Archeologists find First Evidence of Syriac Christianity in Bahrain

Archeological finds by University of Exeter experts evidence fourth century presence of Christianity on the island of Bahrain.

Where historians and archeologists already concluded from ancient chronicles and writings that Christianity was present before the Islamic era in Bahrain and the broader eastern part of the Arabian Peninsula, archeologists and experts from the University of Exeter and the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities now have found the remains of a likely monastery belonging to the Church of the East.

According to the report published by the University of Exeter the uncovered building had several rooms and measured 170m2. It was probably part of a monastery or a large house. The building was likely occupied in the seventh century just before the people converted to Islam.

A cross has been found carved onto a piece of stone and another cross was found painted on a pot shard. It is likely that the Christians who used the building were part of the “Nestorian” Church – i.e. the Church of the East – which flourished in the Gulf between the fourth and seventh centuries. Also found at the site were the remains of wine jars, glass goblets and pottery, which dates from the seventh century.

One of the wine jars is inscribed in what morphology- and phonetics-wise is thought to be an Aramaic language called Psalter Pahlavi. Psalter Pahlavi is a cursive writing system or “abjad” which doesn’t use vowels but diacritics. It was used for writing Middle Persian on paper and its’ name goes back to the Pahlavi Psalter in which part of the Biblical Psalms are translated from Syriac-Aramaic to Middle Persian.

University of Exeter professor and archeologic lead of the excavation professor Tim Insoll said: “It has been hard to find evidence of Christian Bahrain because these sites and buildings have since been used for different purposes and are now underneath modern housing, which is why this discovery is so special”.

“The historical memory of these times exists in the names of towns, and even people, as well as historical documents, so we knew there was concrete evidence to discover, and we hope to find more in the future.”

Early Syriac Chronicles testifying Christian Presence on the Arabian Peninsula and in the Persian Gulf

According to Syriac ecclesiastical historical chronicles and writings, Christianity was present in the eastern parts of the Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf as early as the fourth century. Present-day island state Bahrain and the Qatar peninsula – together called “Beth Qatraye” – in those days fell under the sphere of influence of the Persian Sassanid Empire.

From the fifth century onward, Christianity in Bahrain fell under the jurisdiction of the Church of the East which had two main ecclesiastical centers. One in Beth Qatraye in northeastern Arabia and one Beth Mazunaye in southeastern Arabia – present-day United Arab Emirates and Oman.

The “Nestorian” Church is the Church of the East – now the Assyrian Church of the East (1976), the Ancient Church of the East (1968) and the Chaldean Catholic Church (1830).

The anonymous Chronicle of Siirt, which dates to the second half of the eight century and was written in Arabic, accounts the situation of the Christian church in the Persian Empire and testifies the early Christian presence by the presence of Church of the East bishop David of Perat d’Maishan at the Council of Seleucia-Ctesiphon (on the eastern bank of the Tigris river, and near present-day Baghdad), around 325. The Syriac-Orthodox church father Gregory Bar Hebraeus (1226-1286) in his Chronicle Ecclesiasticum (Syriac: Makhtbhanuth Zabne) says of bishop David that he had earlier ordained one of the other bishops present at the Council of Seleucia-Ctesiphon.

Where earlier writings and archeological finds evidenced the presence of Christianity in the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf, the latest find by the experts of the University of Exeter and the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities evidences the presence of Christianity on the island of Bahrain.