Christians have a long and ancient history in the Arab-Persian Gulf, probably from the end of the 4th century until at least the 9th. Scholars do not agree for now about the longevity of Christian occupation and its survival after the Islamization of the region in the 7th century.
However, if the written sources mention dioceses and monasteries in the area only until the 7th century (Briquel-Chatonnet 2010), archaeology attests the presence of Christian communities until the 9th. At least three sites -al-Qusur (actual Kuwait), al-Kharg (actual Iran) and Sir Bani Yas (actual UAE)- were still occupied at the beginning of the Abbasid period. A volume on the monastery of al-Kharg was recently published (Steve 2003), al-Qusur is presently being excavated (Bonnéric 2015) and Sir Bani Yas is the object of a post-excavation studies. While waiting for the results of these two sites, it is worth while summarizing the current knowledge, textual as well as archeological, about ancient Christianity in the Gulf.
According to the text: a presence from the end of the 4th to the end of the 7th century.
One of the first mentions of Christians in the Gulf comes from the acts of the 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 the Bahrain archipelago, placed under the authority of the bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon. It attests 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, after the texts, that they were present as early as the end of the 4th century, perhaps before.
Various hypotheses have been formulated about the partial Christianization of the Gulf area from this time. Some Arabic tribes, in direct contact with the Christian center of al-Hira in Central Iraq, might have contributed to importing Christianity to the Gulf. In addition, 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 Sassanid Empire from 309 to 379, led to the migration of Christian people outside the Empire, perhaps to the Gulf.
After 410 and the Seleucia-Ctesiphon synod, many historical sources, such as chronicles, synodic acts, hagiography, letters, all in Syriac, mention the presence of bishops and monasteries in the Gulf, accounting for the existence of many Christian communities in the area. These sources provide valuable information regarding the localization and organization of the communities. The western Gulf corresponds to the ecclesiastical province of Bet Qatraye. It is difficult to localize it precisely, but it roughly corresponds to the north-eastern part of Arabia. Its southern limit can be situated between Qatar and the city of Sohar in Oman. The bishops of Bet Qatraye were dependent of the Metropolitan of Rev Ardashir (actual Bushehr in Iran), in the Fars region, who was directly under the authority of the Catholicos, leader of the Church of the East. Five places have been localized: Dayrin, Hagar, and Hatta in the actual Saudi Arabia, Mashmahig and Talun in Bahrain. Unlike textual references, archaeological facts of Christian occupations in the Gulf are still poor for this early period. The reason is twofold: either early sites still have to be discovered, or religious buildings -which may help to identify Christian communities- were not identified by archaeologists because they were settled inside houses.
The latest currently known textual reference to Christian communities mentions a synod, organized by the Catholicos Guiwarguis I in 676 to resolve disagreements about religious authority in the region of Bet Qatraye. The region obtained its institutional autonomy from the Fars. The first metropolitan of Bet Qatraye was named Thomas. After that, the region no longer appears in the texts, although a study of more Syriac texts could offer new and later mentions. Because Christians are no longer mentioned in the written sources after 676, historians have postulated the end of Christianity in the Gulf area at the end of the 7th century.
According to the archaeology: a presence from the 7th to the 9th century
However, at least three sites -al-Qusur, al-Kharg, and Sir Bani Yas- associated to a later Christian occupation, from the end of the 7th to the 9th century, were discovered in the Gulf. These Christian sites were firstly attributed to the 5th and 6th centuries. However, beginning with the work of Robert Carter (Carter 2008), scholars have begun to date Christian sites differently. Indeed, the ceramics suggest that these sites were used from the end of the 7th or beginning of the 8th to the 9th century (Bonnéric in press). These sites were identified as Christian, owing to the discovery of churches and crosses (engraved or stucco panels). Other sites revealed churches and/or crosses, but are still difficult to date. Christian settlements are mainly located on the coast. They might have been used as a springboard to India and China, particularly for monks and Christian merchants.
The churches of al-Kharg (Steve 2003), al-Qusur (Bernard & Salles 1991), and Sir Bani Yas (Elders 2003) are relatively similar in plan and building techniques. A narthex precedes three naves guiding to a square apse framed by two chapels. The floors and walls are covered with plaster, and stucco friezes adorn the buildings with geometric and vegetal motifs such as palmettes and rosettes. Many stucco crosses, molded or carved, were also placed inside these buildings.
These churches seem to have been part of a monastery. This is clear in al-Kharg (Iranian island), largely excavated over two months, in 1959 and 1960. Even though useful stratigraphic information is missing, the excavation provides a very good overview of a well preserved coenobitic monastery in the Gulf: a central church is surrounded by a library, a refectory, a scriptorium, monks’ cells, and many other buildings. The small three rooms’ cells were built against each other in the north-western corner of the monastery. On the contrary, al-Qusur settlement on Failaka Island (Kuwait) did not reveal any cells of this kind, or monastery enclosure wall, during excavation by Italian, French, Slovak, and Polish teams. The Kuwaiti-French archaeological Mission in Failaka has discovered, in 2014 and 2015, a refectory situated south-west of the monumental church. This large building, similar to al-Kharg refectory, demonstrates the existence of a monastery. Whether the numerous enclosed buildings -composed of a domestic structure, a kitchen, an enclosure, and sometimes a storage room- surrounding the churches of al-Qusur on around 2,80 x 1,60 km, are cells for monks or houses for inhabitants, is still to be determined.
To conclude, there is a paradox regarding Christianity in the Gulf: for the Sasanian period, texts testify the presence of Christians but there are no clear archaeological traces, and, on the contrary, for the Early Islam period, archaeological remains give evidence of Christian settlement while they disappear from the written sources. The research on the Syriac and Arabic texts should be pursued because a number of sources have not been explored. Archeological study is also very important, not only to establish a chronology of Christianity in the Gulf and find traces of early Christianity before Islam, but also to understand the organization of Christian communities, which does not appear in written sources.
Both the publication of al-Kharg monastery by Marie-Joseph Steve and excavations in al-Qusur by the Kuwaiti-French archaeological Mission in Failaka prove the duration of Christianity after the Muslim conquest in the 7th century and the Islamization of the region, confirming Carter’s hypothesis. The presence of Christians in the Gulf at that time is not surprising if one considers the well-known tolerance of most of the First Abbasid Caliphs such as al-Mahdi (775-785), Harun al-Rashid (786-809) or al-Maʽmun (830-833). Even if the situation of Christians was closely dependent on decisions made by Muslim rulers, Christians occupied important positions within the Caliph’s administration and at the court (e.g., philosophers, physicians, writers…), testifying that Muslims and Christians used to live together. The Gulf is another example, like Egypt or Syria, of this cohabitation at Early Islam, not only in intellectual and administrative class, but also in popular classes.
Beaucamp J. & Robin C., « Le christianisme dans la péninsule Arabique d’après l’épigraphie et l’archéologie », in Hommages à Paul Lemerle, Paris, 1981, pp. 45-61.
Bernard V. & Salles J.-F., « Discovery of a Christian Church at Al-Qusur, Failaka (Kuwait) », Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies, 21, 1991, pp. 7-21.
Bonnéric J., « Al-Quṣūr (Koweït), état des recherches de la mission archéologique franco-kowétienne de Faïlaka (2011-2013) », Les Carnets de l’Ifpo. La recherche en train de se faire à l’Institut français du Proche-Orient (Hypotheses.org), 02/09/2014. [Online] http://ifpo.hypotheses.org/6164
Bonnéric J., « Yallah Faïlaka ! Mission archéologique franco-koweïtienne – 2015 », Le carnet de la MAFKF. Recherches archéologiques franco-koweïtiennes de l’île de Faïlaka (Koweït), 12/10/2015. [Online] http://mafkf.hypotheses.org/1204
Bonnéric J., « Preliminary Results of the Ceramological Study of the French Excavations on al‑Quṣūr Site (1989, 2007-2009) », in Bonnéric J. & Gelin M. (eds.), French-Kuwaiti Expedition in Faïlaka. Tell Saʽid and Al-Quṣūr, preliminary report of the 2011-2012 Campaigns, Kuwait, (in press).
Briquel-Chatonnet F., 2010, « L’expansion du christianisme en Arabie: l’apport des sources syriaques », Semitica et Classica 3/1, 2010, p. 177-187.
Carter R., « Christianity in the Gulf during the first centuries of Islam », Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 19/1, 2008, p. 71-108.
Elders J., « The Nestorians in the Gulf: Just Passing Through? Recent Discoveries on the Island of Sir Bani Yas, Abu Dhabi Emirate, UAE », in Potts D., Al Naboodah H. & Hellyer P., Archaeology of the United Arab Emirates. Proceedings of the First International Conference on the archaeology of the United Arab Emirate, London, 2003, p. 229-236.
Salles J.-F., « Chronologies du monachisme dans le Golfe arabo-persique », in Jullien F. & Pierre M.-J. (eds.), Monachisme d’Orient : images, échanges, influences. Hommage à Antoine Guillaumont, cinquantenaire de la chaire des “Christianismes orientaux”, Turnhout, 2011, pp. 97-111.
Salles J.-F. & Callot O., « Les églises antiques de Koweït et du golfe Persique », in Briquel-Chatonnet F. (ed.), Les églises en monde syriaque, Paris, 2013, pp. 237-268.
Steve M.-J., L’île de Kharg : une page de l’histoire du Golfe Persique et du monachisme oriental, Neuchâtel, 2003.
Pour citer ce billet
Julie Bonnéric, « Christianity in the Arab-Persian Gulf: an ancient but still obscure history », Le carnet de la MAFKF. Recherches archéologiques franco-koweïtiennes de l’île de Faïlaka (Koweït), 23 décembre 2015. [En ligne] http://mafkf.hypotheses.org/1286