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Posted in History of Latin Patriarchate

Engraved crosses in the heart of the Saudi Desert

Engraved crosses in the heart of the Saudi Desert

SAUDI ARABIA – In a country where Islam is the only authorized religion since many centuries, V th century old writings, decorated with crosses, were discovered, testifying for Christian presence in Southern Arabia, namely in the area of Jabal Kawkab desert.

 

This discovery was presented by Frederic Imbert, a specialist in Arabic and Islamic epigraphy, Professor at the University of Aix, member of the Franco-Saudi exploratory mission in the Emirate of Najran, during a conference at the American University of Beirut, reported in an article in L’Orient-Le Jour.

Crosses were discovered back in January 2014 on Star Mountain (Jabal Kawkab). The rocky walls are covered over a stretch of several kilometers with engravings from different periods, namely from prehistory until Islamic era. Thousands of human and animal representations, verses, crosses, poetry verses and texts in Arabic, in Southern Arabic, in Thamoudean or in Nabatean were explored. Frederic Imbert referred to this site as “a most ancient book of Arabs, a book written on desert stones by men who lived at a time where an early form of monotheism was introduced in the midst of pain and opposition, massacres and wars”.

Crosses are only visible over a tiny portion of the wall. Writings that were explored are hard to identify. They are more particularly names which were deciphered, with only little phrases written or texts relating to an event, which restricts the research scope meant to establish accurately the origin of writings and used alphabets. It could be “a late Aramean” or “Arab Nabatean”, according to early interpretations.

The site is located along a trail linking Yemen to Najran to bypass the desert. It was perhaps a “major stopover for water supply. It was near a cistern that F. Imbet explored the Christian paintings. “They are not the only crosses known in Southern or Eastern Arabia, but there are more ancient Christian crosses dating back to 470 A.D. of our era, he further points out.

 

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detail of an nabateo-arabic inscription

A Christian presence in Arabia

The major challenge today is to determine the origin of Christians that are present. According to F. Imbert, Christianity spread out in Arabia starting as of the IV th century. In the VI th century, however, it grew up thanks mainly to monophysite Christian missionaries (who believe only in the Divine Nature of Jesus) in Persia (present Irak) and in Syria, whose main concern is to reject the Council of Chalcedonia in 451 A.D.

It was then the Himyarite dynasty, in power since the end of the III rd Century. It opted for Judaism after having confirmed its neutrality between Byzantine and Persian empires. One of the monarchs of this dynasty ordered the massacre of Christians, as testified in several writings, the Coran being one of them, namely in the surat of Constellations (Al-Buruj).

A small number of Christians, however, owes its salvation to the King of Ethiopia who overthrew the monarch, replacing him by a Christian monarch, making of Southern Arabia an Ethiopian protectorat which will continue to exist until the conquest of Islam.

Other discoveries in Saudi Desert will perhaps deepen the knowledge on Christian presence in this area, the like of which had not been seen for a very long time.

 

Pierre Loup de Raucourt