to the pre-Islamic period of their existence. And that is all to the good.