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AQABA/AYLA: EXCAVATING FOR THE FUTURE

By James J. Richerson
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. 122, January-February 1990, and is made available electronically with the permission of the editor.)


"Aqaba -- Port of Palestine on the China Sea" has found a permanent home in the newly refurbished Sharif Hussein Visitors' Center in Aqaba, Jordan. The exhibition and facility were presented to his majesty King Hussein on the occasion of his birthday in November, 1989.

Don Whitcomb, director of the Oriental Institute's Ayla/Aqaba excavations, and I originally organized this exhibition in November of 1987 and it was exhibited first at the Oriental Institute Museum. The exhibition then moved to Jordan where it was shown first at the Jordanian Department of Antiquities in Amman, and then at Yarmouk University in Irbid.

The Sharif Hussein house provides an excellent setting for the Ayla artifacts. The Center sits in the shadow of a 13th-19th century (Ayyubid-Mamluk) castle that was also T. E. Lawrence's (Lawrence of Arabia) headquarters in World War 1. The excavation site is located northeast of the Center, a leisurely 700 meter walk along the palm lined Corniche Road. The building is described by Ammar Khammash, its principal architect, as of typical Hejaz-style construction. The outside of the structure has an unfinished, natural appearance. It harmonizes well with the surrounding mountains and seascape of Aqaba. All of the original rough stone surfaces have been cleaned and exposed. The old wooden framing has been replaced or sanded where needed. The entrance of the house faces the Gulf of Aqaba, with a commanding view of the present day commercial harbor. Marking the entry is a reconstructed monumental wooden gate, opening into a U-shaped courtyard with two grand old palms and eight newly planted lemon trees. Above the courtyard rises an open barrel vault of wood, which provides an inviting sense of closure. The interior of the building was stripped down to the original plaster covered stone walls. In this cool interior space Khammash added a variety of display cases and surfaces. The uneven white-washed walls contrast dramatically with the pristinely-crafted glass and wooden exhibit cases and surfaces. The house remains true to its past with few major alterations. It is a perfect setting to highlight the Ayla artifacts which now tell the story of this area's rich Islamic. past.

The east wing of the complex houses a temporary exhibit space and the permanent display area devoted to the Ayla excavation site. The visitor, upon entering, is met by a large storage jar with incised decoration and vertically written characters. Running along the back wall of this first room is a series of cases containing vessels, most of them complete. Among the finest are some elaborately carved steatite lamps from Yemen. Also included is a lamp chronology with Nabateaen, Byzantine, Coptic, Umayyad, Abbasid, and Fatimid examples. Ayla's far-reaching trade is demonstrated by fragments of fine Chinese porcelains and celadons. A selection of plain ceramic wares, weights, imitation Chinese ceramics, glass, and worked metal provides evidence of the city's active commercial life. The next room features a fresco fragment that gives viewers a glimpse of the lavish interior decor of a late Abbasid or early Fatimid Ayla residence.

The exhibition continues with a series of horizontal cases displaying a pottery chronology, with some outstanding examples of Islamic glazed ceramics. Organizing and mounting this large chronological assemblage, divided among four cases, proved to be particularly challenging, especially on a limited budget. The design had to harmonize with strong horizontal lines already present in the layout of the room. The solution to the problem was simple but somewhat radical. Corrugated metal roofing, common throughout Aqaba and very inexpensive, was cut, painted, and placed on inclined racks in each case. The pottery sherds were then meticulously "sewn" with monofilament to each of the metal sheets. The corrugated roofing, placed horizontally, draws the eye across the display of sherds. With the help of supporting copy and graphics, the viewer of this chronology is led though the major periods of Ayla's Islamic past. Near the exit, there is a display of maps and site-specific photographs that focuses on Ayla's 7th- 12th century architecture and the town's key role in the expanding and influential world of Islam.

Visitors can also tour the excavated area itself. To aid them further in the interpretation of Ayla, on-site outdoor signs have also been designed. Working with Don this spring, I developed and fabricated a set of eight signs to aid visitors in understanding the significance of the Ayla Islamic site. The signs, in Arabic and English, guide visitors down axial streets to several major excavated architectural features. They were installed this November, and at the same time discussions were also held with Ruba Kana'an, Cultural Resource Manager at the American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR), laying the groundwork for building an on-site orientation center.

The permanent installation of the Ayla exhibit answers a growing concern among archaeologists and host countries for educational outreach and advancing the public's awareness about archaeological sites. These concerns are becoming the next logical step and responsibility in the work of today's archaeologist. Continuation of the archaeological work at Ayla, the completion of the permanent exhibit at the Shariff Hussein Visitors' Center, the installation of the signs, and further plans for a site orientation center are tributes to individual dedication and cooperation. It is this complex orchestration of people and organizations that continues the advancement of this model project.[1]


The development and success shared at Ayla is made possible by the generosity of the people of Aqaba; Dr. Ghazi Bisheh, Director of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities; Mr. Nasri Atalla, Director of the Jordanian Department of Tourism; Ms. Hanan Kurdi, Program and Public Education Specialist for the Jordanian Department of Antiquities (Hanan was also responsible for the Arabic translations of the site signs.); Donald Whitcomb, Excavation Director for the Oriental Institute; Dr. Bert de Vries, Director of ACOR; the United States Agency for International Development (USAID); Ammar Kharnmash, principal architect of the Sharif Hussein Visitors' Center; and the Oriental Institute and its on-going commitment to such work.

Revised: February 7, 2007

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