Beirut (AsiaNews/Agencies) - A forest of crosses engraved in the rocks of the desert of Saudi Arabia is a sign of the presence of a vibrant Christian community around the fifth century AD.
Unearthed by a Saudi-French archaeological team, the graffiti include inscriptions with a number of biblical and Christian names, perhaps those of martyrs killed during a wave of persecution in the fifth century.
L'Orient-Le Jour reported that Prof Frédéric Imbert, a professor at the University of Aix-Marseille and a member of the team, presented his findings at a conference at the American University of Beirut on the rock engravings of Jabal Kawkab ("Star Mountain"), in Najran, southern Saudi Arabia.
The area is called Bi'r Hima or Abar Hima, names "that refer to places with wells known since ancient times." According to Imbert, an epigrapher, the area is located on the route "that connected Yemen to Najran" where caravans could be resupplied in water.
Inscriptions were found with crosses, scattered over a one-square kilometre. Some inscriptions appear to be in a local version of Aramaic, a pre-Islamic form of Arabic, Nabataean-Arabic to be more precise.
The inscriptions have been dated to the reign of Shurihbil Yakkuf, who controlled southern Arabia in 470-475. The persecution of Christians appears to have started under his rule.
It is interesting to note that the names Marthad and Rabi were found inscribed on the crosses. Both are on the list of martyrs of Najran, in the so-called Book of Himyarites.
In order to understand crosses and rock inscriptions, it is necessary to know that back in the 3rd century AD, southern Arabia was ruled by the Ḥimyarite dynasty, which lasted for about 150 years.
In order to maintain its neutrality between the two great powers of the time, the Byzantine and Persian empires, its kings chose Judaism as their religion.
However, Christianity began to spread in Arabia in the fourth century. By "the sixth century, it reached the Gulf region, Najran and the Yemen coast".
The missionary activities of Christians from Iran's Sassanid Empire and Monophysite Christians from Syria hostile to the Council of Chalcedon (on Christ's dual nature) favoured the spread of Christianity. Two Syriac bishops, probably from what is now Iraq, were consecrated in 485 and 519.
Later, Yusuf (Dhu Nuwas) seized power in the Kingdom of Ḥimyar, ordering the massacre of Christians in Najran, an event reported in several Christian chronicles, with a reference even in the Qur'an, in Shura Al-Burūj (The Celestial Stations).
When Christian survivors sent an appeal to Khaleb, King of Ethiopia, he organised a military expedition to rescue the persecuted. Yusuf's army was defeated and the usurper himself was killed. A Christian kingdom was established in Arabia, as an Ethiopian protectorate, until it was conquered by Islam.
For Frédéric Imbert, the crosses and the inscriptions are "the oldest book of the Arabs," written "on desert stones," a "page of Arab and Christian history".
(picture by F. Imbert)