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By Donald Whitcomb, Research Associate (Associate Professor)
The Oriental Institute
The University of Chicago

(This article originally appeared in The Oriental Institute News and Notes, No. 149, Spring 1996, and is made available electronically with the permission of the editor.)

As I gaze out over the city of Aqaba, the curving bay with Elat and the Sinai Mountains in the distance under a perfect clear blue sky, I am tempted to write: "the weather's fine, wish you were here!" It is indeed perfect weather for digging and we have made the most of it for almost four weeks. This year we have tackled the early Islamic city from a new direction. For almost ten years we have patiently uncovered the city walls, gates and towers, and major structures within the town (including the Congregational mosque last season); most of the information on the structure of the town dates from the later phases of occupation, from the Abbasid and Fatimid periods (9th-11th centuries).

This year we have bypassed these later levels by excavating within the wadi that now cuts across the ancient town. After a series of probes, a large and horribly noisy bulldozer cleared modern debris from the banks and sediment from the bottom of the wadi channel. We now have a flat field averaging 30 meters wide that is revealing walls of a complex of structures associated with consistently very early Islamic materials. Readers of News & Notes will remember that we attempted to excavate the wadi in 1993 and that our probes were obliterated by a flash flood, which filled the entire wadi. Needless to say, we watch the sky nervously and, unkind as it may be to farmers, pray for the rain to wait until we have finished.

This tenuous state of being also means that the results of this season will not contribute to the touristic value of our site. We are fortunate to have a program of restoration established in Aqaba. Under the direction of Sawsan al-Fakhry, Inspector of the Office of Antiquities in Aqaba, and her experienced team, we have opened the Egyptian gate and reconstructed its arch. Soon tourists will be able to enter the early Islamic city and walk along its main street, closed and indeed completely hidden for a thousand years. And what have we found aside from the walls and sherds? I watched Ra'ed al-Shara', an advanced Jordanian student recently returned for a second season at Aqaba, excavating a wall. He picked up a cobble, one of many stones, and said: "Look, a head," and gave us an alas-poor-Yorick pose. The more we looked at the cobble, the more it did look like a head. As we cleaned the mud, a marble head of a young boy was revealed. The face was sadly worn (the nose rather like that of most Egyptian statues), but the stylish hair and elaborate ears should give classical archaeologists all the information they need for an approximate identification.

Our discoveries take place in the wadi with tourists watching from the bridge above us. Others, both Jordanians and foreigners, pass through the wadi on their way to the beach, just past the palm trees only 100 meters away. Recently we were pleased to have Dr. Peter Piccione, Mrs. Louise Bradbury, and a small group from the Oriental Institute Travel Program's tour Prophets and Pilgrims stop in the wadi; we added a full tour of the site and the Aqaba museum before they continued on to the beaches and swimming. By a remarkable coincidence, one of our first visitors was Thomas McClellan, a former professor at the Oriental Institute well familiar to many members. He toured the site and gave us an exciting gift in return: a first-hand account of his excavations in northern Syria. His very remarkable discoveries of the second millennium BC are easily the most exciting news from Syria in recent years; they gave us a sense of perspective as we begin our own investigations.

P.S. On November 22nd, we experienced an earthquake in Aqaba, apparently 6.4 on the Richter scale. Happily no one of the team or in Aqaba was hurt. Our residence was undamaged, though many of the hotels and houses in the town have cracks. As we attempt to get used to the aftershocks, the team turns to making cracks of their own-like looking for an earth-shaking discovery.

Donald Whitcomb is a Research Associate specializing in Islamic archaeology. He has directed the Aqaba project for almost ten years, patiently uncovering this early Islamic city, which he discovered in 1986. Don returned safely from the field in January 1996. He was accompanied by his wife, Professor Janet Johnson, and their children who also continued to excavate in Aqaba.

Revised: February 7, 2007

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