World’s oldest pearl city found in UAE

BLUE ISLAND, United Arab Emirates (AP). Archaeologists said on Monday they had found the oldest pearling city in the Persian Gulf on an island off one of the United Arab Emirates’ northern sheikhs.

Artifacts found in this city on the island of Sinia in Umm al-Quwain, where thousands of people and hundreds of houses probably once lived, date back to the pre-Islamic history of the region in the late 6th century. While historical texts mention older pearling cities, this is the first time archaeologists say they have physically found one of the cities from this ancient era in the Gulf states.

“This is the oldest example of this kind of pearl city Khaliji,” said Timothy Power, an associate professor of archeology at the University of the United Arab Emirates, using the word meaning “bay” in Arabic. “It’s the spiritual ancestor of cities like Dubai.”

The city of pearl is located on the island of Sinia, which protects the swamps of Khor al Beida in Umm el Quwain, the emirate, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) northeast of Dubai along the coast of the Persian Gulf. On the island, whose name means “flashing lights”, probably due to exposure to the white-hot sun overhead, archaeologists have already discovered an ancient Christian monastery that is already 1,400 years old.

The city lies directly south of this monastery on one of the sinuous fingers of the island and extends over some 12 hectares (143,500 square yards). Archaeologists have uncovered a variety of houses made from beach rock and mortar, ranging from cramped quarters to larger houses with courtyards, indicative of social stratification, Power said. The site also shows signs of year-round habitation, unlike other pearling operations that take place in seasonal locations in the region.

“Houses crowd there, cheek to cheek,” he added. “The main thing here is consistency. People live there all year round.”

In the houses, archaeologists found loose pearls and diving weights that freedivers used to quickly descend to the sea floor, relying only on holding their breath.

The city predates the advent of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula, which makes its inhabitants likely to be Christians. The Islamic prophet Muhammad was born around 570 and died in 632 after the conquest of Mecca in present-day Saudi Arabia.

The excavations were attended by the Department of Tourism and Archeology of Umm Al Quwain, the University of the United Arab Emirates, the Italian Archaeological Mission in the Emirate and the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World of New York University. Umm Al Quwain, the least populated emirate in the UAE, plans to build a visitor center on the site.

Today, the area next to the swamp is better known for the cheap liquor store at the Emirati’s Barracuda Beach Resort. In recent months, authorities have destroyed a massive Soviet-era cargo plane linked to a Russian arms dealer known as “Death Dealer” while he was building a bridge to Sinia Island for a $675 million property development. The authorities hope that development, like other construction, will contribute to the growth of the emirate’s economy.

However, even this ancient site has lessons for the Emirates.

The history of pearling, which quickly collapsed after the First World War with the advent of cultured pearls and the Great Depression, is of particular importance in the history of the UAE, especially in view of the looming reckoning with another mining industry. While sales of crude oil built the country upon its formation in 1971, the Emirates will have to grapple with its fossil fuel legacy and possibly plan for a carbon-neutral future as it hosts UN climate talks later this year. COP28.

Those who searched for the site found a nearby landfill filled with broken pieces of discarded oyster shells. People walking around the island can also feel these remains crunch under their feet.

“For every 10,000 oyster shells, only one pearl can be found. You have to find and discard thousands and thousands of oyster shells to find one,” Power said. “The waste, the industrial waste of the pearl industry, was colossal. You’re dealing with millions, millions of discarded oyster shells.”

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Follow John Gambrell on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.

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