RECONNAISSANCE IN AQABA
By John Meloy,
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. 126, November-December 1990, and is made available electronically with the permission of the editor.)
Archaeologists can't always be sure what they will find, but they can certainly expect to dig up new questions. Under the direction of Donald Whitcomb, the Aqaba excavations, which have revealed the early Islamic city of Ayla, have produced a number of these as yet unanswered questions. Ever since the first season at Aqaba in 1986, several questions have nagged at the minds of Ayla excavators: why do the ruins continue below the water table? Has the water table risen? Or has the site actually subsided? --an interesting possibility since the Gulf of Aqaba lies on top of the tectonic zone of the Great Rift Valley, which starts way south in the highlands of Ethiopia and continues north to the Anatolian Plateau. Finally, what remains lie beyond the city walls of Ayla?
One day during that brief, first season a neighborhood resident came by the excavations to mention to Don Whitcomb that he had found an unusual amount of pottery on his property. He took us to his newly finished building and we saw not simply an archaeological site, but a kiln site. The considerable amount of slag indicated this was a place which had probably been used in the mass production of ceramics. The possibility of finding other sites in the area was good since a large, undeveloped tract of land lay just to the northwest of Ayla. During the 1987 season, and again during the 1988 excavations, we walked briefly over part of "the Circular Area," as it has been dubbed by the planners at the Aqaba Region Authority, and located four sites that gave evidence of pre-Islamic occupation. The prospects looked excellent for a systematic investigation of this area, perhaps eventually answering another key question: where do the Nabataean and Byzantine towns lie?
Since much of what we were asking lies more within the province of someone trained in geology, we looked for outside help in addressing some of these questions. In July of this year Basil Gomez, Associate Professor of Geomorphology at Indiana State University, and I went to Aqaba. There we were given the full support and encouragement of Gen. Bassam Qaqish, Dr. Dureid Mahasneh, and Mr. Muhammad Balqar of the Aqaba Region Authority. They generously supplied us with maps, a surveying team, a four-wheel drive vehicle, and the use of the Authority's library. With the Authority's assistance we were able to make a good start looking for answers.
This was Basil's first trip to Jordan, and he was pleased to find Aqaba's seaside location as comfortable as the places in Cyprus where he has done geo-archaeological work during the last several years. In the last ten years Aqaba has seen a tremendous amount of development which, under the guidance of the Regional Authority, has preserved Aqaba's seaside character and pleasant atmosphere. However, the buildings and streets of these new neighborhoods have obscured the topography essential to a geographical understanding of Ayla. Consequently Basil spent a good deal of time in the archives of the Regional Authority searching for cartographic and photographic documentation of Aqaba's geography prior to its recent growth. But his research was not conducted entirely in the air conditioned coolness of the Regional Authority's headquarters; after a thorough tour of Ayla, Basil surveyed the shoreline to determine the extent to which it has been modified over the centuries. Later during our time in Aqaba, we explored the wadis in the mountains to the east of the city as well as the extensive, boulder-strewn alluvial fan emanating from the mouth of the Wadi Yitm to the northeast of the city. Answers to the geological questions will take some time to find. The level of the medieval water table may be more fully understood after the wells we found last winter are excavated. As for seismic activity, more excavation will be needed to determine to what extent earthquakes have disrupted the history of the site.
The question that chiefly concerned me dealt with the issue of archaeological remains outside the walls of the Islamic city. Our exploration of the mountain range to Aqaba's east was brief but thorough, and nothing extensive is likely to have escaped us. This negative result was made a little more interesting by our examination of two prehistoric sites excavated by the University of Jordan. We had also hoped to rediscover some Arabic inscriptions documented by a nineteenth century French traveller. We only know roughly which wadi these are in, and we have no idea how extensive they are. It may be that even the slow pace of a four-wheel drive vehicle along a rocky wadi bottom may be too fast to spot such a find.
My principal task this summer, however, was to make an archaeological survey of the Circular Area. This involved walking across the area in an orderly pattern, looking for scatters of pottery sherds and architectural remains. Whenever I came across a site, I marked it with iron stakes, located it on my field map, and then made a representative collection of pottery sherds from its surface. A few days later, after covering the entire area, I returned with a team of the Region Authority's surveyors who mapped the sites and the few mudbrick walls still visible on the surface.
The appearance of these sites was quite different from many Near Eastern sites since they had very sparse distributions of surface sherds. I learned from Basil that it is likely this area has been exposed to deposits of tremendous amounts of sand from three different sources. The prevailing northerly winds blow down the Wadi 'Araba, depositing sand and dust in their wake. The area is also on the edge of the alluvial fan deposited by flooding from the Wadi Yitm to the east. Finally, the beach, which lies as close as 200 meters to the south, can, during heavy storms, account for deposits of sand as well. In short, all three factors have worked to make the job of the archaeological surveyor more difficult. Fortunately, the build-up of sediment takes time, and even when it does happen, it still leaves a mound as an indication of buried remains. In all, I was able to find fifteen scatters of for artifacts forming perhaps as many as eight distinct sites in the Circular Area. In 1878, Sir Richard Burton, without artifactual justification, associated the extensive remains in the area around Aqaba with the Biblical site of Elath. In his words "... A line of larger heaps to the north shows where, according to the people, ran the city wall: finding it thickly strewed with scoriae, old and new, I decided that this was the Siyaghah or 'smiths' quarter. Between it and the sea the surface is scattered with glass, shards, and slag." Some fifty years later Nelson Glueck found the area "was mostly covered with sand, but the surface of the ground was strewn with Nabataean sherds of all kinds;" for him this was the site of an extremely large "Nabataean city." Thus in the pantheon of archaeological heroes who contributed to discoveries in Aqaba, we may list Burton and Glueck, who first described the Nabataean city, as well as T. E. Lawrence, who first described the Islamic city when he visited Aqaba some two and a half years before returning with the Sherifan army which liberated the town from the Turks. His conclusion was that the evidence "all pointed to an Arab settlement of some luxury in the early Middle Ages."
The sands which have since obscured these discoveries were swept away from the Islamic city in 1986 and now from the Nabataean city in 1990. These sites found this summer represent the rediscovery of the Nabataean, Roman, and Byzantine periods--along with many more questions for future seasons of work in Aqaba.
Revised: February 7, 2007