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Archaeologists find 1,200-year-old mosque in Israel's Negev Desert

By Brooks Hays

July 19 (UPI) -- Archaeologists have unearthed a 1,200-year-old mosque in Israel's Negev Desert, one of the earliest mosques in the world.

According to the Israel Antiquities Authority, the ancient mosque was initially found during a salvage dig ahead of planned construction work in the Bedouin town of Rahat.

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The mosque, which dates to the 7th or 8th century, was the center of a rural village during the early Islamic period. Most of the mosque's visitors would have been local farmers, according to researchers.

"We found the ruins of the open-air mosque, a rectangular building with a mihrab, a prayer niche, facing south, to the direction of Mecca," excavation directors Jon Seligman and Shahar Zur said in a news release. "These features are evidence for the purpose for which this building was used, many hundred years ago."

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In addition to the mosque, archaeologists found houses with courtyards, storage rooms and fireplaces.

"A local rural mosque from this early period is a rare find in the Middle East, and in the world in general, and especially in the area north of Beersheba in which a similar building has not been found until now," said Zur and Seligman.

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The excavation also turned up a farm from the Byzantine period, dated to between the 5th and 6th century.

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"These sites were part of the agricultural system that existed in the northern Negev in early times," the dig directors said. "The soil was suitable for growing grains and the ground water in perennial streams attracted settlers here who wanted to cultivate the land."

The mosques offers a glimpse of the religious changes that occurred across the region in the wake of Arabs conquest of the Byzantine holdings.

"The discovery of the village and the mosque in its vicinity are a significant contribution to the study of the history of the country during this turbulent period," Gideon Avni, an expert on early Islamic history, told BBC.

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Earlier this week, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced the discovery of one of the largest Neolithic settlements in the region, uncovered just outside of Jerusalem.

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