Friday , November 17 2017

Al Qusur: ‘Tells’ of tolerance – CHRISTIANITY IN THE GULF AT THE DAWN OF ISLAM

In the centre of Failaka located within the Kuwait Bay lies al-Qusur, a Christian monastery that could be of high importance to understanding  Christianity and monasticism at the beginning of the Islamic period,  disclosed  Dr Julie Bonnéric,  the co-director of the French-Kuwaiti Archaeological Mission during her lecture presentation on “Christianity in the Gulf on the Eve of Islam in Light of Archaeological Discoveries” last  Monday at the Dar al Athar al Islamiyyah (DAI) Yarmouk Cultural Centre that was attended by DAI Director General and Co-Founder Sheikha Hessa Sabah Al Salem Al Sabah, the French Ambassador to Kuwait, some archaeologists, scholars and other distinguished guests.

Dr Bonnéric who has been in charge of the study of al-Qusur site, on Failaka Island (Kuwait) since 2011 is also a researcher at the Annemarie Schimmel College, University of Bonn (Germany). An archaeologist and pottery specialist, she has worked on excavations in Kuwait, Qatar, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Libya. Bonnéric holds a PhD in Islamic and Medieval History from the EPHE-Sorbonne (Paris), specialising in the history of light and fragrances in Islam.

Dr Bonnéric in her lecture presentation outlined that written sources reveal the presence of Christians in the Gulf, in particular through mentions of dioceses from the end of the 4th to the 7th centuries CE, while also suggesting their disappearance in the region after this period.  On the contrary, archaeological discoveries testify to the presence of Christian communities in the Gulf during the two first centuries after the Muslim conquest, some settlements being abandoned circa 9th century CE. Archaeological sites such as al-Qusur (Kuwait),  Kharg  (Iran) or Sir Bani  Yas (UAE) are particularly important for retracing the history of both the Gulf and Christianity, but also to understanding the relationship between Muslims and Christians at the beginning of Islam.

She cited that al-Qusur is an early Islamic settlement organised around two well-preserved churches, one of which was monumental. From the results of the French-Kuwaiti Archaeological Mission in Failaka, it appears now that this site was a monastery that was probably built at the end of the Sasanian period (probably 6th or 7th century) and was still occupied after the Muslim conquest until approximately the ninth century. It is yet to be determined whether a village surrounded the monastery or not.

She recounted that several archaeological field works were done on Failaka namely the  Archaeological Mission in the Arabic Gulf 1975-1976; French Mission in Kuwait, 1988-1989, 2007-2009; Kuwaiti-Slovak Archaeological Mission, 2006-2009, 2016-present; Kuwaiti-Polish Archaeological Mission, 2011-2013; French-Kuwaiti Archaeological Mission in Failaka, 2011-present.

Dr Bonnéric  cited that the two important churches were discovered in the 1980s and in the 2000s. Several expeditions, Italian, French, Slovak and Polish have gained interest in this archaeological site but still disagree about both its dating and nature — was the settlement an early Islamic village? Or was it a Sasanian  monastery?  Since 2011, the French-Kuwaiti Archaeological Mission in Failaka is carrying out excavations in both the Tell Sa’id — a Hellenistic Fortress  and the al-Qusur sites.

Dr Bonnéric along with her team are excavating, mapping, registering and studying the objects found to better understand who were the Christians living in Failaka during the Early Islamic times. Moreover, the site is of utmost importance for understanding both Kuwait and the Arab Persian Gulf history.  This site also has the potential to provide valuable information about the early Islamic period, the creation of the umma and the later Islamisation of the region.

She outlined that the presence of a Christian settlement in the Arabian Gulf is not in itself surprising. Indeed, Christians have a long and ancient history in the region that lasted from the fourth century until at least the ninth century.  She explained that various hypotheses have been formatted to account for the partial Christianisation of the Gulf area dating to the fourth century and later. Certain Arabic tribes, who were in direct contact with the Christian Community of al-Hira in Central Iraq, might have contributed to importing Christianity in the Gulf. She added that  the Church of the East seems to have developed missionary activities in this region, leading to the progressive Christianization of some local populations. The persecution of the Nestorians conducted by Shapur II, who ruled over the Persian Sasanian Empire from 309 to 379 led to the migration of Christians from the Empire and perhaps to the Gulf. The Gulf being a commercial road, interactions with Christian merchants could also be an explanation.

Dr Bonnéric  stated that the Gulf is not often mentioned in the texts and there was scarcity in the textual materials. The Arabic sources are very silent about Christianity in the region. On the other hand, Syriac texts such as chronicles, synodic acts, hagiography and letters, mention the presence of bishops and monasteries in the Gulf, therefore accounting for the existence of many Christian communities in the area. One of the first mentions of Christians in the Gulf comes from the acts of synod of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, which took place in 410. This important council, during which the Church of the East broke with Antioch, refers to the bishops of the maritime islands, that is to say the islands of Bahrain archipelago, placed under the authority of the bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon. It attests to a Christian presence anterior to the Synod. It is difficult, in the absence of archaeological  remains  for the period, to date the apparition of Christians in the Gulf, but it seems according to the texts,  that they were present as  early as the end of the fourth century, perhaps before.

Furthermore, several sites associated with a later Christian occupation (from the end of the 7th until the 9th century) were discovered in the Gulf, and al-Qusur is one of these Early Islamic Christian sites. However, the texts that mention the presence of Christians in the Gulf for this period are very scarce. For instance,  there is not yet a text mentioning the site of al-Qusur or even the presence of Christians on Failaka Island. This may be  the reason why a number of Christian sites were attributed to the 5th and 6th centuries, as ancient tests do not mention Christian communities in the Gulf anytime after the end of the 7th  century.

Dr Bonnéric stated that since the work of Robert Carter, most researchers today date Christian sites differently. Ceramics suggest that these sites were functioning from the end of the 7th or beginning of the 8th century until the 9th century. These sites were identified as Christian, owing to the discovery of churches and/or crosses (engraved on stones or molded with stucco). Five churches have been excavated in the Gulf so far — four of which are on islands (‘Akkaz and al-Qusur in Kuwait, al-Kharg in Iran and Sir Bani Yas in Abu Dhabi and one is on the mainland (Jubayl in Saudi Arabia). In Saudi Arabia, stones engraved with crosses have also been discovered in Thaj and Hinnah, and one brass cross originates from Jabal Berri.

As stated earlier, textual sources almost never refer to the Christian’s settlements in the Gulf anytime after the end of the 7th century. It also seems that even those texts that do mention their presence are only partially preserved, such as the Chronicle of Seert. This chronicle — a history book describing events year by year — only covers the time period from the year 422 until the mid-seventh century; unfortunately the end is lost. Hence, the period after the 7th century which corresponds to the above-mentioned archaeological sites, is missing. Therefore, al-Qusur is of high importance for understanding  Christianity and monasticism at the beginning of the Islamic period.

Dr Bonnéric explained that with the excavation of al-Qusur and based on their findings, a monastery was still in use after the Islamisation of the region and there were two phases without any gap in the occupation. They discovered a foundation (probably late Sasanian) with monumental church, mud brick building and probably the refectory and an enlargement of the settlement with the construction of courtyard buildings all around the churches and a refectory that made them conclude it’s a monastery

“Indeed, the site of al-Qusur is exceptional in many aspects that are not limited to the non-reoccupation of the space, the comprehensibility of the surfacing buildings and the relatively good state of the conservation of the remains and objects that have been discovered so far,” stated Dr Bonnéric.

However, Dr Bonnéric pointed out that there are still a few unanswered questions as they continue with their field work on al-Qusur  till the end of this year.”Are courtyard buildings houses or cells for the monks? Is al-Qusur a dispersed monastery or a village around a closed monastery? Why are two churches? Comparisons with monasteries in the Gulf and south Iraq which community Which liturgy?” she shared to the audience.

“This remarkable site represents a powerful window to the history of Kuwait and a way to understand the multiculturalism of the Kuwait Society,” concluded Dr Bonnéric as she answered all questions during the open forum.

  • Courtesy of Julie Bonnéric & National Council for Culture, Arts, and Letters of the State of Kuwait

 

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