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Christians in the Arab Gulf

A 1,400-year-old monastery in the United Arab Emirates that is the only pre-Islamic Christian site in the region has opened to the public. / www.dailymail.co.uk /2010

ishtartv.com- patheos.com

January 25, 2016 by Philip Jenkins

I have been posting about Islamic apocalyptic mythologies that borrowed heavily from Christian precedents. That religious overlap is a lengthy and complex story.

When Islam emerged in the seventh century, it did so in an Arabian world with a strong presence of both Christianity and Judaism. The politics of the region have made it difficult to explore those earlier faiths, but fortunately, we can see enough traces of those older realities to realize just how significant they once were. My emphasis here will be on the Christian story, but many of the same points apply to the Jewish heritage.

T. V. Philip writes,

There were three important trade routes to Arabia connecting it to Persia, Syria and Egypt. It is important to note that it was along these trade routes that Christian centres developed. Several historians have suggested that the most important mode of entrance had been by emigration of Christians from Persia at the time of persecution, particularly in the latter part of the reign of Shapur II (310-379) who persecuted the Christians severely from AD 339 onwards. These immigrants must have mostly gone either by land through the semi independent Arab state of Hira or across the Persian Gulf to the coast of Oman, and from there southwards to Yemen. The Chronicle of Seert mentions that one Abdisho built a monastery on the island of Bahrain, perhaps about AD 390.

From the fourth century through the tenth, Christianity was well represented across Arabia, and especially in the Gulf area. The main force was the (Nestorian) Church of the East which was based at the Persian imperial capital of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, and which largely operated within the boundaries of that empire. The Sassanid Empire at its height included not just the modern day states of Iran and Iraq, but also the whole western shore of the Gulf, including what we could today call Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman, as well as coastal Saudi Arabia. Mazun was the Persian name for modern Oman and the UAE, in southeastern Arabia.

There were two main dioceses, namely Beth Qatraye (“Region of Qataris”, in northeastern Arabia) and Beth Mazunaye (Mazun, from 424). There would have been administrative centers at Dairin and Mashmahig (in Bahrain). Separate from this Gulf structure, the southern Arabian city of Najran was another Christian heartland.

In light of the chronology of the spread of Christianity in Western Europe, it is almost eerie to think that already at the start of the fifth century, bishops from Oman were already participating in church councils.

Christians were thus scattered across the trading communities of the Gulf, along the sea routes that connected Mesopotamia to India. The sixth century traveler Cosmas Indicopleustes reported that the island of Socotra off the coast of Yemen had “clergy who receive their ordination in Persia, and are sent on to the island, and there is also a multitude of Christians.” By the ninth century, we hear of a diocese for Yemen and (later) for Socotra.

The Christian presence across Arabia survived at least into the tenth century. Apparently, the people of Mazun defected first, largely during the seventh century. The people of Beth Qatraye persisted longer, perhaps they were so closely oriented to the Persian church, with its main see across the Gulf at Rev-Ardashir.

Inevitably, the Church of the East had based itself on a network of monasteries and religious houses, which leave an unmistakable archaeological trace in the landscape. The problem in finding such houses is that governments in the region vary enormously in their enthusiasm about preserving and commemorating this heritage. Of the Saudis, the best that can be said is that they scorn Christian remains only slightly more than they do the relics of early Islamic societies: they are equal opportunity barbarians. Even so, we find some critical remains in and near the city of Jubail, although the government severely limits access, and there are real concerns about preservation. The main Jubail church may date to the fourth century.

Other countries are more open to recognizing the diversity of their history. Kuwait has produced several early church sites, at Akkaz and Falaka, and there are important excavations across Qatar. There was also a major site of the fifth or sixth century on the island of Kharg, which is under Iranian rule.

One site in particular is the most evocative, and accessible. One is the sizable monastic complex at Sir Bani Yas, an island off the UAE, probably from around 600. It probably owed its sucees to pilgrims from India, for whom the Gulf was a natural route for trade and travel. Discovered in 1992, the remains are now on public display as a tourist attraction and heritage site – and all credit to UAE authorities for that action. The site even features on the Abu Dhabi tourist website.

The only problem with Sir Bani Yas is that it suggests how many other similar places are awaiting rediscovery, in a lost landscape of ancient Christianity.

Oh, and before anyone accuses me of consigning the faith to the trashcan of Middle Eastern history, be aware that I will shortly be publishing (in Christian Century) about the Christian presence in the modern-day Gulf.


*You can download an excellent scholarly study by Peter Hellyer on Christianity in the Pre-Islamic UAE and Southeastern Arabia.


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