Thursday, March 11, 2010

Gulf Christianity and Early Islam

One strong example of how archaeology, once developed in an area over time, can make crucial contributions to our understanding of the past is Robert Carter's 2008 article in Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy entitled "Christianity in the Gulf during the first centuries of Islam." The most common type of archaeological dating is through pottery. Pottery runs in styles that evolve over time and occasionally change abruptly, meaning that if you find some pottery that you can confidently date, such as something found in a dated grave or in stratified layer between two other types of pottery which have been confidently dated, you can then attribute other excavated contexts that have that pottery to the same period. Over time, archaeologists develop a fairly strong picture of the pottery assemblages which were common in different periods.

Carter's article concerns the dating of Christian remains in the Gulf, which are mainly associated with the Church of the East, also called the Assyrian or Nestorian church. Its influence in the Gulf is well known from written sources, though after 676 there is no record of its bishopric of Bet Qatraye in northeastern Arabia. Conventional views hold that the Gulf region quickly became Muslim after that period.

Much of the article concerns a monastery on the island of Sir Bani Yas, in the western part of the emirate of Abu Dhabi. Although the island is remote by land, sea travel was easier anyway, and the monastery faced toward the sea. Following the evidence of the texts, it has long been assumed to date to the Sasanian period before the coming of Islam. Over the past 15 years or so, however, archaeologists have learned a great deal more about the differences in pottery assemblages between different periods of late antiquity and early Islam, and these form the key element in Carter's argument that the monastery actually flourished during the late 7th and early 8th centuries.

From there Carter discusses several other Christian sites, noting that a church at al-Qusur on Failaka island in Kuwait probably dates to the late 8th and 9th centuries and an extensive monastery on Kharg, an island off the coast of Iran in the upper Gulf, was almost certainly found in the 9th century, or perhaps the late 8th. All of this poses several problems. One is the lack of secure dating of Christian sites to the Sasanian period, when the written sources say it should be there, though as Carter notes they may have been built of perishable materials, if they are not simply undiscovered. I consider some combination of those two most likely. In either case, what we see happening is a significant Christian building program, something also attested to near Mosul. Carter quote a letter of Patriarch Isho'yahb III which testifies to the good relations between Christianity and Islam during the mid-7th century:
"There Arabs, to whom God for the time being has given the Empire of the world, are also, as you know, very close to us; and not just because they do not attack the Christian religion, but they praise our faith, honour the priests and the saints of the Lord and award benefits to the churches and monasteries."

The bigger issue is why the region disappears from the written sources, except for a few scattered mentions in saints' lives. Its final appearance in 676 comes when Patriarch George I tries to end a schism in which the Bet Qatraye region tried to withdraw from the Church of the East and go its own way. Carter's suggestions are either that George I failed and they did secede altogether, or he was successful in a way that meant they no longer attended synods or required close patriarchal attention. Either way, thanks to this research, we now have a clear picture of a thriving Christian community found on Gulf islands and some port cities, heavily involved in pearling, and probably with at least some form of autonomy from the Mesopotamia-based Patriarchs.

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Blogger Jonathan Dresner said...

It's kind of too bad that I read this. I'm in the middle of grading my students' article review assignments (like book reviews, but shorter), and you're gonna blow the curve.

Fantastic stuff: I love it when the archaelogy and history come together.

9:02 AM  

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