Archaeological Find Casts Doubts on 'Enlightened' Muslim Occupation of Holy Land

Greek Christian inscription found in mosque reveals problematic relations between communities as Byzantine society crumbled in Negev.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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The archaeological excavations currently underway in Shivta in the Negev desert.Credit: YotamTepper
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

World history and archaeology document well what happens when a new regime takes over the holy places of previous inhabitants: The church becomes a mosque, the temple becomes a synagogue and so on. But the ancient city of Shivta in the Negev raised another possibility: There, remains show a mosque built next to a church, operating at the same time, not taking it over – or so most scholars thought until recently.

These two structures ostensibly existing side by side at Shivta were considered evidence that the Muslim conquest of the country in the seventh century was not a destructive and brutal event, but rather a relatively enlightened takeover. The original Christian inhabitants, scholars said, continued to live peacefully alongside their new Muslim neighbors.

But a stone with an inscription in ancient Greek, discovered by a University of Haifa archaeological excavation team about two weeks ago, has upended this idyllic view. The inscription, together with other finds including organic remains, reveals a less tranquil view of life at Shivta in those days.

Shivta has been excavated often over the past 90 years, including by a large British expedition in the 1930s. All the expeditions knew of the large dwelling known as “the pool house,” a 1,500-year-old mansion near the city’s water reservoir. To enter the house, one had to tread on a stone step. Three weeks ago, archaeologist Dr. Yotam Tepper noticed markings on the step which no one had noticed before.

“Suddenly we saw red lines on the stone. We took a trowel and a brush and started to clean,” he said. The red markings, under only a few centimeters of dirt, turned out to be letters, carved and painted, along about a meter and a half.

Prof. Lea Di Segni, an expert in ancient Greek, deciphered the words as “the atrium of the holy church.” The stone was also decorated with a rosette and two crosses.

The significance is that this stone was almost certainly taken from one of the churches at Shivta to be used as a threshold. Tepper has no doubt that this is not ordinary secondary use of a stone. “You step on the cross and on the inscription on purpose when you walk into the house,” he says.

The house, therefore, must have been either re-inhabited by Muslims, or the original inhabitants converted to Islam, and it was important to them to disavow the previous religion’s symbols. The inter-religious idyll previously pictured at Shivta suddenly seemed different.

The inscription joins other evidence gathered at Shivta, according to Tepper and Prof. Guy Bar-Oz, the excavation’s director, to sketch a somewhat different picture of Shivta’s last days.

The renewed excavation at Shivta, which is a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is part of an unusual project by the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, known as the Byzantine Project, in which scholars from a number of disciplines are attempting to discover what happened to Byzantine society in the Negev. Until the Byzantines disappeared, they flourished in the Negev in a number of agricultural communities. After they were gone, the Negev would flourish only a thousand years later – in the 20th century.

Shivta has been excavated often over the past 90 years, yet much about the community's demise remains a mystery.Credit: Yotam Tepper

While classic research theory holds that the Muslim conquest led to the destruction of the communities, the excavations have shown that like the rest of the country, there was no real destruction of the Negev’s cities and they continued to exist deep into the Early Muslim period.

This led to new ideas – that a series of natural disasters, mainly earthquakes and droughts, led to the abandonment of the cities at the end of the 10th century or the early 11th. In the current research project, scholars are using scientific tools to answer these questions. For example, a scholar of ancient DNA is looking for signs of plague in the reservoirs; another scholar is attempting to recreate the landscape and climate of the period through pollen studies; an archaeo-botanist and archaeo-zoologist are looking are remains of food to learn what was on the city’s menus in its final days; another scholar is seeking signs of earthquakes that struck the city.

The project is far from over, but the inscription and other finds raise tough challenges, according to Tepper and Bar-Oz, to claims of religious coexistence at Shivta. For examples, scholars have long known that at the entrance to the city’s mosque there is also a threshold with crosses, apparently taken from one of the churches. They do not know the date when the change happened, but it was apparently quick. Of about 200 dwellings, only about 20 remained populated. In 21 cases, the archaeologists found that the homeowners sealed their doors with stones, which indicates that they left in an organized fashion and that they believed they would be returning someday, although they never did.

Another discovery shows that the new inhabitants of the city closed off some of the city’s streets with walls and the drainage system was changed. Some of the abandoned houses were filled with piles of garbage thrown into them by the new inhabitants. These piles of garbage are one of the focuses of the new excavation. One was found near the Pool House; it may be assumed that the inhabitants of that house, who stepped on the cross to get inside, also threw their garbage out into the former neighbor’s house.

Excavation of the garbage heaps revealed interesting finds about the food the inhabitants ate at the time. Until the house was abandoned, that is, among finds from under the floor remains of pig bones and grape seeds were found. That means that the people who lived in the house ate pork and drank wine. After the house was abandoned, pork and wine disappeared from the menu, which shows a population and culture change.

Now scholars are moving ahead to explore the pool itself, to try to discover whether the abandonment of the city involved a plague of some kind, whose remains can be found in the sediment that settled over the years in the drinking water.

About a year ago, Dr. Gideon Avni of the Israel Antiquities Authority published an extensive book on the Muslim conquest of the country as reflected in archaeological excavations throughout. According to Avni, the conquest was relatively tranquil. As evidence he points out that of the hundreds of sites throughout the country, not one reveals signs of violent destruction.

As for Shivta, “there is no question that at some point there is abandonment and a change of population,” Avni told Haaretz. “The question is when did it happen? It didn’t happen immediately, but about 300 years later.”

But Tepper believes that this is not the only indicator. “When you go up to the mosque you step on thresholds that bear crosses,” he says. “That does not reflect a picture in which Abdullah and Theodorus come to the place together, and one goes off to the mosque and one to church. In my opinion, today we can show archaeologically that they did not operate alongside each other. There is no coexistence.

“There is a new landlord, who builds and uses the symbols of the former inhabitants in a provocative way. The church operated, stopped operating and then there was a mosque there. Add to this the sealed houses and the alleyways that were closed off and the water systems. There is a process that may have gone on for a generation, but certainly not 300 years. I still cannot say when it happened, but the puzzle has to be re-assembled,” Tepper says.

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