Sunday 10 November 2019

Ed-Dur and the Mysteries of the Ancient World

The site of Ed-Dur. Nothing to see here, folks. Move on, move on...

In the heady days of the building boom, back in the early 'noughties', Dubai property company Emaar started developing the coastal area north of Umm Al Quwain, flattening a great swathe of land and building a posh little sales centre on a curve in the road north to Ras Al Khaimah. It had magnificent views out over the mangroves. Across the road was a ramshackle cold store and a tiny mosque. The place is called Al Dour.

The scheme came to little in the end. The building boom turned into a bust and only a couple of hundred houses were actually constructed. They're still there today, a tiny gated community at the end of a wee drive from the main road, hoarding blocking the views either side of you (it always reminds me of the final scenes from Terry Gilliam's surreal and brilliant Brazil) until you emerge into a small carbon copy of Arabian Ranches.

Off the main road connecting these little beige 'dare to dream' wonders and the sales centre, to the right uphill just before you hit the curve as the road snakes past the mangroves to your left, you'll find a little brown sign to the 'Ed-Dur Archaeological Site'. If you drive on the sandy track up there, you'll find yourself looking at a expanse of shrubby desert fenced off from prying eyes and, behind the fence, a few clapboard buildings that look like a tatty little labour camp.

I'd not recommend this one as a day trip, because you'll see no more than I have just described.

And yet beyond that fence lies one of the most remarkable and mysterious sites in the UAE - an early Pre-Islamic city sprawled across some 800 hectares. Blossoming from the 3rd Century BCE onwards, Ed-Dur is closely linked with Mleiha inland - the two settlements are joined by the great wadi that snakes inland from here through the oasis towns of Falaj Al Mualla and Dhaid. Coins found here at Ed-Dur were minted using coin moulds found at Mleiha, animal burials at the two cities follow a similar rite - while human burials speak of rituals associated with Parthian northern Iraq.

Part of the excavated temple complex at Ed-Dur, slowly being washed away...

Ed-Dur was a significant city with links to India, Persia, Mesopotamia, the Levant and Yemen. It was home to a vast variety of mudbrick and other constructions, from fortifications to houses and temples. It is here that we see alabaster sheets used as glass in windows and it is here that we find ceramics from Mesopotamia, Iran and India as well as Roman glass, all dated to the 1st Century BCE. The temple complex unearthed here contained an Aramaic inscription, one of the earliest finds of writing we have from the area (the others are, of course, from Mleiha), thought to have been the name of an early sun god, Shams (Himyarite) or Shamash (Akkadian).

Ed-Dur has been put forward as Pliny’s Omana, ‘a harbour of great importance in Carmania’. Carmania was a Persian province under Alexander the Great which stretched along the coast from Bandar Lengeh to Bandar Jask. Alexander never quite managed to invade Arabia, despite having expressed a clear interest in doing just that - sending his Admiral, Nearchos, to explore the seas from India to Basra. Nearchos never made landfall on the Arabian side of the Gulf and Alexander died before he could add southeastern Arabia to his list of conquests.

Ed-Dur still has many secrets to tell us. Hellenistic era coins found here celebrate 'Abiel', although we have no idea who Abiel was - similar coins have been found in hoards in Bahrain but in a location dating them to some 300 years before the coins at Ed-Dur. These 'Tetra Drachma' were the coins minted at Mleiha - Abiel seems to have lived on in coinage for a great deal longer than in life.

Hellenistic Tetra Drachma found at Ed-Dur

Both Mleiha and Ed-Dur seem to have declined in the first two centuries of what we now call the 'Common Era' and then they likely fell to the invasion of the Sasanians. Ed-Dur was never to recover and provided archaeologists with a remarkable trove of finds (some of which you'll find on display at Umm Al Quwain's eclectic and pleasant little museum). Changes in sea levels and the silting of the coast here have meant that the maritime centre and former port of Ed-Dur is today a good few hundred metres from the sea it used to serve.

Today, the excavated temple and other buildings stand scandalously exposed to the elements, literally washing away with every rainy season that lashes the site. Unprotected and neglected, the entire area of Ed-Dur (imagine an archaeological centre like Mleiha established here - what a marvel!) is fenced off, a sad testament to the overlooked heritage of the Emirates.

So next time you're hoying off to the Barracuda, look out for the brown sign before the corner by the sales centre and spare a thought for the still-hidden mysteries of the ancient city of Ed-Dur...

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