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DISCOVERING A NEW CITY IN SYRIA

HADIR QINNASRIN 1998

By Donald S. Whitcomb, Research Associate (Associate Professor)
of The Oriental Institute and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
The University of Chicago

(This article originally appeared in The Oriental Institute News and Notes, No. 163, Fall 1999, and is made available electronically with the permission of the editor.)


Visitors to Syria usually begin with Damascus, the capital with its busy streets and gardens. Most travelers then move northward, preferably riding past the towns of Homs and Hama until reaching the second center of Syria, the city of Aleppo. There is a long debate among enthusiasts of Syria about which city is more truly Syrian, Damascus or Aleppo; and indeed, each has its special monuments, vistas, and gardens, not to mention the enthralling pageant of its special history. While both cities draw archaeologists' interest, Aleppo holds the edge with the massive, ancient tell composing its center, like an upside down teacup on a saucer, as Gertrude Bell once characterized its form (fig. 1). On the other hand, the historian of Islamic art is drawn to Damascus because here is located a magnificent early mosque. The Great Mosque of Damascus is a broad enclosure graced by ancient colonnades and walls covered with mosaics. These mosaics are colored scenes on a gold ground that recall the Dome of the Rock and the Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, perhaps for good reason as they all date to the same time.

The period of this architecture in Jerusalem and Damascus was only a few decades after the Muslim conquest of the Byzantine Levant. They are testaments to the formulation of Bilad al-Sham, the land of Shem, as the Arabs called this province stretching from Aqaba in the south to the Anatolian plateau on the northern border (fig. 2). Much of the early character of Bilad al-Sham is a projection of one leader, Muºawiya ibn Abi Sufyan, who ruled 20 years as governor and another 20 years as caliph (from AD 640 to 680). During his time, Bilad al-Sham was divided into four districts; from south to north, there was Filistin, Jordan, Damascus, and Hims. Muºawiya (or perhaps his son, Yazid) added a fifth district on the far north, Qinnasrin; this was a new town built only 25 km (15 miles) south of Aleppo.

One little-studied aspect of Aleppo and many other classical cities of Syria is the Arab camps outside the city walls. Such camps are frequently described as transient assembly points for the great commercial caravans and their inhabitants described as bedouin organized as caravaneers. Irfan Shahid suggests that these camps soon became established settlements with permanent architecture, called parembolais in Greek and hadir in Arabic. The hadir was an ethnic suburb inhabited by Arab tribesmen, in the case of Aleppo by the Banu Tanukh and Banu Tayyª. The relationship between these suburbs and their adjoining cities seems similar to the association of Islamic urban foundations with an older pre-Islamic city: for instance, Fustat with Babylon; al-Basra with Khuraiba; and Kufa with al-Hira. My working hypothesis is that the Muslim conquerors avoided the alien, classical cities and settled in the hadir among fellow Arabs. The resulting settlements developed into cities of a distinctly Arabian type; the incipient Islamic city may be recognized in this urban form. The hadir became a madina (the traditional term for city) in a land where there had been little Byzantine building and an overall stagnation of urban life.

Oriental Institute Research Associate and Publications Coordinator Tom Holland and I visited the site of Qinnasrin in October 1990. The site, locally known as Eski Halab (old Aleppo), may be seen from a white plastered shrine of Nabi ºIs, datable to the twelfth century. A high steep mound lies at the edge of the plain; limestone walls of this acropolis and those protecting the lower city were still visible (fig. 3). These remains had attracted the attention of French archaeologists, who mapped the city in 1919 and 1942. They correctly identified the city as Chalcis ad Belum, a Hellenistic foundation that became a key to the Byzantine defensive system (limes) against the Persians. It was still an important military center when the truce of Chalcis was signed, by which the Muslims allowed the Byzantines to evacuate the army and civilians from northern Syria.

Historians and archaeologists have assumed that the Muslims simply took over a classical city and renamed it Qinnasrin. This assumption was shaken when our informal survey found very few Islamic sherds, and I published the suggestion that the Islamic jund capital must be found at another site. Tom and I stood on the acropolis and gazed across the fertile plain of the Qoueiq River, which passes Aleppo and ends in the Matkh marshes just to the south. What we did not notice were the low mounds of Hadir some 4 km (2.4 miles) to the east, which would soon after our trip be examined by a German archaeologist, Claus-Peter Haase. One may fast-forward to a meeting in Bamburg, Germany when Claus' discovery of the mounds of Hadir and my recent speculations on the meaning of a "hadir" combined with the archaeological enthusiasm of Prof. Marianne Barrucand of the Sorbonne to articulate a new archaeological project, the survey and excavation of Hadir Qinnasrin.

"The city gives its name to the district and was one of the most densely constructed in the region, a provisioning center with abundant resources and water. The Byzantines demolished it [in the mid-tenth century], as if it had never existed. There are mounds and nothing more" (Ibn Hauqal, writing ca. 978).

Archaeologists take a perverse satisfaction in reports of utter destruction. Hadir Qinnasrin had its urban development terminated, meaning no later occupational debris to dig through; its urban history would be accessible. With these hopes, Marianne organized an initial season of survey and sondages on behalf of the Institut français d'études arabes de Damas (IFEAD); Marianne, Claus, two topographers, a French and a Syrian student, and I arrived in October 1998. The first realization was that the village of Hadir had become a small town, the mounded area had numerous buildings and even a second mosque in active construction (fig. 4). The survey, or better reconnaissance, became a matter of chance observations within empty lots, gardens, and fallow fields.

The survey began with the most obvious antiquity, the mound of Tell Hadir (area A) (fig. 5). The tell covers an area of about 500 m in diameter and towers some 15 m above the springs, which lie immediately on its north side. The artifacts collected on the mound and to its west (areas B and C) belong to the Bronze Age, and indeed such early materials were scattered throughout the survey and excavations. The fields north of the tell (areas H, H1) produced sherds that, when added to the fragmentary architectural remains near the present Baladiya offices, suggest a Byzantine or transitional Byzantine/early Islamic occupation in this vicinity. Further collections were made along the west slope of modern occupation (roughly between the 265 and 270 m contours). This slope produced a uniform range of materials as far as the Wadi Turab (area P), where modern fields hindered further investigation; the area is currently known as Rasm al-Ahmar. There was no indication of architectural remains visible on the surface; nevertheless, this area was selected to attempt two soundings, areas L and K.

Area L was a very promising mound composed of a distinctive red-yellow soil; in fact, it proved too promising, being made of mudbrick of a most difficult type to delineate. This exercise in frustration was alleviated only by the excellent ceramics and other artifacts recovered. The sondage in area K proved to be luckier; this was a flat area hemmed in by houses, but the excavations revealed walls made of small stones immediately beneath the surface. During the ten days available, a pattern of stone walls emerged and in the last few days, antecedent walls made of mudbrick were found (fig. 6).

Naturally we found quantities of ceramics, our first guide to the character and date of the site. There was some relief that the ubiquitous Ayyubid period, the medieval efflorescence of settlement in Syria, was absent. In fact, nothing from the late tenth century or later was present. Most of the decorated sherds were glazed and again the styles suggested a general lack of the Samarra horizon (an Iraqi tradition of the ninth century, particularly the latter part). Oliver Watson has recently described early Islamic glazed wares in northern Syria as the "yellow-glaze family," a Levantine tradition of the eighth or early ninth century date. The relationship of the unglazed wares with late Byzantine traditions is more complicated. The French excavations at Déhès, about 30 km (18 miles) west of Qinnasrin, found a Byzantine village that seemed to extend into the early Islamic. Now we had the other end of the stick, an early Islamic site with some Byzantine antecedents. The slight overlap means that, with these comparisons, we may begin to sort out a very tricky historical situation.

If we return to the plan of area K (fig. 7), one sees an apparently freestanding structure composed of two rectangular rooms. Moreover, the plan seems to have been made first in mudbrick and then duplicated in stone cobbles. The smaller of the rooms has a couple of ovens and storage vessels. One of the more curious features is the south (actually southwest) wall, which had a series of column bases and was mostly open. These features add up to a very specific house form, a type derived from the "black" tent used by Arab tribes in the recent past. The translation of a nomad tent into more permanent material is not uncommon. Ethnographic study of nomad tribes in Syria has documented a temporary house called a sibat, used for seasonal occupation and very similar to the remains that we uncovered.

In his study of the archaeological evidence of nomads, Roger Cribb makes an important point that the nomad camp is always, despite its appearance tooccasional outsiders, a highly structured spatial arrangement of residential units. In the case of Qinnasrin, it seems likely that the form of the hadir, the original camp structure, influenced the development of the settlement. Such camp settlements were part of the common experience of tribes in Arabia, brought with the Tanukh and Tayyª tribes when they entered Syria. The early Muslims must have found this a conducive environment when they in turn entered Syria and founded their amsar. The amsar were more than camps, however, but were founded as urban administrative centers upon Arab urban models. The sites of ªAnjar in Lebanon or Aqaba in southern Jordan may contain reflections of these models and their adaptations. When the early Muslims rejected settlement in Aleppo and Chalcis in favor of Hadir Qinnasrin, they might have been selecting the familiar ethnic pattern of Arab tribes and at the same time initiating a fundamental step in the development of the early Islamic city, an urban type to have wide influence in the formation of Muslim communities.

Robert McC. Adams and the City Invincible (1960) studies are part of an ongoing tradition in urban research at the University of Chicago that took advantage of the field research and academic interests of scholars in the Oriental Institute. The Institute excavated a Byzantine church at Khirbat Karak in 1951; a little recognized result of this dig was an extremely important collection of early Islamic materials. Only 10 km (0.6 miles) from this site, Doug Esse, our late colleague and professor, excavated the site of Tell Yaqush in the Jordan valley from 1989 to 1991. He discovered a house of the late Early Bronze Age I period (ca. 3200 BC) that is remarkably similar to the structure recovered at Hadir Qinnasrin. Much has been written and argued about transition from Early Bronze Age I to Early Bronze Age II, a period of urbanization in which processes of nomadism, migration, and sedentation are adduced. Perhaps the example of Hadir Qinnasrin and ethnoarchaeological examples may shed new light on these old archaeological problems. Even the old diffusionist arguments may be resurrected - one might argue - that the Arabs diffused a new type of urbanism into the Levant during late antiquity and in early Islamic times.


Donald S. Whitcomb is Research Associate (Associate Professor) of Islamic and Medieval Archaeology in the University of Chicago's Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He has led excavations at Quseir al-Qadim, Egypt and Aqaba, Jordan. He is the field director of excavations at Hadir Qinnasrin, which is being excavated by the Institut français d'étude arabes de Damas and the Oriental Institute.

Revised: April 28, 2011

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