Remnants of mosque from earliest decades of Islam found in Israel


Archaeologists in Israel say they have discovered the remnants of an early mosque believed to date to the earliest decades of Islam during an excavation in the northern city of Tiberias.

The foundations of the mosque, excavated just south of the Sea of Galilee by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, point to its construction roughly a generation after the death of the prophet Muhammad, making it one of the earliest Muslim houses of worship to be studied by archaeologists.

“We know about many early mosques that were founded right in the beginning of the Islamic period,” said Katia Cytryn-Silverman, a specialist in Islamic archaeology at Hebrew University who heads the dig. Other mosques dating from around the same time, such as the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, the Great Mosque of Damascus, and Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque, are still in use today and cannot be tampered with by archaeologists.

Cytryn-Silverman said excavating the Tiberian mosque provided a rare chance to study the architecture of Muslim prayer houses in their infancy, and the findings indicated a tolerance for other faiths by early Islamic leaders. She announced the findings this month in a virtual conference.

When the mosque was built around AD670, Tiberias had been a Muslim-ruled city for a few decades. Named after Rome’s second emperor in about AD20, the city was a major centre of Jewish life and scholarship for nearly five centuries. Before its conquest by Muslim armies in 635, the Byzantine city was home to one of a constellation of Christian holy sites dotting the Sea of Galilee’s shoreline.

Under Muslim rule, Tiberias became a provincial capital in the early Islamic empire and grew in prominence. Early caliphs built palaces on its outskirts along the lake shore. But until recently, little was known about the city’s early Muslim past.

Gideon Avni, the chief archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, who was not involved in the excavation, said the discovery helped resolve a scholarly debate about when mosques began standardising their design, facing towards Mecca. “In the archaeological finds, it was very rare to find early mosques,” he said.

Since early last year the coronavirus pandemic has halted excavations, and lush Galilean grasses, herbs and weeds have grown over the ruins. Hebrew University and its partners at the German Protestant Institute of Archaeology plan to restart the dig next month.

The site has become overgrown with plants while excavations are on hold
The site has become overgrown with plants while excavations are on hold. Photograph: Maya Alleruzzo/AP

Initial excavations of the site in the 1950s led scholars to believe the building was a Byzantine marketplace later used as a mosque. But Cytryn-Silverman’s excavations delved deeper beneath the floor. Coins and ceramics nestled at the base of the crudely crafted foundations helped date them to about AD660-680, barely a generation after the city’s capture. The building’s dimensions, pillared floorplan and qiblah, or prayer niche, closely resembled other mosques from the period.

Avni said that for a long time academics were unsure what had happened to cities in the Levant and Mesopotamia conquered by the Muslims in the early seventh century. “Earlier opinions said there was a process of conquest, destruction and devastation,” he said.

Today archaeologists understood that there was a “fairly gradual process, and in Tiberias you see that”, he said

The first mosque built in the newly conquered city stood cheek by jowl with the local synagogues and the Byzantine church that dominated the skyline. This earliest phase of the mosque was “more humble” than a larger, grander structure that replaced it half a century later, Cytryn-Silverman said. “At least until the monumental mosque was erected in the eighth century, the church continued being the main building in Tiberias.”

She said this supported the idea that the early Muslim rulers who governed an overwhelmingly non-Muslim population adopted a tolerant approach towards other faiths, allowing a “golden age” of coexistence.

“You see that the beginning of the Islamic rule here respected very much the population that was the main population of the city: Christians, Jews, Samaritans,” Cytryn-Silverman said. “They were not in a hurry to make their presence expressed into buildings. They were not destroying others’ houses of prayers, but they were actually fitting themselves into the societies that they now were the leaders of.”