Photo Credit: Aerial photography: Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority

The remains of an ancient rural mosque, one of the earliest known in the world, were discovered by the Israel Antiquities Authority during the preparations for the construction of a new neighborhood in the town of Rahat.

The remains of an ancient rural mosque / Anat Rasiuk,Israel Antiquities Authority

According to Drs. Jon Seligman and Shahar Zur, directors of the excavations for the IAA, “A small, rural mosque, dated to the 7th to 8th centuries CE, is a rare find anywhere in the world, especially in the area north of Be’er Sheva, where no similar edifice has previously been discovered.”

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There are large known mosques in Jerusalem and in Mecca from this period, but here we have evidence of an ancient house of prayer which seems to have served the farmers who lived in the area. We found remains of an open-air mosque – a rectangular building with a “Mihrab” – a prayer niche – facing south, towards Mecca. These features are evidence of the purpose for which this building was used, many hundred years ago.”

Paid local youths working at the mosque dig. / Anat Rasiuk, Israel Antiquities Authority

The dig was carried out in collaboration with paid Bedouin residents and youth groups, and financed by the Authority for Development and Settlement of the Bedouins in the Negev, and the Emek Ayalon Infrastructure & Projects Management Ltd (2000).

During the excavations, other remains were uncovered as well: a farm from the end of the Byzantine period (6th – 7th Century CE), and a small settlement from the beginning of the Islamic period (7th – 8th Century BCE), which contains remains of buildings that were divided into living-rooms, open courtyards, storage spaces and kitchens that include tabbuns – open-air ovens made from mud bricks.

According to the directors of the excavations, “these sites were part of the agricultural structure in the northern Negev in ancient times. The soil was suitable for growing grains, and the ground water in the perennial streams attracted settlers who wanted to cultivate the land.”

According to Prof. Gideon Avni, an IAA expert on the period, “this is one of the earliest mosques known from the beginning of the arrival of Islam in Israel, after the Arab conquest of 636 CE. 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.”

“The discovery of the village and the mosque in its vicinity are a significant contribution to the study of the history of the country during this turbulent period,” Prof. Avni noted. “According to historical Islamic sources, the new Islamic regime distributed plots of land to its senior officials, including Amr ibn al-As (585 – 664), an Arab military commander who led the Muslim conquest of Egypt in 640 and also conquered Israel and Syria.”

The Amr ibn al-‘As mosque in Cairo / Michel Benoist via Wikimedia

Avni expects the continuation of excavations on the site to provide answers to the questions regarding the foundation of the settlement and the nearby mosque, and its connection to the Arab conquerors of Israel.

Currently, the Authority for Development and Settlement of the Bedouins in the Negev and the IAA are examining possible ways in which this unique find can be integrated into the new neighborhood which is about to be built in the city of Rahat.

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