As a resident of the Negev in the south of Israel, discoveries here especially interest me. This last year, one of the earliest mosques in the world was found outside of the largest Bedouin city in the Negev, Rahat.
The Negev is a region in Israel which comprises more than half the land mass of the country, but few residents. It is a land of little rain, rough terrain, and few resources. Yet, despite the conditions, during the time of the Byzantines (4th-7th century CE), this land flourished. Researchers and archaeologists have uncovered here many agricultural settlements, churches and monasteries showing that, despite all, this land was viable and not simply a barren desert.
Why would ancient people make the effort to settle here?
Often, trade and commerce drive settlement – here, the lucrative spice trade between the East, and the European and Mediterranean markets. Those trade routes passing through the Negev were established sometime around the 2nd century BCE by the Nabateans, a desert people who learned how to control trade routes by managing the water that caravans needed to make the journey to the port at Gaza. The Nabateans were conquered by the Romans in 104 CE, their cities were fortified, and the entire region started to develop. The Byzantines, the Christian Roman empire, developed the desert even more, even growing grapes and making wine in the Negev desert. Most of these settlements came to an end with the coming of the Moslems in the 7th century and continue a slow process of being conquered by the desert. (See my posts here and here.)
Last summer, Jon Seligman and Shahar Zur, during a salvage dig outside of Rahat, found a structure which challenges this narrative. The structure is one of the earliest mosques in the world, contemporary with the mosques in Mecca and Jerusalem. Not a large structure, this open-air mosque has a mihrab (prayer niche) facing south towards Mecca.
Excavation of the area, done with volunteers from Rahat and youth groups from the city, uncovered an earlier layer from the time of the Byzantines – a small farming compound dating to the 6th-7th century CE. The soil is appropriate for growing grains; and sufficient ground water exists to support this type of agriculture alongside a modest population. These local farmers were likely Christians although no specifically Christian building were found here.
The excavation team found that the earlier agricultural settlement was replaced by a new agricultural settlement from the beginning of the Islamic period (7th-8th century CE) which included a mosque. It is known that the conquering Islamic regime distributed plots of land to its senior officials, including Amr ibn al-As, the commander who conquered Israel and Syria. Could this mosque have been built as part of his campaign?
Amr ibn al-As was one of the early converts to Islam and became a force for its spread. He was assigned to the area of Palestine, which was at the time firmly in the hands of the Byzantines. He won the Battle of Dathin, 12 miles east of Gaza, against the Byzantines in 634 CE after crossing into the Negev from the area of Eilat. According to a 7th century Syriac Apocalyptic text:
“On Friday, 4 February, at the ninth hour, there was a battle between the Romans (Byzantines) and Mohammed’s Arabs in Palestine, twelve miles east of Gaza. The Romans fled, leaving behind the general, whom the Arabs killed. Some 4000 poor villagers of Palestine were killed there, Christians, Jews and Samaritans. The Arabs ravaged the whole region.”
But maybe Amr also rebuilt it for his own purposes, cementing his rule and spreading Islam? New findings, such as the mosque in Rahat, show that there was also growth and building during this tumultuous time.