‘Oldest Muslim burial site in Europe’ discovered in France

© 2016 Gleize et al.
French anthropologists believe they have discovered the oldest Muslim burial in Europe by far, dating back to the eighth century AD. It’s the first time scientists get archaeological proof of Islamic presence in Europe at this historic period.

A rare discovery described by a team of French archaeologists in an article in PLoS One was made near French city of Nimes: archaeologists dug up a burial site of three people, allegedly of Muslim origin. The radiocarbon analysis showed that remains date back to the 7th to 9th centuries AD. The unique finding corresponds with Muslim presence in the south of France around 720-760 AD, described in historic texts.

Previously found Islamic graves in Europe date back to the 12th and 13th centuries.

There are reasons to believe the deceased had an Islamic background. All three have been buried in accordance with Muslim rites – namely, the bodies were wrapped in cloth and put on their right side, with their faces pointing in the direction of Mecca.

The grave was discovered among those belonging to Christians, which indicates that Muslims were generally accepted by the locals, scientists suggested, noting that their bodies were treated with respect and had no signs of violence. “Indeed, the discovery of funerary rites faithful to Muslim customs offers evidence indicating the presence of a community that was familiar with and practiced Muslim customs in Nimes during this period,” the research said.

Another reason to believe that the deceased were a part of a brief 8th century Arab invasion is genetic research showing traces of North African blood in paternal lineages. “Given all of these data, we propose that the skeletons from the Nimes burials belonged to Berbers integrated into the Umayyad army during the Arab expansion in North Africa,” scientists write.

The Berbers were a national group, integrated by Arabs into the Umayyad Caliphate, which spread across the North Africa region and parts of Europe, converting multiple tribes to Islam. Umayyad troops crossed the Pyrenees in 719 AD and conquered south of France from the Gothic tribe, residing in city of Nimes since 5th century. The caliphate was driven out of the territory that is modern-day France around 760 AD, historic texts say, ending their short-term invasion and leaving little evidence of its presence.