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Medieval Muslim graves in France reveal a previously unseen history

These 7th-Century graves offer a snapshot of cultural diversity during a tumultuous time.

Enlarge / Three Muslim burials from the seventh or eighth century CE, in the French town of Nimes. The people were buried with great care, using Islamic funeral traditions that persist to this day.
Gleize et al.

Today, the southern French city of Nimes is known for its beautiful waterways and well-preserved Roman architecture. But back in the seventh century, it was the prize in a battle between Roman soldiers, Gothic tribes, and the well-organized forces of a new political superpower known as Islam. Now, archaeologists have discovered the first evidence that Muslims lived in Nimes during this early phase in Islamic expansion across North Africa and Europe. Three newly discovered graves—the oldest Muslim graves in France—hint at what life was like in a medieval city whose residents were a mix of Christians from Rome, local indigenous tribes, and Muslims from Africa.

A team of French archaeologists describe the three graves in an article in PLoS One, explaining that they were found in an area that was once enclosed by a Roman-style wall from the days when Nimes was a key outpost in Septimania, on the western fringes of the Roman Empire. Taken by the Visigoths in the fifth century, the city remained under that tribe's control in a region called Narbonne until the early seventh century. But then things began to change, as the Umayyad Caliphate army worked its way north.

Enlarge / Map of the Arab empire during the period when the people in these graves were likely alive.
G. Devilder

Though there were great battles during this time, far more common were migrations of people swept up by the cultural changes caused by shifting empires. As the Medieval POC project has been documenting for years, there were many people from Africa and the Middle East in Europe during this time.

The three Muslims buried at Nimes were given the same treatment as other members of the community, at least in terms of where their graves were located. There were few formal graveyards, so most people just buried their dead outside town. The Muslim graves were close enough to the town center that the archaeologists believe these were not isolated or shunned people—indeed, they appear to have been three men who died of natural causes, who were buried by a community familiar with Islamic tradition.

All three bodies were interred lying on their right sides, facing Mecca. Two were buried al-lahd, their bodies placed in niches dug into the right side of the grave itself, their backs against brick. One was buried al-shaqq, directly in a trench that was lined and topped with stones taken from the Roman wall (this is the middle figure in the photo at the top of this article). Not only are these two burial practices still common today among Muslims, but similar kinds of burials have been found in medieval Muslim communities in Spain. None of the skeletons show any signs of combat trauma, and their bodies seem to have been treated with respect after death.

The researchers point out that these graves confirm what had been, until now, only known from historical writings about the period. Muslim writers such as the anonymous author of the Chronicle of Moissac describe a city called Niwmshû or Namûshû, which today we know as Nimes, where there was a Muslim presence in the mid-eighth century. In 724 or 725, the city surrendered to the Muslim governor of Spain, Anbasa b. Suhaym al-Kalbi.

Based on this information, along with carbon dates of the bones in the graves, the researchers surmise that the individuals were soldiers who may have settled in Nimes after the occupation. Bolstering this interpretation is genetic analysis of the bones, which suggests that the soldiers had parentage hailing from North Africa, where many Berbers were converted to Islam at this time, joining the Caliphate's armies and spreading into Spain, France, and Italy.

In 1752 the Visigoths took back Nimes from Anbasa, and handed the city off to a guy named Pepin the Short, a local Frankish tribal leader. It appears that during the tumultuous late seventh and early eighth centuries, this area was a rather calm oasis at the fringes of the battles between the Caliphate's imperial troops and European tribal peoples. As the researchers put it in their paper, these graves "support the complexity of the relationship between communities during this period, which cannot be summarized in a simple opposition between Christians and Muslims." People from many cultures lived and died in Nimes, among the ruins of a previous empire, leaving behind hints of what medieval diversity might have been like.

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