In July, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced the discovery of a rural, open-air mosque dated to the seventh or eighth century CE in the southern town of Rahat, located in the northern Negev/Naqab desert. The IAA suggests that this may be the earliest rural mosque yet discovered, and, in fact, one of the earliest mosques in the world. While only the foundations remain, the building’s outline is well preserved, with a mihrab (prayer niche) facing south, toward Mecca. The excavation also uncovered remains of a small farming village adjacent to the mosque. Most early mosques are located in major cities, like al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. This mosque is significant because it would have served a small farming village located far from any major settlements.
Some words of caution are warranted: It’s hard to confirm the date of the mosque without more detailed information on the pottery found and the stratigraphy (the relationships of architecture and layers of dirt). Pottery from the Early Islamic period is notorious for being misdated, usually too early. But IAA archaeologists are professional excavators and there is every reason to accept their dating provisionally.
We often hear that some discovery is the first, the earliest, or perhaps the largest of something. But this excavation may have more important and broader implications, at which the IAA’s Gideon Avni hinted in the press release: “The discovery of a mosque near an agricultural settlement between Be’er Sheva and Ashkelon also indicates the processes of cultural and religious change which the country underwent during the transition from the Byzantine to the early Islamic period.” Paul Cobb, professor of Islamic History at the University of Pennsylvania, summed up this significance well in the Daily Beast. Cobb notes two processes occurring in this transitional period that the discovery may shed light on: Islamization (how Islam spread throughout the region) and sedentarization (how nomadic groups settled down) in late antique Palestine. The traditional view — that the Arab conquest of Palestine brought destructive nomads into the region — is disproven by archaeological evidence (as well as historical sources). The discovery of the mosque and its associated village has the potential to refine our understanding of how people actually settled down in the northern Negev.
What about the modern parallels of ancient sedenterization? What’s mentioned only in passing in the IAA’s press release and the news reports is that Rahat is a Bedouin town, and the excavation was funded in part by the Authority for Development and Settlement of the Bedouin in the Negev, in preparation for construction of a new neighborhood. Founded in the early 1970s, Rahat is a central part of Israel’s efforts to settle the nomadic Bedouin in specific communities. In fact, this process of the state forcing nomadic Bedouin into fixed settlements dates back to well before Israel’s founding. In the late 19th century, the Ottoman empire built a series of new towns and villages in the northern Negev. The most famous of these is Beersheba. Originally an ancient town, but long abandoned, Beersheba was re-founded in a nearby location in 1899 as a Bedouin settlement. But whoever was trying to settle the Bedouin, the purpose was essentially the same: to control the nomadic population and control the land they claimed.
The Bedouin of the Negev are among the most marginalized communities in Israel. Rahat is a city of some 70,000 people, but its residents are poor, state-provided services are few, crime is rampant, and distrust of (and hostility toward) the Israeli authorities is often high. Among the incidents of violence in the city in recent years was the 2010 demolition of a mosque by the Israel Land Administration and police — they determined that it had been built illegally — against the protests of thousands of residents.
Flavia Sonntag, Beersheba and Northern Negev District Archaeologist for the IAA, told Hyperallergic that the new neighborhood in Rahat where the mosque was found is Mitcham (“compound”) number ten. Mitcham 10 was approved in 2018 as part of Israel’s current five-year plan (2017–2021) for development in Bedouin communities. The plan is a more ambitious successor to a five-year plan approved in 2011. Given Rahat’s history, a new neighborhood — and a well-funded plan for Bedouin development — would seem on the surface to be positive. But a closer look reveals a subtext of oppression.
While the 2017–2021 plan was marketed by the Israeli government as an unprecedented three billion NIS (approximately $800 million at the time of approval) of spending on housing, job training, and infrastructure for the Bedouin community, Israeli human rights groups and Bedouin citizens warned that it would involve the forced relocation of tens of thousands of people, as specified by the earlier five-year plan. (Earlier this year, the Bedouin authority reportedly announced a new initiative to begin at the end of the current five-year plan in 2021 that explicitly calls for the removal of up to 65,000 people.)
Currently there are 35 Bedouin villages in the Negev that are not recognized as legal by the state. Tens of thousands of people live in these villages. Thousands of Bedouin homes in the Negev have been demolished over the last five years, with the rate increasing over time. One high-profile case is the unrecognized village of al-Araqib, reportedly demolished more than 150 times since 2010. Other high-profile cases involve demolitions not yet carried out, such as Umm al-Hiran, an unrecognized village where Bedouin had been settled by the state in the 1950s after being evicted from their homes; their current homes are now set for demolition, to be replaced by a town for Jewish residents only. And these demolitions are not limited to the Negev, either; another planned demolition is the village of Khan al-Ahmar in the West Bank.
Rahat has been at the center of the relocation debate in Israel. When al-Araqib was first demolished in 2010, many of its residents were forcibly relocated to Rahat. In 2017, Negev Bedouin protested the planned removal of the residents of the unrecognized village of az-Zarnug to Rahat. In 2018, the Jerusalem Post reported that (as part of the current five-year plan) 30,000 new housing units in new neighborhoods would be constructed for the Bedouin community in the Negev, half of them in Rahat. According to the director of the Bedouin authority, these neighborhoods are intended to accommodate both natural population growth in the recognized towns and people relocated from unrecognized ones. Mitcham 10 is one of these neighborhoods.
The coverage of the mosque discovery has neglected these contemporary issues. Instead, it presents a familiar tale of discovery, progress (a new neighborhood), the participation of local youth — and Bedouin youth at that, suggesting a narrative of diversity. Authorities are considering ways to incorporate the mosque into the new neighborhood, a move that promotes the facade of heritage preservation. Is this enough to make up for the mass evictions? Could it at least help new residents adjust? Only if we as journalists provide more complete context can we let the reader decide.