Sunday, February 4, 2018

Julie Bonnéric: Christianity in the Arab-Persian Gulf: An Ancient but Still Obscure History

Read the whole article, with illustrations, here.

Christianity in the Arab-Persian Gulf: 
An Ancient but Still Obscure History

by Julie Bonnéric

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.
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