Early Christian Arabia

Early Christian Arabia Surveying a mustatil site in Saudi Arabia
Comments on the margin
By the book’s editor

Changes are coming to Saudi Arabia, some of which may have interesting outcomes for all those interested in the past, present and possibly future of Christianity in the region.

As is well known, the central desert of Arabia, where the capital Riyadh is located, is only part of the ancient classical divisions of the peninsula, which never came under the Romans.

In the south was Arabia Felix, Happy Arabia, along the coasts of Oman, Hadhramaut and Yemen, which were the sources of spices, fragrances, coffee and, of course, slaves. To the north bordering on what we think of as the Holy Land was Arabia Petra, Stony Arabia.

Taking their cue from Egypt, Israel, Palestine and Turkey, Saudi Arabia has decided to exploit its history and prehistoric past, but only really in an area with little else to exploit.

Currently work is going on with the aid of French, Australian and British archaeologists to investigate the mysterious mustatils, sites that are 50,000 years old, a thousand or so very mysterious stone rectangles whose ritual use is unknown. In cultural terms, the sites mark the transition from pure nomadism to pastoralism.

Their location is in the north-west of the country which has little else to interest visitors as there are so far no known ancient cities. This is an area of the Red Sea where other countries’ coastal resorts, those of Egypt and Israel, are located.

Saudi interests see some sort of development along those lines, with the geology and archaeology and classical heritage to the hinterland providing tourist excursions. They will have seen the great success of Abu Dhabi.

But it is this point that raises the really intriguing point. Once they begin the archaeology survey, the Saudis are going to have to deal with late classical, post classical, urban and early medieval. And that means dealing with whatever traces of the early Christians in the region still survive.

These traces would most likely be found in the cities, in Jeddah, Mecca and down in Yemen along the south coast. There were certainly Jews in all those places, and where you had Jews in the first centuries of our era you would have had Christians, later of various kinds, Nestorians and so on, but Christians nevertheless.

Age of ignorance

What will the Wahabi Saudis do, who in the past saw such things as relics of “the age of ignorance” before the advent of the Prophet? Undoubtedly Christians, as “a people of the Book”, have the Prophet’s blessing, but will the Archaeological Commission in Riyadh really want to preserve and open to tourists such early relics of Christianity?

It is a problem to ponder. But it shows the dimension of the ideation that may need to change, perhaps on all sides. Little is known about the Arabian aspect of late classical Christianity. In developing their archaeology the Saudis may well bring very great changes and indeed movements towards tolerance and freedom of expression. Then again, stubborn human nature being what it is, they may not.