One of the earliest rural mosques in the world, apparently built just a century or two after Islam began, has been unearthed in the Bedouin town of Rahat in Israel’s Negev desert.
The modest edifice – which measures six square meters and was probably built to serve just one or two families in the village – provides silent testimony to the rapid spread of Islam after its advent and arrival in what is today Israel around 636 C.E. While the large mosques built in Medina, Damascus and Jerusalem attest to the religion’s dissemination in urban centers, the newly discovered structure in Rahat shows how Islam rapidly reached rural regions as well, says Gideon Avni of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
It is hard to place an exact date on the start of Islam, but the religion is generally thought to have originated in Mecca and Medina in the early 7th century C.E., about 600 years after Christianity arose. The ruins of the mosque in Rahat – discovered during groundwork for the building of a new neighborhood – date to the late 7th century or early 8th century, the archaeologists say.
The mosque was dated using traditional archaeological methods, such as pottery, coins and the style of oil lamps, says Avni, adding that “we know the range within 30 to 40 years.”
Not much remains of the ancient building, but the foundations of the walls feature the hallmark prayer niche facing southeast, towards Mecca.
How did they know they were facing Mecca around 1,300 years ago? “Astronomic knowledge,” Avni says. It has been shown that the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia and the Levant had extremely advanced astronomic knowledge, going back well over 4,000 years: Babylonian knowledge of the skies predated the ancient Greeks by centuries. Which raises the question of how accurate the readings were. “It isn’t as accurate as compasses and GPS, but their deviations were minor, at most about 5 percent. They knew which direction to face,” Avni says.
The mosque was about 20 to 30 meters from the ruins of a farm, dating to the end of the Byzantine period (the late sixth century C.E. to early seventh century) – or the beginning of the Islamic period. Avni postulates that the mosque served the farming folk, though little remains of the farm itself – just ruins of homes with rooms around open courtyards, as well as storage space. The archaeologists say they have identified the areas used for preparing food, which featured hearths for baking in the local “tabun” or clay oven style.
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While one tends to associate the Negev desert with sand, rock and misery, in fact the area of Rahat is considered only semi-arid, and can be farmed year-round using nothing but rainwater, fresh or stored, says Avni. Water storage has been used in the Negev since the Roman times and even earlier. The driest areas of the deserts feature water technology going back many thousands of years.
The northern Negev, where Rahat is situated, gets around 200 to 250 millimeters of rain a year. South of Be’er Sheva precipitation averages only about 100 millimeters a year, which is true desert conditions.
In other words, the farmers in the Rahat area could grow grain. “Basically the climate was about the same as today – maybe a little more rain – but more or less sufficient for wheat and barley,” says Avni. And those farmers would pray right by their home, as people do to this day. “The discovery of a mosque near an agricultural settlement between Be’er Sheva and Ashkelon also indicates the processes of cultural and religious change which the country underwent during the transition from the Byzantine to the early Islamic period,” Avni says. One was that according to historical Islamic sources, the fledgling Islamic regime gave land to its representatives – including the commander Amr ibn al-’As, a contemporary of the Prophet Mohammed. Amr, an early convert to Islam, then led the 7th century Islamic conquest of Egypt en route to which he and his forces slowly rolled over Syria and Israel. And perhaps, he allocated the land for this very mosque, in which the fledgling faithful could bow towards Mecca.