en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 51, Number 2March/April 2000

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

Digging Out Aqaba’s Islamic Past

Written by William Harms
Photographed by Bill Lyons

Modern Aqaba's suq spreads out in front of the city's post office, a series of shops selling wares and crafts from the Arab world and beyond. As traders here have done for centuries, these small businessmen offer goods of utility and luxury that reflect the city's role as an entrepot where land and sea routes cross.

Dresses and handbags hang outside the small shops while their keepers sit outside, greeting passersby. All the city seems to be out for an evening stroll. Though well after sunset and late in October, the weather is tropically warm—just right for luring tourists from within and beyond the Middle East to Jordan's only port on the northeastern arm of the Red Sea.

Also on the streets this evening is an archeologist whose face has become familiar to many of the shop owners: Donald Whitcomb, a researcher at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. In 1986, Whitcomb located along Aqaba's beach the buried ruins of what has turned out to be one of the earliest planned Islamic cities: Ayla, founded in about 650 and forgotten since the 1500's. Successive excavations have revealed the extent and layout of the city, numerous buildings (including a congregational mosque of imposing proportions), evidence of trade connections that reached as far as China, and a hoard of 32 mostly Moroccan gold coins dating from the 10th and 11th centuries.

Whitcomb's excavations, overseen by Jordan's Department of Antiquities and funded by the United States Agency for International Development, the National Geographic Society and private donors, have sparked interest among archeologists throughout Jordan. "This is a very important project, not just for Jordan, but for our understanding of the whole early Islamic period," says Ghazi Bisheh, director general of the country's Department of Antiquities. "This site is vital to understanding town planning and urban development."

Unlike other archeological sites that are often fenced or guarded, Ayla is locally celebrated and visited. The area, set between the sea and several main streets, was largely undeveloped in modern times and has long served as a kind of informal park. That has made Ayla, now about 20 percent excavated, easier for Whitcomb and other archeologists to reach, and it has also made the dig a work-in-progress attraction, like a construction site. "Our discoveries take place with tourists watching," Whitcomb says.

The next morning, Whitcomb and Sawsan al-Fakhry, inspector of antiquities for Aqaba, take a small group of visitors on a tour. Al-Fakhry is a veteran archeologist who has spent several seasons at Ayla. She shows Whitcomb the new mortar she developed to make her restorations of newly excavated walls almost indistinguishable from the originals.

One such restoration is a 2.5-meter (8') gateway arch made of roughly cut limestone blocks that stands just inside a gate in the city wall. Although it was excavated intact, it was rebuilt because the arch blocks were in danger of collapse. Now, it gives a visitor a sense of what it would have been like to walk into Ayla shortly after its founding.

The arch leads into a street that is so narrow one can almost stand in the middle and touch the walls of buildings on both sides. Whitcomb explains that the streets were about three meters (10') across when the city was first built, but that over 400 years of use, successive layers of construction show that many buildings gradually expanded into the streets. "They would have accommodated the donkeys and the carts that made their way into the city carrying trade goods, and the visitors making the pilgrimage," Whitcomb says. "We aren't quite sure why that encroachment took place, but it could have been due to a decline in government authority in the 10th and 11th centuries," a time that, for the region as a whole, was "increasingly anarchic."

Measurements of the city walls show that Ayla measured 145 by 170 meters, or 2.5 hectares (475' x 560', 6 acres), roughly the size of the citadel of Amman, Jordan's capital, and of other qusur, here meaning "desert castles," of the early Islamic period. (See Aramco World, September/October 1990.) Towers stood along each wall, and each side had its gate, flanked by two more towers. The southwest wall of the city was probably immediately on the Gulf of Aqaba, and may have contained a series of chandlers' and other shops that served ships. The Muslims built their city along the lines of Roman and Byzantine models: Two perpendicular, axial streets intersected at a small square that may have been covered by a dome on columns—an Islamic adaptation of the classical tetrapylon. The rest of the city was laid out according to the grid that the two main streets established.

One of the most remarkable discoveries so far is the congregational mosque, whose style dates it to between the mid-eighth and mid-ninth century. It measures 50 by 20 meters (165' by 65'), and its outline, with its open courtyard and colonnade, is clearly visible in the northeastern portion of the city. Whitcomb believes that an earlier mosque is probably still to be found elsewhere, at a lower level yet to be excavated.

Like today's entrepreneurs and tourists, travelers who came to Ayla in the eighth through 11th centuries were part of a stream of religious and commercial visitors that linked the community to the larger world. They left objects, news or ideas that, like the Moroccan gold pieces, testify to the cosmopolitan nature of the city.

"In Aqaba," says Rami Khouri, an Amman journalist and author of several books on Jordanian antiquities, "you have patterns from the ancient and the modern worlds all in the same place. For example, the flight routes of Royal Jordanian Airlines today reflect the trade links that connected the Nabataean and early Islamic Arabs with many world civilizations in past centuries. Throughout time, communities have only flourished when they were connected with the rest of the world. That is one of the reasons why the discovery of Ayla is so fascinating."

Ayla's far-flung contacts long predate the Islamic city, something that becomes clear with a visit to Aqaba's 10-room historical museum south of Ayla, in a house that once sheltered Makkah-bound dignitaries amid the sprawling pilgrims' camping grounds. There, displays show that Islamic Ayla was actually the fourth of six settlement sites at this end of the Gulf of Aqaba, most of which have also been called "Ayla." Though its beginnings are hazy, most researchers agree that Ayla took its name from Elath, a city that first appears in accounts of the rule of Solomon at the beginning of the first millennium BC, and which was sometimes identified with Ezion-geber.

Exactly when the name changed is also uncertain, but at the beginning of the current era, the Greek geographer Strabo noted that Alexander had used "Aila" as a port in 324 . Not long after Alexander, in the third century BC, the Nabataeans, best known for their carved-rock architecture at Petra in Jordan and Madain Salih in Saudi Arabia, moved the city slightly to the south, and Nabataean shards from the first century of our era are today among the museum's earliest artifacts. Romans later occupied the Nabataean site, and still later the Byzantines built their city center some 250 meters (800') further south. Al-Fakhry points to an inscribed, cylindrical stone column, a Roman milestone from the early second century, when the city served as the southern terminus of the Via Nova Traiana, the trunk road that linked it with Bosra, Syria.

In the year nine of the Muslim calendar (AD 630), the army of the Prophet Muhammad arrived in Tabuk, some 200 kilometers (120 mi) southeast of Byzantine Aila. (Modern archeologists spell the name of the Roman and Byzantine cities with an i and that of the Islamic one with a y .) At that time, Islam was about to begin its vast, rapid diffusion out of the Arabian Peninsula. The leader of Aila—whom Islamic sources refer to variously as "bishop," "king," "ruler" and "chief"—traveled to the Prophet's camp and there arranged to pay jizya, or tribute, as a sign of Aila's peaceful submission. Some two decades later, under 'Uth-man, the third caliph of Islam, Islamic Ayla was founded adjacent to the Byzantine town.

There may have been several reasons that the Muslims built a new city: Muslim rulers generally left non-Muslims relatively undisturbed, and often preferred to build alongside, rather than on top of, the communities of other faiths; there is also evidence that Byzantine Aila, where an archeological team from the University of North Carolina is digging, may have been discouragingly dilapidated by the mid-seventh century, though it remained extensively inhabited.

The Muslims quickly came to value their city not only for trade, but also because it lay along the routes that linked Makkah with both Egypt and Syria. This brought the additional prosperity that came as pilgrim traffic grew. It also meant that Ayla enjoyed the protection that Muslim rulers were obliged to extend to pilgrims traveling to and from the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah. Today, the pieces of blue porcelain from China, the ivory reliefs, the amphorae and several collections of commercial weights displayed in the museum hint at the extent of Ayla's prosperity, and its role in the cultural cross-pollination of that era.

"This is a very important city, not just for Jordan but for all the Islamic world," says al-Fakhry. "The mosque, for instance, is an example of very early Islamic architecture. The city itself helps us understand what an early Islamic city looked like. There are no other good examples of an entire city such as this anywhere.

"We want to keep this site open and available to everyone so they can experience what it must have been like," she adds.

Like most cities, however, Ayla had its decline, which appears in fact to have been cataclysmic. The wadi running through the southern portion of the city is some six to eight meters (20-26') deep, and it leads to the sea. It seems out of place within the reconstructed walls. Whitcomb believes it may offer a clue to Ayla's demise. An earthquake is said to have killed all but 12 city residents in 1068, and those survivors happened to be aboard a fishing boat at the time. The ruined city was abandoned. Gradually, a new settlement arose some two kilometers (1¼ mi) south.

There, along what is modern Aqaba's King Hussein Street, stands the 12th-century Ayyubid castle, which Mamluks and Ottomans both later adapted. Today it lies between the town center and the industrial port, and the great pilgrim campgrounds lay on its inland side. In this Ayyubid period, the town began to be called Aqabat Ayla, or "Ayla Pass," a name that referred to the mountainous passes that connected the city with points inland. By the 14th century, the chronicle of Abu al-Fida noted that Islamic Ayla was largely a forgotten ruin, increasingly covered by sand. By the 16th century, the town name had been shortened to Al-'Aqaba, the name it retains today in Arabic, and the old city had disappeared.

Whitcomb says that it was a reference to Islamic-era shards in the writings of T.E. Lawrence that led him to his discovery. Lawrence had found the pieces "one kilometer north of the edge of the village," says Whitcomb, "and the problem then became determining the extent of the village in 1914. After a few days of poking into empty lots and gardens, a few shards began to turn up where Islamic Ayla was later found. Like most dreams, a little prior research helped serendipity in realizing this one."

Mahmoud al-Helalat, manager of tourism for Aqaba, explains that the discovery of Ayla has bolstered the historic appeal of his city. "It shows us a clear sequence of the development of Islamic culture," he says.

Between the visitor's center and the excavation site lies the Royal Jordanian Yacht Club, and on the north side of the Ayla site is a new, six-story hotel, designed in a style that is intended to make it a good neighbor, architecturally speaking, to Ayla. The relationship of the city's past to its future is an important concern also to Mohammad Balqar, vice president for technical affairs of the Aqaba Regional Authority, who has overseen the growth of Aqaba from 5000 people in the 1950's to more than 65,000 today.

"We have to be very careful in the way we utilize these sites," he says. "They are part of our heritage, part of what makes Aqaba unique." The archeological discoveries offer the city an opportunity to strengthen its identity, he adds. "For instance, by using stone instead of brick for the exterior walls of the new hotel, the developers are taking account of our heritage." In other places, Balqar says, "we want to use local granite instead of concrete, so that development of our city fits in with our environment."

As people have done during each of Aqaba's urban incarnations, modern residents are finding their future in making their city attractive to visitors.

William Harms (left) is a senior news writer at the University of Chicago.

Bill Lyons is a free-lance photographer living in Amman.

This article appeared on pages 10-13 of the March/April 2000 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 2000 images.