Between 630 and 640 AD/CE the Holy Land was wrested from the Byzantine Empire by Muslim Arab forces, only a few years after the Byzantine Empire had reconquered the land from the Persians. The Persian occupation does not seem to have affected the life of the inhabitants profoundly, but the Muslim conquest did. It probably wasn’t that noticeable for many of the poorer people immediately. The conquest was mainly peaceful, determined by large field battles and capitulations of besieged towns. People in the villages continued their lives, worked the land, brought the produce to the market, paid their taxes – just to different rulers.
I want to look at this period through the lens of a particular region – that of Yavne and Ramla. A few weeks ago I mentioned the study on the religious identity of that region during Byzantine times. In Byzantine times, Christian, Jewish and Samaritan villages existed near Yavne, serving the major towns in which religiously mixed populations lived.
Itamar Taxel wrote a follow-on study discussing the early Islamic period (Rural Settlement Processes in Central Palestine, ca. 640–800 c.e.: The Ramla-Yavneh Region as a Case Study, BASOR May 2013). This considers a slightly bigger region than the previous article. It is important to note that today the region is quite densely settled, with large industrial enterprises. This is a recent development since the creation of the state of Israel. But it does make archaeological survey and reconstruction of ancient landscapes difficult.
The rural area near Ramla / Lod seems to have been largely Christian during Byzantine times and apparently less religiously diverse than the Yavne region nearby. Taxel reports churches in most of the villages. A monastery, probably at least partly inhabited by nuns according to an inscription mentioning a mother superior, was situated in the North-East of the area surveyed. The sites, including the monastery, show continuous occupation throughout the 7th century. People continued to live there. Churches continued to be used. But that changed mainly in the eighth century. Many of the churches went out of use during that time and were often re-used. In two villages oil presses were built inside the church, in another a lime kiln. In other villages the churches were destroyed and many of the stones looted. Many of the villages show continued occupation at the time the churches were abandoned, but at a smaller scale.
The population of the villages around Yavne also seemed to decrease during the eighth century, though it seems that new settlements, possibly country estates of Muslim officers, sprang up in the dune area of Yavne. Yavne-Yam, the port town, soon became only a military post and lost its civilian population. Throughout the region, wine-presses were abandoned and re-used as rubbish heaps.
It is a picture of abandoned churches and a changing, probably declining, population, which had no connection with the former holy places. The abandonment of wine presses also indicates that the rural population also became Muslim over time. Change was not immediate. Taxel thinks that the earthquakes in 747-749 contributed to the collapse of not only the buildings, but also the communities.
Even though we have reports of emigration and expulsion of Christians after the Muslim conquest, many historians have noted the continued presence of Christians in the Holy Land. The archaeological evidence from the Ramla region also indicates that many remained in their villages. But with Muslim rulers life became more difficult for the majority, a majority that had no social power and was heavily taxed. They were subject to seizure of their property, to discrimination and unequal access. Eventually, through migration, conversion and replacement by new settlers, the changed power arrangements also led to decisive change in the rural community.