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Networked spaces

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Caroline Durand
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Julie Marchand
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Bérangère Redon
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et al.

Islands and insularity

Why islands?

Understanding the insular location of Late Sasanian and Early Islamic Christian monasteries in the Arab-Persian Gulf

Julie Bonnéric

Résumé

Les trois monastères chrétiens fouillés dans le golfe Arabo-Persique, probablement fondés à la fin de l’ère sassanide (vers les vie-viie siècles ?) et occupés jusqu’au ixe siècle, sont tous situés sur des îles. Cette insularité des monastères de Kharg, al‑Qusur et Sir Bani Yas soulève des questions, et cet article analyse les nombreux facteurs qui pourraient expliquer ces emplacements. D’un point de vue pratique, les îles offraient de nombreuses ressources naturelles qui étaient exploitées efficacement par les moines. Dans la perspective de sa politique missionnaire, l’Église d’Orient aurait bénéficié du réseau de monastères sur la route de la Chine. Des arguments symboliques, sinon décisifs, ont pu influencer le choix de s’installer sur des îles, considérées comme permettant d’isoler les moines du monde extérieur et de protéger les monastères d’une puissance hostile, la persécution sassanide étant toujours présente dans la mémoire des moines.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Fey 1969; Beaucamp, Robin 1981; Bin Seray 1996; Briquel‑Chatonnet 2010.
  • 2 Kennet 2007; Carter 2008; Carter 2013; Bonnéric 2016; Lic 2017; Simpson 2018; Bonnéric 2020.
  • 3 Brock 1999; Kozah et al. 2015.
  • 4 Langfeldt 1994.
  • 5 Gachet‑Bizollon 2011.
  • 6 Potts 1994.
  • 7 Insoll 2021.
  • 8 Al Thani 2015, p. 29.

1Three island monasteries are among the few archaeological sites that attest to ancient Christian communities living in the Arab-Persian Gulf. The very limited textual and archaeological sources and the contradictions between them make the history of Christianity difficult to interpret in the Arab-Persian Gulf. Nevertheless, put together, the sources provide some precious information. Syriac texts suggest that Christianity arrived as early as the 4th century1 while archaeological data indicates that the coming of Islam did not stop the rise of Christianity and that Christian settlements increased at least until the end of the 8th century.2 Both written and archaeological sources suggest a rich history: some of the most famous Syriac scholars of the Church of the East, like Isaac of Niniveh (ca 640‑ca 700), were first educated in Gulf monasteries,3 some of them probably being, as suggested by the excavations of Kharg monastery, large communities with a library and scriptorium. According to the texts, the Christians in the Gulf followed Syro-Oriental rites. After the Council of Seleucia-Ctesiphon held in 410, in the acts of which appeared the first textual mention of the area, the Gulf dioceses were placed under the direct authority of the metropolitan of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, the leader of the newly recognized Church of the East. The following years saw the organization of this Persian Church and the creation of the catholicosate: the head of the Church became the Catholicos, located at Seleucia-Ctesiphon. He led all the East Syriac dioceses that were gathered in provinces under the authority of a metropolitan bishop. Between 415 and 420, the Gulf area became dependent of the Fars metropolitan province. But it was probably raised to the status of a metropolitan province, named Beth Qatraye, by Catholicos Ishoyahb III (649‑660) and then placed under the direct authority of the Catholicos. The first metropolitan bishop of Beth Qatraye, named Thomas, was designated in 676, in the local synod of Dayrin, the acts of which are the last to mention Beth Qatraye. Currently, it is mainly archaeology that provides data about Christian communities in the Gulf after that date. But on the contrary, no archaeological Christian sites clearly related to the pre-Islamic period have yet been discovered. Settlements have been recognized as Christian by the discovery of churches in al‑Qusur in Kuwait, Kharg in Iran, Sir Bani Yas in UAE and Jubayl in Saudi Arabia,4 and of crosses in Akkaz in Kuwait,5 Jabal Berri in Saudi Arabia,6 Samahij in Bahrein,7 Umm Al‑Maradim in Qatar.8 The sites of al‑Qusur, Kharg and Sir Bani Yas were identified as monasteries. The monastic nature of the sites of Akkaz on the eponymous island and Samahij on Muharraq Island has been proposed by their discoverers but has still to be demonstrated.

  • 9 Steve 2003.
  • 10 Patitucci, Uggeri 1984.
  • 11 Bernard, Salles 1991; Bernard, Callot, Salles 1991; Kennet 1991; Salles 2011; Salles, Callot 2013.
  • 12 Benediková 2010; Pieta, Ruttkay, Bielich 2019; Ruttkay, Pieta, Robak 2019.
  • 13 Żurek 2015.
  • 14 Bonnéric 2016; Bonnéric 2019; Bonnéric 2020; Bonnéric 2021; Perrogon, Bonnéric 2021.
  • 15 Elders 2001; King 1997.

2These three monasteries are located on islands (fig. 1). The first monastery was discovered on the south-western coast of Kharg Island. This island, in the north-east of the Gulf, is 7.5 km long, 5 km at its widest point and located around 25 km off the Iranian coast. The main buildings of the monastery were excavated by a French archaeological mission in 1959 and 1960.9 Meanwhile, al‑Qusur monastery is located in the middle of Failaka Island. In the north-west of the Gulf, Failaka Island is 13.5 km long, 3.5 km wide and located around 19 km from the southern tip of Kuwait Bay. The site was excavated by the Archaeological Mission in the Arabian Gulf in 1975‑1976,10 the French Mission in Kuwait in 1988‑1989 and 2007‑2009,11 the Kuwaiti-Slovak Archaeological Mission in 2007, 2009, 2016‑2017, and 2019,12 the Kuwaiti-Polish Archaeological Mission in 2011 and 2013,13 and is still being excavated today by the French-Kuwaiti Archaeological Mission in Failaka, since 2011.14 The third monastery was discovered on the west side of Sir Bani Yas Island. This island is around 17.5 km long, 9 km wide and located around 6 km off the Abu Dhabi coast. It was excavated by the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey in 1993 and 1994.15

Fig. 1 – Map of the Christian archaeological sites in the Arab-Persian Gulf distinguishing the settlements identified by the discovery of a church or by the discovery of a cross (J. Bonnéric; background map: H. David‑Cuny).

Fig. 1 – Map of the Christian archaeological sites in the Arab-Persian Gulf distinguishing the settlements identified by the discovery of a church or by the discovery of a cross (J. Bonnéric; background map: H. David‑Cuny).
  • 16 Bonnéric in press.
  • 17 Steve 2003.
  • 18 Bonnéric 2021.
  • 19 Bonnéric in press.
  • 20 Elders 2001; King 1997.
  • 21 Finster, Schmidt 1976, pp. 27‑39; Atiyah, Bonnéric in press.
  • 22 Fujii et al. 1989.
  • 23 Bonnéric in press.

3All three sites were organized around a church, each quite similar in shape but of varying size (fig. 2). This kind of church is characterized by a so-called narthex to the west, three aisles, and a rectangular sanctuary to the east, framed by two annexes. The churches of Kharg and al‑Qusur are the best preserved and show some particularities: the walls are pierced by so many doorways that the walls look like large pillars and there is a separation between two spaces, a central one that can be closed by doors and the other, surrounding the first one, that stayed open on the outside. Indeed, while the threshold sockets of the doorways leading to the sanctuary and the middle aisle suggest door panels, the doorways of the so-called narthex, the lateral aisles, and the sanctuary’s annexes do not show evidence of closure. The circumambulation from one annex to another through one lateral aisle, the so-called narthex and the other lateral aisle, as well as the systematic discovery of a burial, suggest churches hosting a pilgrimage ritual.16 The settlement surrounding the central church is clearly a monastery in the case of Kharg and Failaka Island, and most probably also in the case of Sir Bani Yas Island. Kharg was recognized as such from the first excavations thanks to the discovery of monks’ cells, conventual buildings – notably a refectory and a library – and a wall enclosing a rectangular settlement with a surface area of around 1.08 ha.17 The organization suggests a cenobitic monasticism characterized by a community life, even if a few cells might have been scattered on the periphery. The interpretation of the site of al‑Qusur was more difficult since most of the buildings spread across an area of 355 ha, as if the church had been surrounded by a village. However, the discovery of a refectory and what is most probably a cell in the vicinity of the church demonstrate that at least the central part of the site was a monastery.18 Al‑Qusur might have been a mixed type of monastery, that is to say a coenobium surrounded by scattered cells and hermitages allowing isolation for monks as well as community life.19 The enclosure wall has not yet been discovered but the central part of the monastery measures at least 0.78 ha. According to preliminary publications, an area of 0.63 ha around the church discovered at Sir Bani Yas was surrounded by an enclosure wall and what are identified as cells have been excavated.20 Al‑Qusur’s coenobium is slightly larger than Kharg’s, while Sir Bani Yas’ is the smallest. More excavation needs to be undertaken in Sir Bani Yas to understand its organization better. These three monasteries show similarities with the southern Iraqi monasteries of Qusayr21 and Ayn Sha’ya.22 The Gulf and southern Iraq seem to belong to the same cultural and religious zone.23

Fig. 2 – Plans of Sir Bani Yas, Kharg and Failaka monasteries in the Arab-Persian Gulf (J. Bonnéric, after Elders 2001, p. 49; Steve 2003, pl. 11; J. Humbert/MAFKF).

Fig. 2 – Plans of Sir Bani Yas, Kharg and Failaka monasteries in the Arab-Persian Gulf (J. Bonnéric, after Elders 2001, p. 49; Steve 2003, pl. 11; J. Humbert/MAFKF).

4The present paper analyzes the reasons that could explain the location of the three monasteries on islands in the Gulf rather than on the mainland or the coast. There is probably not one but several factors, practical, as well as political and symbolic, that explained the settlement of monks on islands. From a practical point of view, the islands offered many natural resources that might have been efficiently exploited by the monks. In the perspective of its proselytism policy, the Church of the East would have benefited from the network of monasteries on the maritime Silk Road to send missionaries to China. Symbolic arguments, if not decisive, may have influenced the choice to settle on islands, seen as materializing the isolation of monks from the outside world and symbolically protecting the monasteries from a hostile power, Sasanian persecution still being in the monks’ memories.

Practical factors: an environment well-adapted to monastic life

5It seems that the first reason for the development of monasteries on these islands was access to many natural resources: these islands offered not only sea products but also water for drinking and cultivation, as well as pastureland and building materials. The archaeological remains suggest the existence of cultivation and farming.

  • 24 Monchot, Raad forthcoming.
  • 25 King et al. 1995, p. 69.
  • 26 Perrogon forthcoming.
  • 27 Elders 2001, p. 49; King et al. 1995, p. 69.

6One of the obvious attractions of settling on an island is access to the sea and its produce. The monks probably undertook fishing activities, as suggested by objects discovered at al‑Qusur. There, the archaeozoological study shows that the monks ate mostly fish and seafood; indeed, most of the faunal remains discovered in the central part of the site by the French-Kuwaiti Archaeological Mission in Failaka are fish, seashells and crustaceans.24 The fish is mainly queenfish, jack and pompano, grunt, shark or ray and sea catfish. Crabs were also eaten. The seashells are mainly gastropods (Turbinidae, Strombidae, Trochidae…) and Bivalvia (Pteriidae, Cardiidae…). The majority of the species (seashells, crabs, fishes) belong to the intertidal zone, and picking was done by hand at low tide. It provided a significant secondary supply of protein. A few remains of sea cow and sea turtle were also found. At Sir Bani Yas, many shells and fish bones were also discovered.25 The sea products were sufficient to provide the low-calorie diet of the monks. In Near Eastern monasteries, bread formed the basic diet. It was frequently associated with condiments and dates. The consumption of vegetables, fruit, eggs, cheese, meat and fish probably depended on the community and the region. At al‑Qusur, offshore fish such as shark may have been bought or exchanged from fishermen living nearby at al‑Qurayniah, but it seems that the monastery provided for its own needs in many sea products. Many pierced and polished pottery sherds and what is probably a small anchor (ca 15 cm large) attest to fishing activities (fig. 3). While some pierced sherds might have other functions; most were probably fishing net weights. The discovery of such fishing gear inside the monastery suggests that the monks fished.26 Their dimension and mass indicate that they may have been used to hold down nets, for example hadrah, a traditional kind of intertidal, fixed-stake net trap still in use on the Kuwaiti coast that takes advantage of the tide to catch fish. In any case, most of the species identified, as well as the fishing gear, are consistent with a form of coastal fishing that does not require deep sea boats or offshore fishing techniques. Fishing also seems to be attested at Sir Bani Yas.27 According to monastic rules, brothers had to dedicate a large part of their time to work, so it is very possible that some were fishermen. The monasteries are also not far from the coast considering the current position of the seashore. As the crow flies, the Kharg monastery is only 0.28 km from the sea and Sir Bani Yas only 0.70 km, so less than 10 or 15 minutes by foot. Al‑Qusur is the only monastery built in the center of its island. The church is located 1.61 km from the northern coast and 1.44 km from the southern coast. But the surrounding settlement is quite extensive and its northern building is only 0.74 km from the coast, its eastern building only 0.88 km and its south-western building only 0.53 km.

Fig. 3 – Pierced and polished pottery sherds used as fishing weights and small stone anchor (H. David‑Cuny, J. Humbert/MAFKF).

Fig. 3 – Pierced and polished pottery sherds used as fishing weights and small stone anchor (H. David‑Cuny, J. Humbert/MAFKF).
  • 28 Steve 2003, pp. 5, 151‑152.
  • 29 Kennet 1991, p. 101.
  • 30 Chkhvimiani et al. 2021.

7The three islands also have the huge advantage of offering fresh water. A relatively complex water management system was used by the monks of the Kharg monastery.28 The water table was around 5 or 6 m below ground and a freshwater spring was located in the central east of the island. Numerous wells have been recorded across the whole island. A qanât-type channel supplied the monastery with fresh water. Around 380 m long, it transported water from north-east of the monastery to a basin to the south-west with a stop inside the monastery in an area interpreted as a garden by the French Mission, probably because of the absence of collapsed buildings and the discovery of a well. The basin was 20 m in diameter and its capacity was calculated to have been at least 600 m3. It was most likely used as a water reservoir for the cultivation of the surrounding area. At Sir Bani Yas, a waterhole or a well was located near to the monastery, according to a British Admiralty map drawn in 1966. At al‑Qusur, the water table was accessible to the monks as attested by a well excavated in a courtyard building to the west of the center of the settlement. This well reaches a depth of 4.2 m.29 It seems that this water used to be drunk by modern inhabitants of the island. Next to this well, two pits may have been shallow wells to collect and filter rainwater.30 No canalization has been discovered yet, but the monks seem to have chosen the location of the monastery to benefit from rainwater. The site is built on a low mound, 5 m higher than the surrounding depression forming a sebkha – that is a depression filled by rain run-off and water seepage. Sebkhas cannot be lived on because they flood, but living nearby may be vital on an island characterized by long dry seasons and massive and brutal floods. Thanks to this depression, the monastery was surrounded by pastureland that transformed into natural lakes during the rainy season.

  • 31 Calvet 1984, p. 26.
  • 32 Steve 2003, p. 6.

8Progressive salinization of the groundwater, deforestation by human occupants and more recently national projects to redevelop these islands, such as a wildlife reserve in Sir Bani Yas and a marine oil terminal in Kharg, have radically changed the landscapes. These three islands were lived on from Early Antiquity, as demonstrated by archaeological discoveries and by texts. Arrian (ca 170 AD) described Failaka Island, according to Aristobulus’ testimony, as “covered with all sorts of trees […]; there was a sanctuary to Artemis […] used as a grazing field by the wild goats and does”.31 Meanwhile, in the 9th century, Ibn Khordadbeh mentioned “wheat fields, vineyards and palm trees” on Kharg.32

  • 33 Dabrowski forthcoming.
  • 34 Monchot, Wouters, Van Neer forthcoming.
  • 35 Steve 2003, pp. 150‑151, plan 13.
  • 36 Monchot, Wouters, Van Neer forthcoming.

9Regarding the time when the monasteries were occupied, there is still very little environmental data. Archaeobotanical samples from al‑Qusur are still being studied. Even though the remains are poorly preserved, the results already suggest cultivation and livestock farming activities related to the monastery.33 Some plants were probably gathered and cultivated for food, such as chard. Some grasses related to crops may have been used as fodder for livestock. Faunal remains also suggested the presence of caprines (sheep and goat) and donkeys; these domesticated species being most probably bred by the monastery – the former for nutrition, the latter for transportation of goods.34 The courtyards of the enclosed buildings housed kitchens, storage areas, a well in at least one case, and presumably sheepfolds or kitchen gardens. The presence of small partition walls in the courtyards suggests this functional division. At Kharg, a few buildings surrounded the monastery. They are less numerous than the surrounding buildings at al‑Qusur and the identification of their function is difficult. One building was excavated by the French Mission and seemed related to farming.35 A well, a stone press and a tank were discovered in it, the whole was interpreted as a structure that might have surrounded a vine plant. At al‑Qusur, the sheep and goat flocks may have grazed in the sebkhas surrounding the monastery. The discovery of gazelle bones, though very few, suggests hunting of this wild animal on the island.36

10The islands were thus more than adequate for the development of human communities such as monasteries. A study of maps of al‑Qusur highlights the attention given by the monks to their environment and their ability to make the most of the land. The layout of the site is indeed perfectly adapted to the landscape since the vast majority of the buildings, which are assumed to have enclosed a garden and housed some livestock, are located in semi-humid areas (fig. 4). They were not built in the flood-prone areas of sebkhas but next to them so that these could be used as pastureland. The site area includes four dry zones. Three of them are almost devoid of construction but the center of the monastery and what are probably two burial areas are built on the fourth one. These dry areas perfectly suited the construction of conventual buildings and inhumations, but would not have been appropriate for courtyard buildings with sheepfolds and gardens. The choice of building location was clearly dependent on the nature of the land.

Fig. 4 – Plan of al‑Qusur settlement in its environment; delimitation of the wetlands, wettish areas and dry areas (J. Humbert/MAFKF).

Fig. 4 – Plan of al‑Qusur settlement in its environment; delimitation of the wetlands, wettish areas and dry areas (J. Humbert/MAFKF).

Political factors: monasteries as a stop-off for missionaries on the way to China (and India?)

  • 37 Baum, Winkler 2003.

11The islands with monasteries are located on a sea route from Mesopotamia to China and India. The Arab-Persian Gulf has been crossed by maritime routes since Antiquity but it is difficult to understand how monasteries were taking part in this trade. The monks were looking for a contemplative but active life, reflected by a simple material culture. There are no traces yet that monasteries were active in international trade and the islands might have been only a stopping point for boats circulating in the Gulf. The discoveries of Indian cooking pots and glass seems to suggest that monks were at least in contact with the traders but these artifacts might simply have been imported from a trading post. On the other hand, these routes were not only used by merchants but also by missionaries. The Church of the East was characterized by a very strong proselytism, in particular from the 7th to the 9th century, the main occupation phase of the Gulf monasteries.37 Monks and merchants spread the Syro-Oriental rite from Mesopotamia and Persia to the East, in particular in Central Asia, India and China, following the overland and maritime Silk Roads. Christian monasticism grew in China and India probably because these regions were already familiar with communities ruled by spirituality and partially separated from society. In China, East Syriac missionary activities are attested from the 7th century and seem to have been supported mainly by monks. The Gulf monasteries could have been a step on the way to China, which could explain their development. Their role is more difficult to establish regarding India, since Christianity may have been spread there more by merchants than by monks (see below).

  • 38 Liščák 2009.
  • 39 Nicolini‑Zani 2013a.

12Although there were probably Christians among the Persian merchants who traveled to China from the 5th century onwards and some East Syriac missionaries in Central Asia who may have promoted their faith in China at the end of the 5th century, the first traces of the “Luminous Religion” (jingjiao), as Christianity was called in Chinese, appeared in central China during the Tang dynasty (618‑907). This first development is only known from some Syriac texts and inscriptions and a few Chinese sources.38 The latter are mainly scrolls discovered in Duhang, in north-central China, a stele discovered in the capital of the Tang dynasty, Chang’an (the modern Xi’an), an inscription on the Luoyang pillar (815) and some Christian artifacts such as inscribed crosses. The Xi’an stele, erected in 781, reports that missionaries sent by Ishoyahb II (628‑643) visited the capital of the Tang dynasty around 635. They were led by a bishop named Alopen who earned the support of Emperor Taizong (626‑649). The emperor issued an Edict of Toleration for the Christians and authorized the construction of a monastery in the capital. With the help of Taoist and Buddhist monks, the missionaries translated into Chinese the texts about Christian religion that they brought with them. Even if officially tolerated and sometimes promoted by emperors, the spread of Christianity seems to have been limited and it remained a foreign religion. The region was raised up to metropolitan of Beth Sinaye under the catholicosate of Timothy I (780‑823). In the 8th century, several monasteries were founded in different parts of the Chinese Empire, as indicated by the Xi’an stele.39 Religious persecutions under the reign of Emperor Wuzong (840‑846) started the decline of Christianity. In 845, an edit decreed the banishment of “foreign religions” from China and the Beth Sinaye was not represented at the synod of Catholicos Theodosius I (853‑868). After the middle of the 9th century, traces of Christianity became scattered until a second flourishing during the Yuan dynasty (1279‑1368).

  • 40 Tang 2019.
  • 41 Nicolini‑Zani 2013a.
  • 42 Atiya 1968, p. 256.
  • 43 Nicolini‑Zani 2013b, pp. 143‑154.
  • 44 Tang 2019.
  • 45 Tang 2019, p. 196.
  • 46 Borbone 2015, p. 134.

13It was monks who probably played the most important role in the expansion of the Church of the East in China.40 Although merchants and traders probably contributed widely to the dissemination of knowledge about their faith, the Christian communities were mainly monastic.41 Aziz Atiya compared monks to a “great army of dedicated men ready to penetrate unknown regions and expose themselves to every peril to spread the faith in the Far East”.42 A network of well-organized East Syriac monasteries probably also benefited the spread of Christianity to the East. The first missionaries that traveled with Alopen were probably monks, since they founded a monastery in Chang’an after their arrival. At the beginning of the 9th century, the Christian clergy was mainly Persian and Central Asian43 and hence it was necessary to send representatives from the Church of the East from Persia to China. Although the importance of the Silk Road in the spread of Christianity cannot be ignored and has already been discussed,44 it is likely that the maritime Silk Road, going through the Arab-Persian Gulf, might also have played a significant role. In a letter, the Catholicos Timothy I (780‑823) mentioned travel to India and China by sea.45 The journey by sea was long and perilous, as pointed out by a monk returning from China in 987: “Travel by sea is irregular. Navigation is a terrible thing and few people are experts at it. You are exposed to danger and fear”.46

  • 47 Bonnéric in press.
  • 48 Sourdel 1965.

14Although it is difficult to prove with available data, it seems quite possible that monasteries in the Gulf were stopping-off points for missionaries, mainly monks, traveling from Mesopotamia to China. Monasteries would have offered them accommodation, all the facilities for worship, and a landscape favorable to the observance of rules. The churches of Kharg, al‑Qusur and Sir Bani Yas, as well as the refectories of Kharg and al‑Qusur, might have been used by missionaries for religious services and communal rituals. The burial of the relics of a founder or a holy monk in the churches of Kharg and al‑Qusur may also have been a reason for missionaries to stop off at these island monasteries.47 It can be hypothesized that the scriptorium and library discovered at Kharg might have been intended to copy manuscripts to be carried to China and then translated into Chinese. The function of hosting missionaries could explain the choice of islands located on trade routes for the development of monasteries in the area of the Gulf. The very active missionary policy of the Church of the East might have involved organization and structure, and the creation of a network of monasteries would have facilitated the missionaries’ journey. It should be underlined that the development of the Gulf monasteries seems to follow the period after Alopen traveled and one cannot exclude the possibility that missionary journeys may have contributed to monasteries’ growth. The fact that monks were generally exempted from the jizyah taxation, that non-Muslim subjects (dhimmi) had to pay, may explain the disappearance of Christian dioceses in the Gulf when compared with the monasteries. But it is probably not the only reason for their development. It is also interesting to note that their abandonment is contemporaneous with the end of the first phase of China’s Christianization, in the mid 9th century. Of course, the Islamization of the local populations was a lengthy process but in the Syrian and Egyptian areas, the monasteries weakened mainly from the 11th century.48 If one of the functions of these monasteries was to facilitate the travel of missionaries to China, the places would have developed at the same time as missionary travel and an interruption of these activities may be one of the main reasons for their disappearance, which is otherwise difficult to explain.

  • 49 Whitehouse, Williamson 1973, p. 43.
  • 50 Jose, Mohanty 2017.
  • 51 Jose, Mohanty 2017, p. 120.
  • 52 Lambourn, Veluthat, Tomber forthcoming.

15David Whitehouse and Andrew Williamson have already proposed the hypothesis that the Kharg monastery “may have had the special function of training missionaries for service abroad”, in particular in India, because Kharg Island is interpreted as “[playing] a significant role in the maritime trade of the Gulf”.49 While the idea of a training center is attractive, there is no evidence to support this assumption at the moment. Regarding missionary activities to India, the role of the Gulf monasteries is less obvious. Since very few sources mention monks, it seems to us that the Indian Christian communities may have been more related to traders than monks, unlike in China. But the history of Christianity in India is very difficult to study because of a lack of sources prior to the 16th century. Archaeological remains consist mainly of inscriptions on copper plates or on stones, coins, and engraved or sculpted crosses.50 According to tradition, Christianity was brought to India very early, with the preaching of Thomas, one of Christ’s apostles, who was believed to have reached the Malabar Coast in or ca 52 AD. Christian merchants were also probably traveling to India, in particular Persian traders sailing through the Gulf. In the 6th century, the traveler Cosmas Indicopleustes wrote, in his Topographia Christiana, about a church in Sri Lanka and a priest ordained in Persia. Initially depending on the Fars province, the region of India as well as the Gulf was raised to metropolitan status by Catholicos Iso’yabh III (649‑660), namely Beth Hindaye and Beth Qatraye. Regarding the engraved crosses on stone, it is not possible to relate iconographic features to a chronology, but the inscriptions on them seem to date them to the 7th to the 10th century.51 Travelers, such as Ibn Hurradadbih, al‑Biruni, al‑Idrisi, al‑Dimashqi, Abu al‑Fida and al‑Qalqashandi, as well as archaeological discoveries reveal the importance of Persian merchants along the Malabar Coast and in Sri Lanka. The arrival of the Portuguese in India stopped the involvement of the Church of the East in India. A remarkable document from India, the Kollam Plates, is dated to 849 AD.52 It is written in three languages (Tamil, Middle Persian and Arabic) but in four scripts. This record of a royal grant indicates that land was given to Christian traders for the construction of a church, as well as social privileges and the right to collect taxes and to run the market. The status of the Christians to whom lands were attributed by the ruler in the Indian Kollam Plates and the Chinese Xi’an stele is indicative of a possible difference in the nature of the mission between the two countries: Christianity would have been spread mainly by merchants in India and mostly by monks in China. It is then more difficult to attribute a function to the Gulf monasteries in the travel of Christian merchants. There was no reason for Christian Persian merchants to stop off at monasteries rather than using the networks of port cities that led to India. Monks, on the other hand, would have preferred to halt among their brothers in monasteries rather than in market towns.

Symbolic issues: islands that looked like isolated and protected areas

16In addition to practical and political reasons, it is interesting to consider the symbolic factors that may have come into play in the choice of island settlements. The fact that islands appear to be isolated and remote areas may have echoed monastic sensibilities. In reality, these islands were not uninhabited and at the time of the monasteries’ presence there were no reasons for monks to hide. However, being surrounded by the sea may have acted as a symbol of isolation and protection.

  • 53 Di Miceli 2021; Di Miceli 2019; Grassigli, Di Miceli 2018.
  • 54 Farès 2011; Farès 2019.
  • 55 Eddé, Micheau, Picard 1997.
  • 56 Key Fowden 2004; Sourdel 1965.
  • 57 Perrogon, Bonnéric 2021; Hardy-Guilbert, Rougeulle 2003.

17It is important to underline that these factors can only have been symbolic. First, the islands were not deserted and were, in fact, accessible. On Failaka Island, settlements contemporary with al-Qusur have been discovered. At al‑Qurayniah, what may be a fishermen’s village has been excavated, characterized by elongated buildings.53 It is located less than 2 km from the northern extremity of the site, less than 3 km from the center. This settlement had probably been in use since the Late Hellenistic period, between the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, and grew during the Early Islamic period. Some areas in the Zagros Mountains and in the Arabian Desert would have been more isolated than the islands. The desert of the Arabian Peninsula, not far from the Gulf, may have even recalled the memory of the Egyptian desert that housed first hermits and monks. The monastery of Kilwa, for example, was isolated in the north-west of the Arabian Desert.54 On the other hand, these islands had been on trade routes since Antiquity and were not hidden at all. The accessibility of Failaka Island at the time of al‑Qusur monastery is insufficiently documented as yet, but it is most probable that a harbor was located to the north-west of the settlement, on the northern coast, and linked with the settlement of al‑Qurainiya. The west coast and al‑Khidr bay are also areas that may have been used as harbors. So, al‑Qusur monastery was not strictly isolated. Failaka, Kharg and Sir Bani Yas were not deserted islets but islands settled since Antiquity. Monks were not really protected by isolation and their presence was most probably obvious. Besides, being on an island is not very strategic if one fears persecution, since there is no place to hide or to flee to when threatened. Here again, the Zagros Mountains were much more suitable for this purpose. But in any case, there seems to have been no reason to hide. Although the situation of Christians varied and depended greatly on the decisions made by Muslim rulers, Umayyad and most of the first Abbasid caliphs showed tolerance towards the People of the Book.55 Although they had to pay a poll tax in exchange for dhimma protection and wear distinctive clothes, Christians occupied important positions within the caliph’s administration and at the court (e.g. philosophers, physicians, writers…). Monasteries in particular prospered.56 Also, in the Gulf, nothing shows that Christians were in danger during the Early Islamic period and, on the contrary, the settlements seem to have grown before being abandoned during the 9th century.57 The abandonment of these sites, moreover, is never characterized by destruction but simply by the departure of the population.

  • 58 Flusin 1998.
  • 59 Baum, Winkler 2003.

18If not effective and efficient, isolation may have played a symbolic role in the choice of insularity. On the one hand, the islands symbolically met the monks’ aspirations to seclusion, the sea representing a symbolic border with the outside world. Ancient monasteries aimed at being isolated from the world, even if they continued to interact with it. Secluded locations were favored since they allowed the confinement of the monks. Indeed, reclusion is a tradition for ascetic monks, who can thus concentrate on spirituality, mainly through prayer and work.58 Islands seem particularly adapted to this ideal since they are separated from large urban centers. On the other hand, the monks may have been attracted by the theoretical natural protection offered by the islands as they may still have remembered Sasanian persecution, in particular under Shapur II (309‑379). With the Sasanian Empire at war with the Roman Empire, the conversion of Constantine to Christianity and the fact that Shapur considered all Christians to be his subjects, mistrust of the Christians of the Persian Empire grew.59 Shapur first doubled the tax on Christians, then started the destruction of churches, and deported or martyred his Christians subjects. Three successive Catholicos were executed and Persian martyrologies described numerous persecutions. This oppression may have been one of the reasons for the settlement of Christian populations in the Gulf area.

Conclusion

19There were probably multiple factors that led monks to settle on the islands of the Gulf. From a practical point of view, they offered a sustaining environment, providing water, conditions favorable to grazing and agriculture, and the possibility of access to marine food resources. The monks took care to benefit from what the islands had to offer (proximity of the sebkhas at al‑Qusur) and to enhance their resources, for example through water management on Kharg. At the same time, it is possible that they offered access to imported goods transported through the Gulf both from Mesopotamia, Syria or the Levant, and from India with a passive participation in exchanges. But the explanation of the monasteries’ growth is also probably political, since the Church of the East might have promoted the establishment, or more probably the development, of monasteries on these islands as stopping-off points for Christian missionary expeditions to China, creating a network of monasteries. Symbolic factors in the choice of islands should not be excluded: although Failaka, Kharg and Sir Bani Yas are not deserted islets, they are physically separated from the mainland by the sea, which could represent their desire to be separate from the outside world, which is one of the aims of a monastery. Memories of the Sasanian persecutions might also have led to this need for isolation, isolation being a protection, even if, in fact, these Christian communities were not threatened by the young Islamic state.

20Both practical and political arguments might explain the growth of the communities, as illustrated at al‑Qusur. The reason they settled on these islands is more difficult to explain because the period of their foundations is almost unknown. If the installation is related to one hermit who attracted disciples to the point of creating a community, the symbolic factor of a secluded island must have been prominent. On the contrary, if the monastery originated with a few monks who decided to found a small community, practical reasons probably came first. Solitary monks would not really have paid attention to the livability of an island, because they desired a difficult and expiatory life. The livability of the islands would explain the foundation of a monastic community but not the settling of one or a few hermits. No written source suggests the creation of a network of monasteries by the Church of the East for evangelizing and such an organization would probably have been based on monasteries that already existed. Though it can also be correlated to political changes in Iraq and the Gulf areas and it is linked to a lengthy general process of the local populations’ Islamization, the end of missionary activities to China, due to the rejection of “foreign religions” by the Chinese Empire in the middle of the 9th century, could partially explain the disappearance of this monastic network that may have supported the journeys of missionaries.

Bibliographie

Abbreviations

BEO: Bulletin d’études orientales (Damascus).

BSOAS: Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (London).

PAM: Polish Archaeology in the Mediterranean (Warsaw).

ParOr: Parole de l’Orient (Paris).

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Notes

1 Fey 1969; Beaucamp, Robin 1981; Bin Seray 1996; Briquel‑Chatonnet 2010.

2 Kennet 2007; Carter 2008; Carter 2013; Bonnéric 2016; Lic 2017; Simpson 2018; Bonnéric 2020.

3 Brock 1999; Kozah et al. 2015.

4 Langfeldt 1994.

5 Gachet‑Bizollon 2011.

6 Potts 1994.

7 Insoll 2021.

8 Al Thani 2015, p. 29.

9 Steve 2003.

10 Patitucci, Uggeri 1984.

11 Bernard, Salles 1991; Bernard, Callot, Salles 1991; Kennet 1991; Salles 2011; Salles, Callot 2013.

12 Benediková 2010; Pieta, Ruttkay, Bielich 2019; Ruttkay, Pieta, Robak 2019.

13 Żurek 2015.

14 Bonnéric 2016; Bonnéric 2019; Bonnéric 2020; Bonnéric 2021; Perrogon, Bonnéric 2021.

15 Elders 2001; King 1997.

16 Bonnéric in press.

17 Steve 2003.

18 Bonnéric 2021.

19 Bonnéric in press.

20 Elders 2001; King 1997.

21 Finster, Schmidt 1976, pp. 27‑39; Atiyah, Bonnéric in press.

22 Fujii et al. 1989.

23 Bonnéric in press.

24 Monchot, Raad forthcoming.

25 King et al. 1995, p. 69.

26 Perrogon forthcoming.

27 Elders 2001, p. 49; King et al. 1995, p. 69.

28 Steve 2003, pp. 5, 151‑152.

29 Kennet 1991, p. 101.

30 Chkhvimiani et al. 2021.

31 Calvet 1984, p. 26.

32 Steve 2003, p. 6.

33 Dabrowski forthcoming.

34 Monchot, Wouters, Van Neer forthcoming.

35 Steve 2003, pp. 150‑151, plan 13.

36 Monchot, Wouters, Van Neer forthcoming.

37 Baum, Winkler 2003.

38 Liščák 2009.

39 Nicolini‑Zani 2013a.

40 Tang 2019.

41 Nicolini‑Zani 2013a.

42 Atiya 1968, p. 256.

43 Nicolini‑Zani 2013b, pp. 143‑154.

44 Tang 2019.

45 Tang 2019, p. 196.

46 Borbone 2015, p. 134.

47 Bonnéric in press.

48 Sourdel 1965.

49 Whitehouse, Williamson 1973, p. 43.

50 Jose, Mohanty 2017.

51 Jose, Mohanty 2017, p. 120.

52 Lambourn, Veluthat, Tomber forthcoming.

53 Di Miceli 2021; Di Miceli 2019; Grassigli, Di Miceli 2018.

54 Farès 2011; Farès 2019.

55 Eddé, Micheau, Picard 1997.

56 Key Fowden 2004; Sourdel 1965.

57 Perrogon, Bonnéric 2021; Hardy-Guilbert, Rougeulle 2003.

58 Flusin 1998.

59 Baum, Winkler 2003.

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 – Map of the Christian archaeological sites in the Arab-Persian Gulf distinguishing the settlements identified by the discovery of a church or by the discovery of a cross (J. Bonnéric; background map: H. David‑Cuny).
URL http://books.openedition.org/momeditions/docannexe/image/16391/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 106k
Titre Fig. 2 – Plans of Sir Bani Yas, Kharg and Failaka monasteries in the Arab-Persian Gulf (J. Bonnéric, after Elders 2001, p. 49; Steve 2003, pl. 11; J. Humbert/MAFKF).
URL http://books.openedition.org/momeditions/docannexe/image/16391/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 216k
Titre Fig. 3 – Pierced and polished pottery sherds used as fishing weights and small stone anchor (H. David‑Cuny, J. Humbert/MAFKF).
URL http://books.openedition.org/momeditions/docannexe/image/16391/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 126k
Titre Fig. 4 – Plan of al‑Qusur settlement in its environment; delimitation of the wetlands, wettish areas and dry areas (J. Humbert/MAFKF).
URL http://books.openedition.org/momeditions/docannexe/image/16391/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 332k

Auteur

Institut français du Proche-Orient, Centre français de recherche de la péninsule Arabique, CIHAM (UMR 5648)

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