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WATER AND GOLD: THE 1989 SEASON AT AQABA

By Donald Whitcomb, Research Associate (Associate Professor)
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. 123, March-April 1990, and is made available electronically with the permission of the editor.)


This season at Aqaba, Jordan, began with the installation of a permanent museum, reported in News & Notes 122 by James Richerson. As he explained in that article, these were well-traveled objects, having been brought to Chicago, then taken back to Amman, shown in Irbid, and now returned to Aqaba. In conjunction with the Aqaba museum, Jim designed a series of signs, which are now distributed around the site and form a self-guided tour of this Islamic city in both English and Arabic. Both the museum and the signs are a gratifying result of these excavations, since the preservation and value of this site depends on education of visitors. If one mentions antiquities in the suq of Aqaba, one is sure to be told about the "city of Ayla."

The Aqaba Region Authority, the local planning commission, is doing its part. In December they finished the beautification of a public beach with a broad paved esplanade parallel to the beach running from the hotels to the Sea Wall of the site. Set back from the esplanade is a large parking lot and places for restaurants and shops (in the future). All this was done without destroying the beautiful palm groves. Every evening between one and two hundred people -- Jordanians and foreign tourists -- walk beneath the waving palms, drawn to the gently lapping water of the Red Sea.

Jim entitled his article "Excavating for the Future. " Indeed, it seems that the future is already with us in Aqaba. The Crown Prince of Jordan visited the site and, soon afterwards, the Director of Tourism told us that money has been allocated for a Site Orientation Center (preliminary designs were done by Richerson). The excitement of the archaeological remains has drawn the attention of other developers. For the past two years the archaeological excavations have been working in conjunction with The Royal Yacht Club. Part of the plans for the new marina is a hotel and the question in everyone's mind is how to coordinate the hotel with the ancient monument.

Fortunately, the chairman of the Royal Yacht Club is Mr. Anis Mouasher, who is also director of the Royal Society for the Preservation of Nature (which includes cultural heritage). He recently was interviewed in The Jordan Times and said that it was "a duty ... to conserve our heritage." The article continues: "... Duty and conservation efforts will combine to produce a very special ambiance in a complex Mouasher refers to as the `heart of Aqaba.' When complete, the hotel and its adjoining plaza, of restaurants, coffee shops, and gift shops, will attract vacationers and business travellers in search of evening entertainment after a day on Aqaba's seashore or in meetings. `There is a fine doorway,' Mouasher elaborated, referring to the Hijaz Gate in the south eastern city wall, `that we may work into the design for the entranceway or the hotel lobby.'"

Such plans are literally rising like a tide of enthusiasm, limited only by uncertainties about the ruins still below the sands; this was the background for the urgent request by Dr. Ghazi Bisheh, director general of the Department of Antiquities, that we continue our excavations this winter. We set out with a fresh set of hypotheses -- postulating the location of the early mosque and palace and a woefully inadequate budget. Our departmental representative was Dr. Khairieh 'Amr, who has worked on the site since 1987. Though her specialization is in neutron activation studies of Nabataean ceramics, she is fortunately a fine excavator and ran most of the excavations behind the Hijaz gate. This proved an interesting area of large, apparently residential structures arranged along a narrow street. This street ran parallel to the city wall and had other streets at right angles. Khairieh was able to show that this version of the city plan began in the Abbasid period (from ca. 750 A.D.) and represented a process of urban renewal (perhaps after the earthquake of 748 A.D.).

Khairieh and Rebecca Foote, a beginning archaeologist from Harvard, began probes into the pre-Abbasid levels, though these were too limited to gain an idea of the earlier structures. Rebecca excavated a deep sounding to investigate the problem of the blockage of the Hijaz gate. Much to our surprise, she found plentiful evidence of domestic usage, all during the Umayyad period (ca. 650 to 750 A.D.), contemporary with the blocked gate. Beneath this was almost a meter of clean sand, level with and below the threshold of the gate. The foundation of the threshold continued down beside the sand but our work was halted by the water table. Rebecca claimed the honor of being the first to reach water, but refrained from tasting it (one of her workmen did and pronounced it drinkable if not "sweet").

Our architect this year was Hugh Barnes, a British surveyor with extensive experience in Jordan. He handled a new instrument, an EDM or laser theodolite, rented from ACOR (the American Center). He quickly did a rough plan of the previous years' work and then a detailed plan of the city walls and structures in the marina area. This work went so well that he found time to help with the digging. He tackled the "square tower," located south of the Sea Gate. Hugh's time was mainly spent removing masses of fallen stone, a chore alleviated by deposits of late Abbasid or Fatimid artifacts (ca. 950 to 1100 A.D.), including some of the finest pieces of porcelain found on the site. Hugh is also remembered for producing the worst meal, as we were cooking for ourselves (as director I avoided this distinction only by taking everyone out to eat whenever my turn came round).

After about a week, Hugh was relieved (in his tower) by Kevin Rielly, a faunal specialist who worked with us in 1988, and returned to planning the new architectural discoveries. Both Kevin and Hugh represent the best in British archaeological tradition in which the specialist has a solid grounding in excavation techniques. Kevin continued down inside the tower to a plaster floor (some 2.5 m below the surface), in which were thin mud-brick partition walls. Beneath the plaster floor was the curve of the original round tower, the same as each of the other towers encompassing the town. Inside this lower tower were numerous complete vessels, all of the earliest period of occupation (ca. 650 A.D.), and two walls perpendicular to the city wall. These internal buttresses (for lack of a better term) went down to foundation courses, which again disappeared into the water table (a pool of water which would rise and fall with the tide).

This success with the square tower encouraged us to investigate the tower south of the Hijaz gate. Rebecca found only a thin layer of occupation materials (burnt debris) resting upon internal buttresses identical to those found by Kevin. Between these walls was nothing but clean sand down to (yet again) the water table. One may note that, while the weather was generally mild enough for only a light jacket, no one was tempted to wade in these chilly waters.

During the second half of the season, John Meloy, our only other representative from Chicago, joined us and excavated a series of rooms in area L. We had great hopes for this area, where destruction of the city mound had left only the earliest structural remains. Unfortunately, what remains of these buildings appears to be literally foundations (or perhaps basements), with several reconstructions, and leaves many questions about the design of the original structures. John did renew his acquaintance with a number of workmen who had helped him remove the sand from this area last spring (see News & Notes 120). He was present to help us during the busy last week, the week of Christmas. We even worked Christmas day, though somewhat more slowly than usual, having been the guests the evening before at an extravagant party held by the British ex-patriots working in Aqaba. (We celebrated our last work day -- a delayed "boxing day" -- with another party held by these generous friends.)

The amount of digging accomplished this season has been impressive and is due to the dedication of this very small team of archaeologists. Besides directing, I pitched in here and there and did some excavation myself and was even responsible for some excitement. Our first moment of excitement was the unearthing of a ghundfudh (hedgehog), the only living thing we have ever found on the site. Our second moment was a sudden furor as a workman ran up and handed me a coin - a gold solidus in mint condition. The coin belonged to the Byzantine emperor Heraclius i.e., early 7th century, just after the Muslim conquest. As I pointed out to the workmen, after four seasons of extensive excavations, this was the first large gold coin and it was found on the surface. Nevertheless, there was talk about a treasury and work on the trench began with some enthusiasm. After a week of hard digging we found a beer bottle in the bottom of the trench, proving the rumor I had heard years ago of a former road in this area when it was a British base. A final deep probe beneath this road reached water.

Beyond the extensive historical information gained during this season, one is tempted to reflect on certain ultimate verities pointed out by the site of Ayla. The first is the illusory value of things golden and the pre-eminence of water. It is, after all, the abundance of fresh water which allowed people to settle in this place in every period and build a city in the early Islamic period. It is the clear, gentle water of the Red Sea which attracts people today to this coast. We left Aqaba pleased with the fourth season of archaeological research and, one and a half hours after we left, there was a tremendous rainstorm. I hope it was followed by a golden sunset.


Donald Whitcomb is a Research Associate specializing in Islamic archaeology. He directed the Aqaba project for ten years, patiently uncovering this early Islamic city, which he discovered in 1986.

Revised: February 7, 2007

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