Some Thoughts about Coexistence in Early Islamic Palestine

I will be talking more about the city of Subeita, or Shivta as it’s known in modern Hebrew, in another post But I’ll add a short introduction, just for some context and clarification. Subeita, which is known by different versions of the same name (Sobata in Greek, Shivta in Hebrew), is an archaeological site in the Negev, Israel, not far from Sde Boker or Nitzana, and around 45 minutes in car from Beer Sheva (or 11 hours if you decide to walk for whatever reason). It has remnants from the Nabataean and Roman era, but the city itself seems to have been built in the Byzantine era, that is, from the 4th century onward, and was most likely in use until the end of the 8th century or some time during the 9th century, where it was abandoned for good for reasons not completely clear to us. This means, of course, that the city was inhabited during the early centuries of Islamic rule in Palestine, and that it therefore can tell us something about how Islam manifested itself (or rather, how the Muslim conquerors and rulers manifested their rule) in the lands during the early years.

We of course have a number of different accounts about what happened, when the Muslims, led by the caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab, conquered the Holy Land. According to many of these accounts, al-Khattab was indeed the person, who entered Jerusalem and prayed on the Temple Mount, before deciding to have a mosque built there. It is possible, though, that the city surrendered itself to the tribal leader and convert, Khalid ibn Thabit al-Fahmi (see The Dome of the Rock, by Oleg Grabar, p. 42). Whichever of them the city was surrendered to doesn’t change a lot for this article, but it’s worth noting that even events we might consider of utmost importance in our times, weren’t that important when they happened.

What is important is what these accounts try to tell us. In general the portrayal of ibn al-Khattab as a generous and sympathetic conqueror is the one given, where he refuses to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre when offered so, because he didn’t want to risk that it would later be turned into a mosque. The Christians, we learn from accounts like this, are to be respected and allowed to keep their holy places.

Therefore it isn’t surprising to see that the Subeita mosque was interpreted in this light, when the American archaeologist Harris Dunscombe Colt and other later archaeologists excavated the city from 1933 up to our millenia. The mosque was built next to an already existing church, the southern Byzantine church, with the mihrab (the prayer niche) built into the wall next to the church’s baptistery, but apparantly in a way, which seems to have been done with much consideration for the baptistery not to be damaged by the construction. If one would want to find traces of a peaceful and mutual respective, this would certainly be a good lead.

However, later archaeologists, such as the Israeli archaeologist Yotam Tepper, argue that this is a wrong interpretation of the mosque and its construction. They argue that the mosque, and the nearby pool house, was built using dismantled remnants from the church, and that this was done in a way, which was disrespectful to the church and the Christians:

“The mosque, and a dwelling known as the Pool House, were built using spolia [dismantled remnants] from the church.” Moreover, the repurposing was not done respectfully, he says: “A step in the main entrance to the Pool House and another in the mosque was carved with Christian symbols. People entering these structures in the Early Islamic period were actually stepping on them. That’s a clear statement, and not one of coexistence.” (HaAretz, “Historians Thought Early Christians, Muslims Coexisted Peacefully in Ancient Shivta, Archaeologists Show Otherwise”, published feb 6, 2018)

So what can we learn from this? I can’t say which one is the correct approach. Did the Muslim rulers respect the Christians in Subeita? Or did they manifest their superiority to them? There are some reasons to believe that Tepper has the long end of this argument. First, there is something to the fact that stones with engraved crosses were used as entrance stones, making sure that people would step on them. Add to that the anti-Christian message of the inscriptions in other more dominant structures, such as in the Dome of the Rock, with its clearly challenging polemics against the Christian claim of Jesus being the son of god, as well as the aggressive taxations of non-Muslims (of which the majority were Christian, though all non-Muslims would suffer under the taxation, not just Christians).

However, one would wonder why the mosque was built with seeming care for parts of the church, particularly if it – as it seems to be said – was no longer in use. The mosque itself is not particularly big, so why didn’t the Muslims take more space from the church? Or rather, why wouldn’t they just use the whole church, turning it into a mosque? One might point out that the nave of the church doesn’t point toward Mecca, and the qibla (the prayer direction) therefore would be off, in case it would be used as a mosque. But no one says that the Muslims would follow the nave of the church as an indicator of the qibla. At the same time, we see that the mihrab in the mosque itself is off, pointing too much to the west in order to give the correct qibla, though definitely not as much off as the nave of the church would be.

I think that the answer comes down to what we feel would be the right answer, that it, as it is there are too many uncertainties allowing us to add a biased conclusion, based on our subjective sympathies and antipathis. That said, there still is a lot more to learn about this mosque and other similar mosques, so maybe we will still be able to give a more correct answer, after having delved into other similar findings.