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Dossier thématique

From Bāzyān to al-Ḥīra: Introduction to Recent Archaeological and Historical Studies on Christianity in Iraq

Julie Bonnéric, Narmin A. Amin et Barbara Couturaud
p. 17-26

Texte intégral

  • 1 About the history of Christianity in Iraq, see: Brelaud 2018; Charles 1936; Fiey 1959, 1962, 1965-1 (...)

1The beginnings of Christianity in Iraq are difficult to establish due to the lack of sources from before the 3rd century.1 According to Oriental traditions, the provinces of Assyria and Babylonia were evangelized in the 1st and early 2nd centuries by the apostles Addaï and Mari, and Mesopotamia by both of them, together with Thomas. They founded the Church of Babylonia that became the first apostolic Church in Mesopotamia. The Christian centres of Antioch and Edessa played a central role in the diffusion of Christianity, not only in Syria but also in Mesopotamia, throughout the ancient province of Adiabene, from the north down to its capital Arbela (present-day Erbil). Even if the antiquity of Christianity in Mesopotamia should not be pushed back too far, it is at least possible that it began at the end of the 2nd century. The first populations to be converted were Aramaeans and Jews, probably in the north of Iraq. Christianity grew slowly. Their numbers also swelled by Syrian populations that had been expelled by the Sasanids, who were at war with the Roman Empire. Then the Arabic nomads of the Bet ʿArbaye and Bet Ṭayyaye, with al-Ḥīra as a capital, were evangelized. Because of the conversions and population movement, the Christian community in Iraq became cosmopolitan, with Aramaean, Syrian, Persian, Kurdish and Arab populations.

2Initially placed under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Antioch, at the beginning of the 4th century, the Christian populations then became the responsibility of the metropolis of Seleucia-Ctesiphon. Because of the wars between the Sasanian and Roman Empires, it became important for the Christians of Iraq to obtain their jurisdictional autonomy when Christianity was recognized as the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313. In the second half of the 4th century, the Christians of Iraq were persecuted, in particular under Šāhpūr II (339‒379), but at the beginning of the 5th century, Yazdegerd I (399‒421) placed them under his protection. His reign provided the Christians of Iraq with the possibility of organizing themselves, in particular during the synod of Seleucia-Ctesiphon in 410. The metropolitan of the city, who had to be designated by the Sasanian emperor, then ruled over other bishops and gained the title of catholicos. Though juridically autonomous from the West, the dogma of the Christians of Iraq was still related to it since the synod of 410 officially followed the Council of Nicaea and the doctrine of the Trinity. Under the influence of Theodore of Mopsuestia (352‒428), the School of Nisibis progressed to dyophysitism. In the 5th century, the Christological controversies about the union of humanity and divinity in the Christ divided the Christians in Mesopotamia, or at least the clergy, between dyophysites and miaphysites, all being non-Chalcedonians. The official Church of the Sasanian Empire, the Church of the East, finally adopted dyophysitism in the middle of the 6th century.

3When the Muslim armies conquered the region, in particular after the capture of Seleucia-Ctesiphon in 637, the majority of the population was Christian, of Aramaean, Iranian and Arab origins. Because of the instability in the Empire and the high taxation, these populations optimistically received the arrival of the new power. Protected by the status of dhimmis, the ahl al-kitāb (Christians, Jews and Sabaeans) were not pressured into conversion. The province of ʿIrāq was partially governed by the same Sasanid administrative organization as before. An agrarian system was developed in Lower Iraq. The Arabization was progressive and the Arabic language made mandatory in the administration under the caliphate of ʿAbd al-Malik (685‒705). The moving of the centre of the caliphate to Mesopotamia under the Abbasids led to the growth of the Church of the East. In the mid-8th century, the caliph al-Mutawakkil (847‒861) promoted a strict Sunnite orthodoxy, to the detriment of the muʿtazila, and issued discriminatory edits. The decline of the caliphate’s authority and the political instability after the end of the 9th century seem to have been accompanied by the slow decline of Christianity, even if Christians were still present in large cities such Baghdad under the Seljuks.

  • 2 For monographs dedicated only to this area, see: Nau 1933; Charles 1936; Fiey 1965‒1968, 1970; Jull (...)
  • 3 A very interesting topic that are not discussed in this volume is the diyārāt literature that offer (...)

4Subsequently, the history of Christianity in Iraq became particularly rich and complex, but written and material data are quite scattered, compared to the Near East for instance. Although there have been decades of research on Christianity in Iraq, there are very few syntheses focusing specifically on this area,2 in contrast to other areas such as Syria and the Levant or Egypt. The present volume does not pretend to cover all the issues3 but aims to bring together contributions by historians, archaeologists, architects and art historians currently working on the question of Christians in Iraq at the turn of Islam.

Archaeological & Architectural Sources

  • 4 ʿAbbō 1987; Amin 2001, 2008, 2019; Aswad 2014; Curtis 1997; Déroche & Amin 2013; Déroche 2014; Fiey (...)

5Following on from the round table, this book offers not only results from new field work but also a synthesis of the Christian sites in Iraq. Since the 1930s, project reports, mainly about churches, have been published in English, German and Arabic. Most of the excavations were undertaken with the methodology of their time, and documentation is rather incomplete, in particular with regard to the stratigraphy, accurate drawings and information on material culture. None of the more recently excavated sites have yet been exhaustively published. The documentation available about Christian settlements in Iraq is thus scattered.4 This book brings together six articles making use of archaeological and architectural sources at different levels, from regional overviews (the whole of Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, southern Iraq and the Gulf) to case studies (Zaʿfarān, Bāzyān, al-Quṣayr).

6Amir Harrak’s article, “Christian Archaeological Sites in Iraq before and Slightly after the Arab Conquest”, offers a synthesis of all the churches excavated in Iraq: Bāzyān, Qalʿat-Šīla, Mar-Behnam, Qaṣr Sarīğ, Musayfina, Ḫirbat Dayr Sītūn, Chenīsā, Qaṣr Bint al-Qāḍī (Kokhe), al-Ḥīra, Raḥḥāliyya, al-Quṣayr and ʿAyn Šāyʿa as well as of Christian artifacts or structures at Khinis, Nineveh, Ḥaṭra, Takrīt, al-Ḥīra and Dukākīn. It points out that some of the main issues in the understanding of these buildings are their dating, their phasing and the functional analysis of their plans. Their form is a real obstacle to writing of the history of Christianity in Iraq and to the study of its evolution.

7Focusing on an area in northern Iraq, Karel Nováček provides a microscale analysis of dioceses and an attempt to locate them and study their shape and evolution as well as their relationships in his article entitled “Early Christian Topography in Bet Garmai, North-eastern Mesopotamia: A Case Study of the Šahqart and Ḫirbat Ğalāl Dioceses”. It is based on recent systematic surveys in northeastern Mesopotamia (Iraqi Kurdistan) and on the comparison of topographical and archaeological data and historical sources. As early as the beginning of the 5th century, the geography of the Bet Garmai dioceses seem to have followed a regular structure, with a spacing of around 40‒55 km. Two episcopal towns were identified and could correspond to the earlier Christian occupation of Mesopotamia. The author also suggests that monasteries and churches were mostly located in the periphery of cities.

8The third study on a regional scale is the article by Julie Bonnéric “Des églises monastiques de pèlerinage ? Organisation spatiale et analyse fonctionnelle des églises à murs-piliers du Bas-Irak et du golfe Arabo-Persique à l’époque umayyade et au début de la période abbasside”, in which she considers a corpus of churches located in southern Iraq and the Gulf characterized by a specific plan. The churches of ʿAyn Šāyʿa, Khārk, al-Quṣūr, Ṣīr Banī Yās and probably the church of Tell IX in al-Ḥīra have a rectangular sanctuary with a flat apse framed by two annexes, and aisles separated by pillar walls and side entrances. She studies their plans as well as their environment, which is identified as monastic, to elaborate on their spatial organization and function. Her hypothesis is that these churches may have been built to host pilgrimages to relics, as indicated by the circumambulation suggested by the door-closing system, and the discovery of burials in the walls and what could be reliquaries.

9The other articles focus on specific sites. In Iraqi Kurdistan, and more specifically in Bet Garmai, new results are presented by Narmin A. Amin, Simon Brelaud, Vincent Déroche and Justine Gaborit in their article “The Fort and the Church of Bāzyān, Latest Discoveries and New Hypotheses”. The excavations undertaken since 2011 show that the site of Bāzyān started out as a domestic structure, maybe an aristocratic dwelling, before the construction of the church and the fortification of the area, which may well be contemporaneous with the building of the church. The article sets out the results of the latest excavations, which brought to light a storage room in the northern corner of the fort, one or maybe two doorways in the southern wall, and a long wall outside and almost parallel to the fort’s southern wall. The researchers attempt to elucidate if this was a monastic site or a place of pilgrimage, or maybe both, such as a monastery welcoming pilgrims to a shrine. Based on the comparison of Arabic and Syriac sources on the monasteries of Bet Garmai, and topographical data and toponymy, the authors suggest that the site could be identified as the monastery Babta of Maḥoze, founded in 610 or 620 by Sabrišoʿ.

10Mohammad A. Al-Yousifi describes his survey of the site of Dayr al-Zaʿfarān in Kurdistan, near the city of Zakho, in his article “دراسة ميدانية لدير الزعفران في كردستان ­ العراق”. He collected written sources, travellers’ descriptions and an excavation report to complete its own survey. Al-Yousifi explains that this monastery should be distinguished from the monastery of Mar-Ḥananyo, which is also known as Dayr al-Zaʿfarān in Arabic and which is located near Mardin, in modern Turkey. According to written sources, Dayr al-Zaʿfarān was founded at the beginning of the 7th century by a monk, Afnī Mārān or Abnī Marān, born at the end of the 6th century. It is a fortified site enclosed by a 2-m-wide wall with four gates. The water system consisted of roofed underground cisterns. Some engraved crosses were also discovered.

11Further south, Haider Atiyah and Julie Bonnéric focused on the site of al-Quṣayr in their article entitled “A Composite Monastic Community? New Hypotheses on al-Quṣayr settlement (Province of Karbalā, Iraq)”, basing it on previous work at the site and on a more recent architectural survey. Generally interpreted as a monastery with a church, surrounded by a village with another church, it seems most likely to be a coenobium with a monastic pilgrimage church, enclosed by a wall, surrounded by the rest of the community of monks who were living in around 160 cells or hermitages. A building outside the fence and interpreted as a church could equally be a funerary chapel. It is surrounded by burials. This site might be the only remaining example in Iraq of a composite monastic community, that followed the rules of Abraham of Kaškar and Dadišoʿ and was composed of monks living both inside and outside the coenobium. The article also illustrates the three phases of the church: first, a unique elongated, single-nave church with 17 doors; the church was then enlarged, probably in the 7th century, by the construction of three aisles, to the north, west and south and two annexes framing the sanctuary. In the third phase, the southern aisle was no longer part of the church and was probably used as a scriptorium.

12During the round table, Martin Gussone (Technische Universität Berlin) gave a lecture about the last results of the Hira Survey Project (2015‒2018) that is unfortunately missing in the present book, but much of the information will be published an article in the forthcoming Monasteries, Cities, Settlements – al-Hira and Early Islamic Urbanism in Mesopotamia edited by M. Müller-Wiener, M. Gussone and I. Salman.

13The articles in the archaeological section demonstrate the richness of the religious heritage of Iraq and the need to undertake new excavations on Christian sites in the region. Some are necessary to supplement the existing but incomplete data about churches, but also to understand their place in the landscape. The phasing of the sites is, in particular, an issue. The sites are also endangered by looting and natural destruction.

Written Sources

14Written sources have been better explored that archaeological sources in writing the history of Christianity in Iraq, yet their richness still has much to offer. In this volume, Syriac as well as Arabic and Greek texts are investigated to better understand the history of Christianity at the turn of Islam and in particular the evolution of the different Churches and their relationships.

15In his article entitled “الاستجابة المسيحية المبكرة لدخول الاسلام الى العراق قراءة في المصادر السريانية”, Nasir Al-Kaʿbī examines the reaction to the arrival of Muslim power in Iraq, based largely on three historical Syriac texts written between the early 7th and the 10th century: the Chronicle of the ūzistān, the Book of the main events of Yoḥannan Bar Penkaye, and the Chronicle of Seert. Probably influenced by their Sasanian context, the authors understood the new power not only as bringing a new religion, but also as the organized army of a state. The figure of Muḥammad is portrayed very positively and the titles used to designate him are inherited from the titles of the Sasanian kings. The author believes that the Iraqi Syriac historians presented a realistic view of the conquest, based on the political, military and social challenges, because these East-Syriac historians were not influenced by a clerical interpretation. In contrast, the West-Syriac historical sources were mainly written by monks who depicted the conquest as the consequence of sin.

16Focusing on the cult of martyrs, in the article “Commémorer et vénérer les martyrs de Perse : le témoignage des passions syriaques” Simon Brelaud based his study of the geography of martyrs on the famous Syriac corpus of texts, the Acts of the Persian Martyrs. He highlights the sanctification of the landscape by the Christians and the shift of the martyr cult from the cities to their peripheries and rural areas, but also points out the difficulty of dating this phenomenon and even the texts themselves. The importance of the martyr cult in the Sasanian territory underlined by this article could be one of the factors that explain the increase of monastic pilgrimage churches in southern Iraq and the Gulf at the turn of Islam as suggested by Bonnéric’s article in this volume. Written and archaeological sources complete each other and analysis of both the archaeological discoveries and the texts shows a ruralization since the monasteries hosting pilgrims are mostly in isolated areas.

  • 5 Al-Ḥīra was one of the main objects of study in the field of early Christianity. See in particular: (...)

17Two articles focus on al-Ḥīra but from two different perspectives. In “Al-Ḥīra au croisement de traditions monastiques”, Florence Jullien outlines how the society was multireligious, multiethnic and multilingual. After highlighting the fact that topoï was used to relate the monastic founders to testamentary and ascetic models and that it could bias the interpretation, she follows on with a study on the evolution of the shape of monastic life in the region of al-Ḥīra.5 The first is a solitary life or what she calls “shared solitudes” not really following a rule but functioning more by imitation of the masters. Then these gatherings of ascetes evolved into a semi-coenobitism with only a partial community life.

18On the basis of three letters, in his article “La correspondance de Sévère d’Antioche et de Philoxène de Mabboug avec les chrétiens d’al-Ḥīra (Ḥirta de Noʿman) : implications d’ordre doctrinal, institutionnel et politique”, Frédéric Alpi analyses the policy of Severus towards the Christian Arabs. His article highlights the fact that three theologies, not two, were in competition with dyophysite chalcedonism: the official doctrine of the Church of the Roman Empire; miaphysite anti-chalcedonism, which was dissident branch of this official Church; and dyophysite anti-chalcedonism, the official doctrine of the Church of the East. But miaphysite anti-chalcedonism was not always strictly dissident, particularly under the active pontificate of Severus. The author shows that the dogmatic, geopolitical and institutional borders were unclear between these Churches and that this impacted the policies of the Naṣrids of al-Ḥīra.

19Often neglected in the study of ancient Iraqi Christianity in favour of the Church of the East, the miaphysites are considered in the article of Simon Pierre, entitled “Les miaphysites d’Irak : une seconde “Église de l’Orient” à la veille de la conquête arabe ?” The article looks at the East Syriac miaphysites and even postulates that an endogenous miaphysite Church in Iraq existed in parallel with the Syriac Orthodox Church. The author attempts to rewrite the history of the beginning of the syro-orthodox movement in Iraq, which has previously been based mainly on medieval Arabic and West-Syriac sources. Even if the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Church of the East had a common interest in claiming that miaphysites in Iraq were foreigners, it seems that miaphysite structures in Iraq appeared at the end of the 6th century because of the evolution of the dyophysite Church of the East. Under the reign of Xosrow II (590‒628), some monasteries rallied to miaphysitism. It developed in parallel in two areas, one around Mosul and the other in the ʿAqula region, near modern Kūfa.

Iconography & Calligraphy

  • 6 Okada 1990; Al-Kaʿbī 2014; Lic 2017; Amin & Desreumaux 2018. About interpretation of material cultu (...)

20Material culture has not been much used to study Christianity in Iraq, with the exception of crosses.6 However, it offers very important insights and the present volume presents two articles, one about iconography and the other about calligraphy.

21In her article “The Beribboned Cross in Christian Art of the Early Islamic Period in Iraq and the Gulf”, Agnieszka Lic analyses bands that figure on stuccoes related to Christians, dated to the early Islamic period and discovered in southern Iraq and the Gulf. She looks at their symbolic meanings, based on a detailed analysis of the iconographic motifs on various media. In the Sasanian tradition they are the representation of ribbons that, in combination with other motifs, were associated with royal and divine glory. In association with a cross, they were probably used to symbolize the glory of Christ. This study highlights the fact that Christian art in Iraq is syncretic, heterogenous and founded on Sasanian settings.

22The other article related to material culture, written by Layth Shaker, is entitled
“الخط الحيري المسيحي فى القرون السادس والسابع والثامن الميلادية واثره فى صدر الاسلام”. It analyses the īrī script that is considered one of the variations of the jazm and that was used in the area of al-Ḥīra. It spread to the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf largely through monks. This work strengthens the idea that the īrī script predates the kūfī and thereby hypothesises that the former would be the origin of the latter. The analysis is based on a review of the Arabic and Syriac sources and on a comparative study of the forms of the Syriac and īrī letters.

23One of the aims of focusing on the “turn of Islam” was to investigate the impact of the Muslim conquest on Christianity and Christians. It is an interesting time also because it is one of the best-documented periods, both by archaeology and texts. It seems that the change of power had such slight impact that it is almost undetectable archaeologically. There is no rupture in the shape of churches, the cross motifs, the material culture, etc. It seems, on the contrary, that Christianity grew and Christian settlements were enlarged, such as in Bāzyān and al-Quṣayr, and there are a good number of Christian settlements from the 7th and 8th centuries. The decrease of Christianity in Iraq seems to have occurred around the 9th century but it is difficult to ascertain. As in Egypt or Syria, the Christian populations preserved their religion and lifestyle for at least two centuries after the conquest.

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ʿĀ. N. ʿAbbō, “The Results of the Excavations of the University of Mosul in Museifna”, in Buū Āār aw Sadd addām, Baghdad, pp. 133‒161 [in Arabic].

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Amin 2008
N. A. Amin, “The Monastic Church of Bāzyān in Iraqi Kurdistan”, Journal of the Canadian Society for Syriac Studies 8, pp. 74‒84.

Amin 2019
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Aswad 2014
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Jullien 2008b
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Morony 1974
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Morony 1984
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Nau 1933
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Nejim 1987
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Nováček & Wood 2020
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Oates 1962
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Okada 1990
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Okada 1991
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Okada 1992
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Payne 2015
R. Payne, A State of Mixture: Christians, Zoroastrians, and Iranian Political Culture in Late Antiquity, Oakland.

Al-Raheem 2016
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Reinink 2009
G. Reinink, “Tradition and the Formation of the ‘Nestorian’ Identity in Sixth to Seventh Century Iraq”, Church History and Religious Culture 89/1, pp. 217–250.

Reuther 1929
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Rothstein 1899
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Shahîd 1975
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Simpson 1994
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Simpson 2005
St. J. Simpson, “Christians at Nineveh in Late Antiquity,” Iraq 67, pp. 285‒294.

Simpson 2018
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Talbot Rice 1932
D. Talbot Rice, “The Oxford Excavations at Hira, 1931”, Antiquity 6/23, pp. 276–291.

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D. Talbot Rice, “The Oxford Excavations at Hira”, Ars Islamica 1, pp. 51–73.

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I. Toral-Niehoff, “The ʿIbād of al-Ḥīra: An Arab Christian Community in Late Antique Iraq”, in A. Neuwirth, N. Sinai and M. Marx (eds.), The Qurʾān in Context: Historical and Literary Investigations into the Qurʾānic Milieu, Leiden & Boston, pp. 323–347.

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I. Toral-Niehoff, Al-īra: Eine arabische Kulturmetropole im spätantiken Kontext, Leiden.

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G. Troupeau, “Les couvents chrétiens dans la littérature arabe”, La Nouvelle revue du Caire 1, pp. 265–279.

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P. Wood, “Al-Hira and its Histories”, Journal of the American Oriental Society 136, pp. 785–799.

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1 About the history of Christianity in Iraq, see: Brelaud 2018; Charles 1936; Fiey 1959, 1962, 1965-1968, 1970, 1993; Jullien 2006, 2008a, 2008b; Jullien & Jullien 2002; Morony 1974, 1984; Nau 1933; Payne 2015; Reinink 2009.

2 For monographs dedicated only to this area, see: Nau 1933; Charles 1936; Fiey 1965‒1968, 1970; Jullien & Jullien 2002; Jullien 2008a.

3 A very interesting topic that are not discussed in this volume is the diyārāt literature that offers information about the organization of the monasteries and the perception of Muslim writers. See in particular: Troupeau 1975; Zakharia 2002; Kilpatrick 2003; Yaiche 2012.

4 ʿAbbō 1987; Amin 2001, 2008, 2019; Aswad 2014; Curtis 1997; Déroche & Amin 2013; Déroche 2014; Fiey 1958; Finster & Schmidt 1976; Fujii et al. 1989; Fuller 1994; adīthī 1995, 1996; Nejim 1987; Nováček & Wood 2020; Oates 1962; Okada 1991, 1992; Al-Raheem 2016; Reuther 1929; Talbot Rice 1932, 1934; Simpson 1994, 2005, 2018.

5 Al-Ḥīra was one of the main objects of study in the field of early Christianity. See in particular: Rothstein 1899; Shahîd 1975; Hunter 2009; Toral-Niehoff 2010, 2014; Wood & Greatrex 2011; Wood 2014, 2016; Jullien 2009; Brelaud 2016.

6 Okada 1990; Al-Kaʿbī 2014; Lic 2017; Amin & Desreumaux 2018. About interpretation of material culture and Christianity, see Simpson 2005 and Lerner 1977.

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Julie Bonnéric, Narmin A. Amin et Barbara Couturaud, « From Bāzyān to al-Ḥīra: Introduction to Recent Archaeological and Historical Studies on Christianity in Iraq »Bulletin d’études orientales, LXVIII | 2023, 17-26.

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Julie Bonnéric, Narmin A. Amin et Barbara Couturaud, « From Bāzyān to al-Ḥīra: Introduction to Recent Archaeological and Historical Studies on Christianity in Iraq »Bulletin d’études orientales [En ligne], LXVIII | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2023, consulté le 11 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Julie Bonnéric

Institut français du Proche-Orient

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Narmin A. Amin

Salahaddin University

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Barbara Couturaud

Institut français du Proche-Orient

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