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UAE discovers Gulf's oldest known pearling town

The town discovered on Siniyah Island showed clear evidence of its pearling industry from the sixth century AD.
YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP via Getty Images

The discovery of the oldest known pearling town in the Gulf was announced on Tuesday. Uncovered in the United Arab Emirates on Siniyah Island, it’s believed to date to the region’s pre-Islamic history in the late sixth century AD. 

The discovery was made last year by the Umm Al Quwain Department of Tourism and Archaeology and its partners in the northern emirate of Umm Al Quwain, according to the UAE government news agency WAM. The town is located near the ancient Christian Siniyah Monastery, which was also discovered in 2022. 

The department's chair, Sheikh Majid bin Saud bin Rashid Al Mualla, said the discovery is of major importance to the UAE emirate of Umm Al Quwain, where generations of pearlers still live.

“Pearling has been an essential part of the livelihood and a fundamental component of the heritage for over 7,000 years. In addition, the Neolithic graves in Umm Al Quwain are known for evidence of pearling,” he said. 

The pearling town discovered on the island appears to cover about 12 hectares of land and has a large number of identifiable houses indicating that thousands of residents lived there. The houses were built of beach rocks and other traditional materials from the surrounding environment and the roofs were made of palm trees.

Rania Kannouma, head of Archaeology at the Umm Al Quwain Department of Tourism and Archaeology, said her team’s research has confirmed that the Siniyah Island town is one of the largest ancient urban settlements ever found in the country.

A large area covered with opened and discarded oyster shells was found near the city.

The researchers concluded that the residents were likely Christian, as the town predates the rise of Islam across the region, which was introduced to the UAE in around 630 AD, according to the History of the UAE government site.

Until now, the earliest known Christian site discovered in the UAE was the church and monastery of Sir Bani Yas Island, dated to the seventh and eighth centuries AD, off the coast of Abu Dhabi. First discovered in 1992, it was reopened in 2019.

More research and excavation work on Siniya Island will continue in partnership between the UAE Ministry of Culture and Youth, UAE University, the Italian archaeological mission in Umm Al Quwain and the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University.

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