Early mosque sheds new light on the Byzantine-Islamic transition
Excavations near the town of Rahat in the Negev Desert shed new light on the transition from the Byzantine to Islamic periods in the southern Levant (634–1099 C.E.). The excavations, carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority, uncovered a luxurious estate as well as a small mosque that both date to the very beginning of the Islamic period in the seventh or eighth centuries. The team also uncovered a Byzantine farmstead that dates only a century earlier. These finds illustrate the rapid transition from Christianity to Islam in the northern Negev.
According to the excavation directors, “We uncovered a farmhouse of the Byzantine period that apparently housed Christian farmers and included a fortified tower and rooms with strong walls surrounding a courtyard. On a nearby hilltop, we found estates constructed in a completely different manner; these were built about a hundred years later, in the late seventh to ninth centuries—the early Islamic period”
One of the most intriguing discoveries was a small mosque, likely only able to hold a few dozen worshipers. The mosque is a simple, square-shaped structure and one of its walls has a half-circle niche (mihrab) facing in the direction of Mecca. The mosque is interesting both because of its early date and its rural location. This makes it one of the earliest-known rural mosques discovered during an archaeological excavation. Its small size means that it likely only served the local inhabitants of the area.
A little over 1,000 feet from the mosque, the team discovered a luxurious country estate, which dates to the same time. The estate was constructed around a central courtyard and included ornate halls, some paved with marble and decorated with red and yellow painted frescoes. The wealth of the inhabitants can be seen in the fine tableware and glass vessels found at the site. Many of these were covered with drawings of various plants and animals.
“The evidence from all of the excavation areas gathered so far: the dwellings, the houses of prayer, the ovens and utensils, sheds light on the beginnings of the historical process that took place in the northern Negev with the introduction of a new religion—the religion of Islam, and a new rulership and culture in the region,” said the excavators.
The project began as a salvage excavation, spurred on by the planned construction of a new neighborhood in the predominantly Bedouin town of Rahat. The mosque and other early Islamic finds are expected to be integrated into the new neighborhood, connecting the modern residents to their ancient past.
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