Ancient Christian relics found in ruins of Bahrain mosque offer rare glimpse into history

Excavations resume this month in a project that shows the first concrete evidence of Christian communities in Bahrain before the spread of Islam

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On an island in Bahrain, archaeologists and historians are at work uncovering relics that will tell the story of Christian homes in the kingdom before the spread of Islam.

A team of Bahraini and British experts carefully sift through sandy stretches between thick stone walls of what may have been a monastery or a bishop’s home dating back to the sixth and eighth century.

Archaeologists this month are combing through spaces that would have been used as a kitchen, living areas and a workshop to throw more light on communities and their way of life thousands of years ago.

Quote
The most important moment for an archaeologist is when he or she discovers something for the first time
Salman Almahari, Bahrain's director of Antiquities and Museums

The team is excavating an ancient Christian home discovered under a 300-year-old mosque in a Muslim cemetery on Bahrain’s Muharraq island. The dig is part of an archaeological project that began three years ago.

“It will be most exciting for the country to discover more concrete evidence of a Christian presence that dates back to the sixth and eighth centuries AD below a 300-year-old mosque,” Salman Almahari, director of Antiquities and Museums of the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities in the archaeology and museums directorate, told The National in an interview.

Excavations to go deeper

Working with a local team from Bahrain, experts from the UK's Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter led by professors Timothy Insoll and Rachel MacLean are excavating the site.

Glazed pottery with the mark of a small cross, fish bones and stonework were discovered by the team late last year.

A small piece of pottery with the mark of a cross found at an excavation site in a cemetery in Bahrain. Photo: Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities

“We will continue the work that began last year and now will go deeper in the site,” Mr Al Mahari said.

“The team will clean up all the floors of the house and do more excavation work.

“Last year we found different rooms, in a kitchen we found ashes and [fish] bones.

“There is a living room, and in a workshop room we found material like spindles for weaving.

“We know this is a bishop’s residence, a monastery or an elite residence.”

Work on the site first began in 2019.

The sandy site is surrounded by a bustling neighbourhood filled with shops, residential apartments and restaurants.

It is under the ruins of an age-old mosque in the middle of a large cemetery that families visit to pay respects to the dead.

Across the burial ground are wooden plaques with inscriptions in memory of those buried there.

The community in Muharraq had planned to build a new mosque around the ruined structure, which dates back hundreds of years.

Some people in the group suggested they approach the antiquities department before starting construction.

It was then that Mr Al Mahari and his team found evidence of another wall beneath the boundary wall of the old mosque.

“It was simply amazing,” he said. “The most important moment for an archaeologist is when he or she discovers something for the first time.

In Bahrain historians and archaeologists were waiting for a discovery like this."

Concrete evidence of Christian communities

Radiocarbon dating and assessment of the findings show that the building was used between the sixth and the eighth century before Islam spread in the region in the middle of the 17th century.

Historical documents and names of areas in Bahrain have for long indicated the existence of Christian communities, but there was no scientific, physical evidence until the key discovery of the small cross last year.

A village called Dair in Arabic means monastery in English and an area called Galalee in Arabic translates to a place where bishops or monks prayed.

The archaeologists have engaged people in the neighbouring community because the dig site is in the middle of a Muslim burial ground in Muharraq, Bahrain. Khushnum Bhandari / The National

“Christianity is mentioned in our oral history, in the memory of the people and in the literature,” he said.

“These are names of places that researchers believe belonged to Christianity.

“We have read about it in historical sources since the fifth century but we found nothing before this.

“So this is the first physical evidence in the country, the first archaeological remains related to this period.”

There have been at least five ancient Christian monasteries found in other countries of the Arabian Gulf, the most recent discovery was in the UAE this month.

Historians describe these as rare findings and vital to the region's heritage.

Mr Al Mahari invited the University of Exeter experts to excavate further this month.

There has been support from people who live and work around the site.

Authorities continually talk with the local community to apprise them of any discoveries.

“When we found the Christian building, we thought maybe the community will not like the discovery,” Mr Al Mahari said. “After all, they are Muslim and it is in the middle of their cemetery.

“But people were very happy and wanted to know more information about the past.

“This reflects the spirit of coexistence and tolerance of Bahrainis.”

The challenge ahead will lie in deciding if the site can be opened up for tourism and research, because the cemetery is still in use.

“We found many graves and burials, but we have not touched these,” Mr Al Mahari said.

“We will involve the local community and need more discussion with them to take any decision.”

Updated: November 21, 2022, 2:42 AM
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