Christian communities in the persian Gulf from the 4th-5th cent AD

Archaeological and geophysical survey in deserted early islamic village Al-Qusur (Failaka, Kuwait)

AuteursK. Pieta du même auteur

Archaeological Institute SAS

Failaka Island, the second largest and the only inhabited off-shore island of Kuwait, is situated 17 km east of Kuwait mainland, in the entrance to Kuwait Bay. They can be found along the shores and approximately in the middle of the island and correspond with occurrence of known archaeological sites.
2 Failaka’s history goes back to the Bronze Age Dilmun civilization. After the decline of the occupation during the Middle Bronze Age, Failaka was again inhabited during Seleucid and post-Seleucid periods when a fort and a temple were established there. During that time Failaka was known as Ikaros.
3 The most important representative of this time on the island is the investigated site on Al-Qusur. Textual records indicate very clearly the presence of monks, churches and Christian communities in the Gulf from the 4th-5th cent. AD or earlier which has not been confirmed by the archaeological records, yet. The archaeological evidences show that period of active church building actually followed the disappearance of Bet Qatraye and its bishops from the texts in 676 AD, that churches were established even thereafter and that “Christianity in the region persisted until at least the late ninth century” (Carter, 2008). The eighth and ninth century are sometimes even referred to as the Golden Age of the Church of the East (Baumer, 2006).

Al-Qusur site and history of research

4 Al-Qusur is an area in the middle of the island of Failaka and belongs to one of its elevated spots with highest altitude ca. above mean sea level (AMSL) and the lowest one 2 m. The area of around 2 by 2.6 km covered by archaeological remains is surrounded from east and west by marshes and has easiest access to the shore and to the sea from the north and south. The archaeological remains (foundations of courtyard houses, fenced farmsteads and isolated smaller structures) were first recorded by aerial prospecting in 1960. The site was first surveyed and excavated by the Italian mission in the mid 1970s (Patitucci and Uggeri, 1984). In the late 1980s and in 1999 the Kuwaiti-French and French missions were active here (Callot and Calvet, 1999). Kuwaiti-Slovak Archaeological Mission (further KSAM) began its activities in 2006. Apart from field walking and excavation, the geophysical methods were employed at the site. The French Mission linked up to previous research since 2007.
5 General plan of the site created in 1970s by the Italian team does not display all the structures and courtyard houses on the site as it was proved by survey of KSAM in 2006 and 2007. At the moment, over 140 settlement units can be found at Al-Qusur when combining the outputs of aerial photographing in 1960, and results of Italian and Kuwaiti-Slovak teams.
6 Dating of the site varies between 5th-6th and 9th-10th cent. AD (Umayyad and Early Abbasid dynasties; see Patitucci and Uggeri [1984], p. 160; Carter [2008], p. 92, 97, although recently the dates were narrowed between mid 8th and early 9th cent. AD [Kennet, 2007]).

Ground penetrating radar survey of courtyard house 1

7 The GPR survey of the courtyard house 1 was carried out twice – in 2006 and in 2008 (Fig. 1). In 2006 the data were collected along the profiles with N-S orientation on the area 50 by 50 m (Pieta/Shehab/Tirpák/Bielich/Bartík/Ďuriš 2007) and in 2008 along E-W oriented profiles on the area 60 by 70 m. The GPR data were acquired using RAMAC X3M (Geoscience Malå, Sweden) equipped with 500 MHz shielded antenna. At the selected area the data were collected within parallel grids with mutual distance of lines 0.50 m, in a step mode 0.02 m, and depth (time window) 60 ns. The horizontal time slices for the depths 0.3-0.4 m from the investigated area (Fig. 2A) clearly show the anomalies caused by the foundations of a courtyard house partially visible also on the surface.
Figure 1 - Al-Qusur. Part of the geodetic plan with houses.

Excavation of courtyard 1

8 In year 2008 we excavated courtyard 1 (by Slovak 1, 81 by Italian team). The foundations were very well preserved, small parts of fence was destroyed. The entrance was discovered in N-W- corner. The walls were 50 cm wide. In the S-W corner, there were small outbuildings. In total, 640 m2 (in 25 trenches and 5 deep soundings) was uncovered and the following structures were documented: central house (central building), courtyard fence, two outbuildings (one outside and one inside the fence), ditch, and an oval structure (of later date) (Fig. 2B and Fig. 3). The extent of the excavations almost always reached the bedrock. By surface prospecting were found pottery and glass vessel fragments, as well as some other small finds found. Generally, 13 fragments from recognized glass vessels and many other glass splinters were discovered.
Figure 2 - Al-Qusur. GPR horizontal slice for depth 30-40 cm (A) and plan of excavated architecture (B).

Figure 3 - Al-Qusur. Photo from excavation in 2008.

9 The results of the excavation showed no record of rebuilding of the house 1. In our opinion, it is a standard type of early medieval courtyard house, typical for Al-Qusur site. The oval feature in northern part of fence is, secondarily built on the ruins of the courtyard. KSAM is intending to continue its activities on Al-Qusur.

 Carte du Moyen-Orient, avec indication de l’emplacement de Faïlaka. Carte H. David-Cuny © IFPO

« Temple A » de la forteresse hellénistique. Au 1er plan, l’autel. Photo Y. Guichard © DAMKuwait.
« Temple A » de la forteresse hellénistique. Au premier plan, l’autel. Photo Y. Guichard © DAMKuwait.

Forteresse hellénistique, secteur nord des fortifications. En bas, 1ère ligne des murailles, en haut l’extension ; entre les deux, tour et chicane. Photo Y. Guichard © DAMKuwait.
Forteresse hellénistique, secteur nord des fortifications. En bas, première ligne des murailles, en haut l’extension ; entre les deux, tour et chicane. Photo Y. Guichard © DAMKuwait.

Al Qusur, exemple de vestige d’habitat © M. Gelin.
Al Qusur, exemple de vestige d’habitat © M. Gelin.

Archeological and Textual Evidence of Christian Presence in Pre-Islamic Arabia.

This is a research paper I have written for my Sources of Islamic Art and Architecture course a few months back, and thought a lot might be interested in the discussion of this neglected topic.
Arabia is a term that is used to refer to the vast territory, which stretches from the Euphrates to the fertile regions of Transjordan, and from the borders of the Fertile Crescent to the tip of the Arabian Peninsula. The Arabs’ tribal life from the Southern until the Northern parts of the Arabian region was very much exposed to the cultures and religions of the neighbouring countries.

-A Map of Arabia.

Islam is the main religion, but, most people from that expanse understand that the only prior religion to the area is paganism, so, with the emergence of Islam it was thought that paganism disappeared. Only a few realize that Christianity was well spread in Arabia between paganism and Islam. However, according to Shedd (2004), Christianity entered Arabia from three distinct geographical sources: The first two sources have dominated almost the whole Northern part of Arabia starting from the Red Sea until the Persian Gulf; these two are Palestine and Syria; and Mesopotamia and Babylonia. Whereas, the third source for Christianity laid in Africa as the Himyarite Christians in Yemen allied themselves in Abyssinia.
Archaeology has well recorded and documented the evidence of Christianity’s presence in pre-Islamic Arabia, especially during the centuries before the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), in certain parts of the region more than others. This essay is an attempt to study and re-assess the archaeological and textual evidence of Christianity during the pre-Islamic era in Arabia excavated, proving that Christianity was at a point a widely spread religion in Arabia by examining the various churches in the south-western, the eastern, and the northern regions of Arabia.
South-western Arabia:
While looking at the history of this particular part of Arabia, we find that two prominent historians; who are Al-Azraqi and Al-Tabari have documented most archaeological and textual Christian evidence during the pre-Islamic times. The former stated that a famous pre-Islamic church, known as Al-Qulays, was built in Sana’a as a consequence of the interventions from Ethiopia in Yemen in C.A 522 A.D.
King (1980) gave a detailed description of Al-Qulays and its history, he mentioned that its emergence was in the light of the invasion that took place by Monophysite Christian king of Aksum, The Najashi, on Yemen after the massacre of Christians at Al-Ukhdud. The Najashi asked Abraha to be the commander of the Ethiopian force in Yemen, which resulted in his building of the church in Sana’a. According to Al-Azraqi in King (1980), Abraha himself brought the church’s stones from Ma’rib, particularly from the castle that was ascribed to the Queen of Sheba, Balqees. Evidences indicate that the walls of the church included mosaics of glass or gold glass cubes. The Qubbah in Al-Qulays included variegated or polychrome mosaic crosses that would almost certainly have been located on the walls of the church, an edict having been issued in the Byzantine Empire in 427 A.D. It is important to mention that besides the Qubbah, the coloured marble, gold, and solver that dominated its architecture.
In terms of the mosaics used in Al-Qulays, there is an agreement amongst almost all the concerned historians the Byzantine emperor was asked to send mosaics and marble for the church with craftsmen of Sana’a. Moreover, there is another indication that comes as independent context that Al-Qulays church was decorated with mosaics comes in an independent context; for re-using them in decorating the extended mosque in Mecca by Ibn Al-Zubair, whose work is the earliest recorded use of mosaics in the Islamic architecture (King, 1980).
Another church that used to be located in the southern region of Arabia is Bi’ah in Najran, which seems to have much less information than Al-Qulays’s. Excavations have recorded that mosaics and gold decorated its walls and ceilings. But, there is not really enough information on the mosaics in Najran although it existed in almost the same period of Sana’a church; while looking at the evidences it becomes quite clear that the art of using mosaics was alien to this region of Arabia and the only two recorded mosaics might be expected to belong to the same period. Having said this, there are talks that at a later date the Byzantines have sent mosaics to help the Umayyads in decorating the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, as well as later authorities have claimed that the same scenario took place at the Great Mosque of Damascus in Syria during the same period. Another reason for the weak information on mosaics in Najran is the massacre of the Christians in Najran carried out by Dhu Nawas might be expected to have involved the destruction of the Bi’ah church there (King, 1980).
Eastern Arabia:
Excavation trips to the eastern region of Arabia showed that more churches and other Christian evidences existed in that part during the pre-Islamic Arabia.
 The islands of Sir Bani Yas and Marawah, which are located near the emirate of Abu Dhabi, are the first archaeological evidence of the presence of Christianity in the United Arab Emirates.  

History tells that both the Sasanian and the Byzantine Empires have constituted the two great international powers of the fourth and seventh centuries A.D. in the region. It has been found in a visitation to the churches of the Gulf in the coast and the island that pearl fisheries for the Sasanian emperor have existed. This meant that both locations, Sir Bani Yas and Marawah, were in face useful points of contact with the pearl fishermen, and their inhabitants lived on the pearl industry and were much involved in it In the period between 1994 and 1996 a plaster fragment with a fine cross in raised relief was discovered, along with the remains of a church made it possible to identify the monastic complex as a Christian settlement. What is found to be interesting is that the Late Sheikh Zayed personally protected this church (King, 1997).

-Courtyard House North of the Church at Al-Khawr, Sir Bani Yas, Abu Dhabi Emirate 1995.
Source: (Al-Abed, I. and Hellyer, P., 2001).
Sir Bani Yas’s church was excavated and then further researched in two different phases. It was casted under the type of an occupation mound and is believed to be from the period of the 6th-7th century A.D. Despite the fact that this archeological site faced disturbances, which as a consequence affected the surfaces, decorative plasterwork with a vine scroll and different types of pottery were found. The structure that was found was reduced to its lower -wall courses but otherwise was kept very well reserved. The excavation team led by Dr. King was surprised to find that the plaster finishing in the interior of the church, its walls and floors, were in an excellent condition; the decoration of the plasterwork had a variety of relief motifs that took the shape of grapes and Christian crosses. On the other hand, the church found in Marawah was grander as it revealed signs of attempts at more sophistication. In this site, no floors were identified and no decorated stucco was found during the excavations. The hypothesis resulted was that its construction was never completed although its structure was not as disturbed as Sir Bani Yas’s (King, 1997).
Similar to Sir Bani Yas is Kuwait, another Gulf country that its inhabitants before Islam were Christian fishermen and moved to islands near Kuwait, such as Failaka following the reach of Islam. In 1989 a church in Failaka, an island in Kuwait, was excavated in the site of Al-Qusur. It was located in the middle of the island. In 1988 and 1989 fragments of decoration panels such as crosses were found. As Bernard and Salles (1991) explained its architecture, due to the word limit I chose to focus on the parts I found most interesting where they stated; “The northern chapel… presents a plan in the shape of a cross”. Generally, this church, which dates back to the 5th and 6th centuries, can be studied in two separate different parts; the outer section and the surroundings of the nave. Also, it is essential to note that in this church special attention was given to the doors-systems, which had deep door-sockets that were dug into the plastered floors. And, according to Dr. King (2011) in an unpublished piece of work; along with the discussed churches excavated in the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, there also existed churches in this region that are specifically located in Saudi Arabia today; near Jubail and Al-Hassa, and were ignored by the people due to their belief that it would affect their Muslim faith.

-Stucco cross found in 1989 in the southern chapel in Failaka’s church.
Source: (Bernard, V and Salles, 1991).
Northern Arabia:
Syria and Iraq, amongst other countries in Arabia, play an outstanding role in the history of early Christian architecture in Arabia for it is seen that both countries have accommodated different types of churches that belonged to different Empires throughout the history of their existence. However, only three Sasanian churches are known to be excavated in Iraq; namely in Seleucia, Hira and Ctesiphon. Documents of Christian evidence in pre-Islamic Arabia have referred a couple of times to a good many churches in the cities of the Sasanian Empire that stretched from Iran today and included Iraq, parts of Afghanistan, Armenia, Turkey and Pakistan. But, these documents also mention that these churches were destroyed repeatedly during the anti-Christian activity (Reuthner, 1939).
The Great Church of Seleucia was a cathedral that stood in Khokhe (also known as New Seleucia). It was destroyed twice by Sharpur II and Bahram Gur, but rebuilt each time. Another church is the one excavated at Ctesiphon, which was built of fired brick set with gypsum mortar, it was purely Sasanian in terms of its design, without reminiscences whatever of Syrian church architecture. In addition, Takrit, Kirkuk, Arbela, and other cities were Christian members, and must all have had important churches as they underwent the Sasanian rule. The interior design of the nave of the church in Ctesiphon is largely similar to the rooms at Savistan. It has been emphasized, thus, that these Sasanian churches were not derived from the Western basilica, also, it has been indicated that the characteristic features of these Sasanian naves recur in the Chaldaean, Nestorian, and Jacobite churches in Northern Mesopotamia (Reuthner, 1939)
Finally, I saw it essential to mention Bosra, which is located in south Syria, a major archeological site as it is containing ruins from the Roman and Byzantine Empires. In 105-6 A.D it came under the rule of the Romans as the Emperor Trajan ordered Bosra to be reorganized and it was given the name Colonia Bosra. Excavations tell that when the Empire became Christian in the 4th C. AD, a Cathedral was built at Bosra. Its ruins also shaw that it represents one of the earliest attempts to surmount a square base with a circular dome, which was rebuilt a number of times before abandonment. Not to also forget the Great Mosque of Damascus which at a certain phase of history, in the late 4th century A.D, used to be a church and its entrance was not shared with the Muslims until 705 A.D (Baldwin, 1929).

-Ancient City of Bosra.
Source: (UNESCO:
In conclusion…
As it seemed like many of the contemporary Muslim states belonged to a pre-Islamic Christian community, one can see that the Christian evidence are scattered all across Arabia. The Christian architecture set the basic ground rules for Islamic architecture in the region. Things such as the vegetal plasterwork were carried on as tradition in the area and were found in later Islamic buildings. Starting from Sana’a and Najran in southwestern Arabia, the evidence of the churches are prevalent to the argument that Christianity was widely spread in that region, following all the way up to the east in Kuwait on the site of al-Qusur and in Sir Bani in the Emirates, reaching the north Iraq and Syria where the Sasanian churches prevailed. The northern and the eastern regions in Arabia have proven to be the richest in Christian evidences. Also, further excavations were have started in other places such as Qatar where it is highly believed that there is a possibility of finding another church. Along with Islam, Christianity persisted in Arabia as churches were built freely, nevertheless, with the spread of Islam the Christian faith started to erode away and its existence is almost wiping out in certain regions.