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One of the oldest mosques in the world uncovered in Tiberias

Foundations believed to date from 7th century found beneath another ancient mosque from the 8th century during the early Islamic period

Site of excavations that uncovered a 7th century mosque in the city of Tiberias. (Hebrew University)
Site of excavations that uncovered a 7th century mosque in the city of Tiberias. (Hebrew University)

Archaeologists have determined that foundations found beneath an ancient mosque in Tiberias are from an even older mosque, making it one of the oldest such buildings available for excavation in the world, the Hebrew University said.

The unusual manner in which the earlier structure was built enabled archaeologist Katia Cytryn-Silverman to determine that it was likely constructed during the seventh century CE.

Cytryn-Silverman, of the Hebrew University, said it is the oldest mosque in the world that can be excavated. Other ancient mosques are either still being used or have had other mosques built on top of them, hindering research.

It has been difficult to know exactly what the original buildings looked like, Cytryn-Silverman said in a press release from the university.

The discovery of such an old building offers a rare opportunity to examine the original foundations.

Archaeologist Katia Cytryn-Silverman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. (Hebrew University)

Cytryn-Silverman estimated the mosque was 22 by 49 meters in size, with a courtyard, making it smaller than the slightly more recent mosque discovered on top of it, which is 78 by 90 meters and dates from a hundred years later, between 720 CE and 740 CE.

A clue to when the older mosque was built came from earth used as filling in the foundation, which was brought in from elsewhere. By consulting with an archaeologist in Yemen, Cytryn-Silverman was further convinced that “the construction technology used at the ancient mosque, a simple and pragmatic style uncharacteristic of the region, apparently first came to Israel at the start of the Arab conquest in the seventh century.”

She said the technology itself may have originated in the Arabian Peninsula.

Cytryn-Silverman presented her findings earlier this month at a joint Hebrew University and Ben-Zvi Institute conference to mark 2,000 years since the founding of Tiberias. It is known as the The Al-Juma (Friday) Mosque, getting its name from the Friday sermons that would have been delivered at the mosque when it was in use.

Only the lower foundations of the older building remain and it took years of study before the full significance of the site was understood, with archaeologists able to determine the years the mosque was active from coins and pottery shards found at the site.

The presence of remains at the location, in the south of Tiberias near the bottom of Mount Berenice, has been known since 1952, though scholars initially thought they were from a Byzantine marketplace.

Cytryn-Silverman began excavating the site in 2009 ago and was able to determine that a structure at the center of the site was in fact a mosque from the 8th century. Further study determined that below the mosque were the remains of the older mosque.

Foundations of a 7th century mosque uncovered in Tiberias. (Hebrew University)

Following the Arab conquests of the region in the 7th century, Tiberias became the capital of Jund al-Urdun, the Jordanian military district, making it a political and economic center.

The site is close to the remains of a Byzantine church that was in use from the fifth to the 10th centuries, and which archaeologists say was the largest in the Galilee. They believe a large synagogue may have stood alongside it.

“This was an area that was multi-religious and a very moving symbol of regional coexistence,” Cytryn-Silverman said in the statement. “It is important to remember, tt the time that these monumental structures stood in the center of the city, the time when they were active is considered the city’s peak period. It was the time of famous and impressive Jewish activity here…including the writing of the Aleppo Codex in the first half of the 10th century.”

Work at the mosque site is to restart in the near future, in a collaborative dig between the Hebrew University and the German Protestant Institute of Archaeology on the Mount of Olives.

The previous oldest mosque to be excavated was in Wasit, Iraq, and built in 703 CE, Cytryn-Silverman said, but the mosque in Tiberias is decades older.

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