Muslim funerals – in France

We have spent some time looking at the Muslim presence in western Europe during the early medieval era, including a survey of the age, a review of Martel’s campaign in 727, as well as the ever-popular Battle of Poitiers. There are plenty of primary and secondary sources available for anyone who wants to know more. One point worth noting is that our information is almost exclusively textual, as the archaeological evidence is practically non-existent. Until now.

Excavations carried out in 2006 by the French rescue archaeology company INRAP1.Last seen excavating a well packed with bodies. in the city of Nimes revealed three Muslim burials. Recently eight of the investigators released a multi-disciplinary study in the journal PlosOne that opens a fresh chapter on the study of eighth century Muslims in France.

Nimes was the easternmost city of Septimania. This region was conquered by the Arabs and north African Berber tribesmen beginning in 719 as they passed over the Pyrenees and established a foothold in southern France. Nimes was occupied by the Muslims in 724 or 725. After more than a decade of Islamic rule the city was sacked, when in 737 Charles Martel responded in typically Martelian fashion to a Muslim incursion into Provence. After besieging and destroying Avignon, he moved against the Islamic cities west of the Rhone.

And then, under the command of their conquering duke [the Franks] laid waste the Gothic region. The famous cities of Nimes, Agde and Beziers were burnt, and their walls and buildings he razed to the ground. Their suburbs and the strongholds of that area were destroyed.2.Fredegar, Continuations, ch.20, p.95.

Could our burials be from that time? Of course and as always, there is no way to know. Examination of the bones reveals that the three bodies were men, two around 30, and the other more than 50 years old. Definitely of fighting age. But the bodies bear no indication of cause of death. Also unknown is whether all three were buried at the same time, or spread across years. Radiocarbon dating are consistent with early eighth century deaths, but there is too much statistical  variability to pin down exact dates. Figure 2 in the journal article shows the bodies inside the Roman walls, but that doesn’t prove much. Perhaps the fact that they were buried at all, and not thrown into a pit or burned in a great pyre, shows that they died before Charles arrived.

There are two ways we know the three burials are Muslim. First, Christians are buried on their backs, with their heads pointed to the west. These bodies, however, were buried on their right sides, facing Mecca.3.From any point on earth, the direction to Mecca is known as the Qibla. Every mosque has a mihrab, a wall niche that indicates the Qibla. This is still Islamic funeral practice today.

Second, the investigators removed a tooth from each body, which was ground up for DNA extraction. The DNA results indicate that all three men came from an area around present day southern Morocco. It would appear that the three men were part of the Muslim wave that swept across north Africa and into Spain. The three crossed the mountains and settled in Nimes, where they died and were given a proper Islamic funeral.

Sadly there are no grave goods that accompanied the bodies. Our knowledge of Frankish Muslim material culture must remain almost barren. But that’s the great thing about archaeology, the field is always producing new finds.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Last seen excavating a well packed with bodies.
2. Fredegar, Continuations, ch.20, p.95.
3. From any point on earth, the direction to Mecca is known as the Qibla. Every mosque has a mihrab, a wall niche that indicates the Qibla.

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