Aerial photographs of the mosque.
Aerial photographs of the mosque.Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority.

A luxurious estate and a rare rural mosque – among the earliest known worldwide (over 1200 years old) was recently discovered in the city of Rahat in the Negev. Large-scale archaeological excavations conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority to facilitate the construction of a new neighborhood in Rahat, underwritten by the Authority for Development and Settlement of the Bedouin in the Negev, are providing graphic details of the gradual transition from Christianity to Islam that took place in the seventh to ninth centuries CE.

The excavations, directed by Oren Shmueli, Dr. Elena Kogan-Zehavi and Dr. Noe David Michael on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, revealed buildings with Christian and Early Islamic characteristics in close proximity to one another. “We uncovered a farmhouse of the Byzantine period that apparently housed Christian farmers and included a fortified tower and rooms with strong walls surrounding a courtyard.

On a nearby hilltop, we found estates constructed in a completely different manner; these were built about a hundred years later, in the late seventh to ninth centuries – the Early Islamic period. The estate buildings, apparently built by Muslims, were constructed with lines of rooms next to large, open courtyards.

Many of the clay-lined ovens revealed in the rooms and courtyards were probably used for cooking food. The walls of these buildings were relatively thin and apparently supported mudbrick walls that have not survived.” An early rural mosque, excavated in the vicinity in 2019 by Shahar Tzur and Dr. Jon Seligman on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, and the first of its kind, provided proof of the identity of the inhabitants.

In the recent, renewed excavations, archaeologists were surprised to discover yet another rural mosque of the seventh – eighth centuries CE. The mosque includes a square room and a wall facing the direction of Mecca (qibla), the holy city of Islam. A niche shaped in a half-circle, is located along the center of the wall pointing southwards (mihrab). These unique

architectural features show that the building was used as a mosque. The mosque stands alone in the site and it could have been used by several dozen Muslim worshippers, most likely local inhabitants, for prayers.

The mosque is located about 400 meters south of a luxurious estate building constructed around a central courtyard. It includes halls with stone pavement, some paved with marble, and walls decorated with frescos painted in red and yellow. Remains of fine tableware and glass vessels, some decorated with drawings of plants and animals, which were revealed in the building, evince the wealth of its inhabitants.

According to researchers from the Israel Antiquities Authority, “The evidence from all of the excavation areas gathered so far: the dwellings, the houses of prayer, the ovens and utensils, sheds light on the beginnings of the historical process that took place in the northern Negev with the introduction of a new religion – the religion of Islam, and a new rulership and culture in the region. These were gradually established, inheriting the earlier Byzantine government and Christian religion that held sway over the land for hundreds of years.

According to the director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Eli Eskozido, “The important largescale excavation in Rahat contributes to our knowledge, and that of the residents of the city of Rahat, who, together with the Authority for Development and Settlement of the Bedouin in the Negev, will be rewarded with the integration of unique finds in the development of the city – the ancient next to the modern – as in the words of King Solomon: “One generation comes and another passes away, and the earth abides forever.”