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Israeli Archeologists Discover One of the World’s Oldest Mosques
by Hugh Fitzgerald
The Jerusalem Post recently carried a story about the discovery of a very early mosque in the Upper Negev by Israeli archaeologists.
The ruins of a 1200 year old rural mosque, one of the earliest mosques in the world, were uncovered in an archaeological dig in the predominately Bedouin city of Rahat north of Beersheba.
“A local rural mosque from this early period is a rare find in the Middle East and in the world in general and especially in the area north of Beersheba in which a similar building has not been found until now,” said Shahar Zur and Dr. Jon Seligman, the directors of the excavation on behalf of the Antiquities Authority.
“From this period, there are large known mosques in Jerusalem and in Mecca, but here is evidence of an ancient house of worship, that seems to have been used by farmers living in the area,” they added. “We found the ruins of the open-air mosque, a rectangular building with a “Mihrab” (a prayer niche) facing south, to the direction of Mecca. These features are evidence for the purpose for which this building was used, many hundred years ago.”
A farm from the end of the Byzantine period (500-600 C.E.) was also uncovered in the excavations, as well as a small settlement from the beginning of the Islamic period (600-700 C.E.) with remains of buildings that were split into living spaces, open courtyards, storage space and places used for food preparation, including “tabbuns” (open-air fireplaces used for baking).
“These sites were part of the agricultural system that existed in the northern Negev in early times,” explained Zur and Seligman. “The soil was suitable for growing grains and the ground water in perennial streams attracted settlers here who wanted to cultivate the land.”
“This is one of the earliest mosques known of from the time of the first arrival of Islam in Israel, after the Arab conquest in 636 C.E.,” said Professor Gideon Avni, an expert in the period at the Antiquities Authority. “The discovery of the mosque next to an agricultural town between Beersheba and Ashkelon indicates the processes of cultural and religious change which the
“The uncovering of the town and the mosque next to it, significantly contribute to studies on the history of the land in this stormy period,” he added. “According to historical Islamic sources, the new Muslim government distributed plots of land to its senior officials, including Omar ibn al-Etz, an Arab military commander who took over the land of Israel and Syria. The continuation of excavations on the site will perhaps provide answers to the questions regarding the foundation of the settlement and the nearby mosque and its connection to the Arab conquerors of the land of Israel.”
The dig was headed by the Israel Antiquities Authority alongside Bedouin residents and youth from towns in the area as a new neighborhood was established in the city. An initiative by the antiquities authority engages organized groups of youth during the summer vacation in archaeological digs, allowing them to earn a fair wage, engage with the past and also collect experiences for their whole lives.
What strikes one first is the evident delight of these Israeli archaeologists in uncovering part of the Arab and Muslim past. They were pleased to be able to excavate not just the mosque, but two sites nearby. One was a farm, from the very end of the Byzantine period (circa 600 C.E.), and another, a small settlement from the early Islamic period (600-700 C.E.) near the mosque. They look forward to continuing the excavations, particularly of the Muslim settlement nearby, to try to figure out more about the ownership of the site, which they believe may have been given to to a Muslim military commander, Omar ibn al-Etz, for his services. They treated the Muslim site as they would have any Jewish site, with the same satisfaction in increasing our knowledge of the past.
Second, there is the touching concern for the Bedouin and Arab young men whom the Israeli archaeologists employed as diggers on the site, giving them the opportunity “to earn a fair wage” — that is, the same wages as would be paid to an Israeli at the same level — and hoping, too, to stimulate their interest beyond wage-earning, to “engage with the past” and “to collect experiences for their whole lives.” These Israelis are not exactly the monsters that BDS, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Linda Sarsour, and Roger Waters have been malevolently presenting to the world.
Third, the treatment of Jewish sites by Arabs and Muslims has been quite different from the way Israelis have treated Muslim sites. When Jordan held East Jerusalem and the Old City from 1949 to 1967, it demolished or destroyed all 58 synagogues in the Old City. The Western Wall was transformed into an exclusively Muslim holy site associated with al-Buraq, the fabulous winged steed that Muhammad was said to have ridden up to Heaven. No Jews were allowed to pray at the Western Wall. In the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives, 38,000 graves were systematically destroyed, and Jews were not allowed to be buried there. Some of the tombstones were used to line the floors of Jordanian army latrines. Thousands of them were ground into gravel, for use at building sites. Since 1967, when Israel came into possession of the Old City, no Muslim sites have been damaged in any way. And in order to prevent conflict, Israel has forbidden not Muslims, but Jews, from saying prayers anywhere on the Temple Mount.
When in 2015 the “Palestinians” in Nablus set ablaze Joseph’s Tomb, one of Judaism’s holiest sites, they were just doing what came naturally, following the Jordanian example, and that of many other Muslims, such as the Afghans who destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas, and the Islamic State militants who in March 2015 demolished the ancient archaeological site of Hatra and Nimrud. None of these pre-Islamic or non-Islamic sites have a right, in the view of devout Muslims, to exist. It was Muslim Turks, not Napoleon’s soldiers (as many in the West have mistakenly believed), who managed to shoot off the nose of the Sphinx. The Sphinx was pre-Islamic; it had no right to exist. Muslims demand respect for their sites, but offer only contempt for, and destruction of, the pre-Islamic and non-Islamic sites of others. If the most fanatical Muslims had their way, even the pyramids would be destroyed, but here they would face the fury of mainstream Egyptians who recognize what a colossal, even fatal, blow that would be to Egypt’s tourist industry.
Fourth, when have you ever heard of Arab archaeologists uncovering a single Jewish site? Jews lived all over the Middle East for several thousand years. Some 19th century scholars (Al-Bustani, Wüstenfeld) have suggested that Jews may even have established a state in the Hejaz. There must be considerable evidence of their presence. But whatever newly-discovered physical evidence exists of Jewish life in the Middle East outside of Israel, it is not being excavated.
A well-travelled Kuwaiti once told me that he knew of several Jewish sites that had been discovered in western Saudi Arabia, but that the information about them was a state secret. If he was telling the truth, I suspect that such sites would by now have been quietly destroyed. The less physical evidence of an ancient Jewish presence in Arabia, as far as Arabs and Muslims are concerned, the better.
Meanwhile, the scrupulous, scholarly, kind-hearted Israeli archaeologists, working together with young Arabs who are treated with dignity, paid a “fair wage,” and given work that the Israelis clearly hope might kindle their interest in archeology, have uncovered one of the oldest mosques in the world and would no doubt be glad to find other evidence of early Islam. One more way — there are so many — to distinguish the Israelis from those who wish them ill.
First published in Jihad Watch.