No, seriously. Petra, straddling something like ten square miles of Jordanian mountain-desert-canyon chaos, was the jewel of the Nabataean kingdom and makes everything that you or I have done in our lives look like so much small change.
Hey, that’s me! I’m famous!
Eagle-eyed viewers may just recognise this, ‘the Treasury’, as the resting place of the Holy Grail from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (as well as the narrow canyon they ride down, which opens directly onto this monstrosity). Carved into the solid rock, I’m there for scale. ‘Big’ is a fair description here, and whilst the Treasury is pretty big as Nabataean tombs go, it’s not the biggest.
Would you like to see the inside of one of these opulent tombs? I bet you would, you’re a sucker for fancy architecture. Here is one of the most impressive ones:
Actually, that’s a bit lame, isn’t it?
The first thing you’ve got to understand about the city of Petra is that it had serious motivation to look impressive. For four hundred years before Trajan annexed it to Rome, Petra sat on a number of key trade routes across the Arabian Desert: the Silk and Spice Roads come to mind, with ludicrously valuable materials having no choice but to pass through Petra. Indeed, that’s exactly why Petra’s there – another Nabataean settlement, Avdat in modern Israel, sits on the frankincense route up through Saudi Arabia. The Nabataean pattern is, essentially, to exploit the trade routes running through the desert to skim off the cream.
A breakdown of the East-West trade routes until the fall of Rome. Source: Wikipedia. Not shown, much to my irritation: sodding Petra.
The wealth of the city of Petra is reported by all contemporary chroniclers as fantastic, and a glance at the various styles of Nabataean architecture reveal obvious influences from Hellenistic, Roman and Persian contact that Petra, producing nothing of its own, absolutely depended on. Indeed, when the Nabataean kingdom was absorbed into Rome by Trajan, the same expansion cemented their control of the Red Sea, making the sea route to India plyable again, and as a nippier trip with less chance of melting to death, Petra receded into irrelevance, finally abandoned after a disastrous earthquake in 555 AD.
So why isn’t this wealth reflected in munificent tombs? Why is Petra a wonderful example of style over substance? The best way to demonstrate this is with the Unfinished Tomb, tucked behind the magnificent temple:
The majestic tomb fronts are carved out of the solid rock of the canyons. They’re not built, they’re sculpted: here you can see how masons would work their way down from the top of the facade bit by bit unless, for some reason, this were to be stopped, as it was with the Unfinished Tomb. It’s a lot easier to do this than it would be to build something of an equivalent size, which would need huge interiors just by the laws of engineering if nothing else. It’s Dwarf Fortress reasoning. When it’s anchored in solid rock, however, all you need is the impressive front, leaving the burial area, occasionally visited by living members of the family (it’s believed these were family tombs, as the multiple depressions on our second photo suggests) but mostly not accessed. These weren’t structures for daily use. What we see, as depressingly frequently with the Classical Era, are the large, grand structures of the local nobility, minus the houses, roads and activity: in other words, exactly what they’d want you to be seeing.
That’s like less than a third of the site and it’s all up mountains or in valleys or up in mountain-valleys and I’m going to stop writing now because even thinking about it is giving me heatstroke.
So as you can guess, I’ve turned my back on the excavations at Jerusalem I wouldn’t stop talking about, and now I’m leaving the area entirely on a new tangent. Why am I turning my back on Jerusalem, the Mother of Cities, the domain of gods? It’s not as if I’ve suggested any awkwardness or objections: yet here I am, leaving for Malta. It’s a really nice site, but it’s hardly the Temple Mount, is it? This is where things get complicated. I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing. But my plans are made and flights are booked, and I’m over the precipice now. I have to explain, both for my own sake and so that you can understand how archaeology operates in the Holy Land, a cradle of human civilisation and the common property of every human being on this planet.
Before I begin, you’ve got to understand that archaeology is like a religion to me. I consider our history to be, as Arthur C. Clarke once put it, “the long climb back up from barbarism”. Humanity, as a whole, is fascinating: our struggles, our successes and defeats, our innovations and great works, our heroes and villains; we’ve been up against it from the first tools. We’ve endured famines, plagues and wars of extermination. We’ve taken it all standing up, and we’ve come back with the written word, music, architecture and goddamn space flight. I am a humanist in the most literal sense of the term: you awe me. How are you still here? How on Earth did you pull it off, you fantastic slabs of meat?
My inability to dig in Israel is twofold: one practical, one political. I know I said I don’t take sides, and that I’m here regardless of regimes and their actions, but in the end you’ll realise I literally didn’t have a choice.
N.B. Out of respect to the fact that this work is currently unpublished, I feel obliged to leave out one or two cool things and generally gloss over the details – apparently there are risks of vandalism and theft at the site so I will not specify the name or location. When the publication comes out, relatively soon, it’s my understanding that it’ll be publicly available so rest assured I’ll bring it up again.
Wandering through the Ramallah Museum I strike up a conversation with the friendly curator (one of the first words I learn in every language is ‘archaeologist': I’m still at that early stage where I’m giddy with the concept of calling myself one. “Al-attar”, I routinely mispronounce).
“I’ve been travelling around,” I say, “looking for digs. I hear field season’s over in Palestine now though.”
“Actually,” he says, smiling, “I know a guy.”
So the dig I’ve wangled my way onto is courtesy of Birzeit University, Birzeit – a university town some ten minutes out of Ramallah. Dr. Hamid Saleh is leading the excavations here at this early Byzantine village (i.e. before the Islamic conquest in the mid-seventh century), as an opportunity to train his large number of students, ranging from first years to Masters students. Some of them are first-timers on site, whilst others have seen it all. In-house excavations are generally like this: it’s a good model educationally, allowing students to learn as they go both under professional supervision and with the assistance of contemporaries. I only spent a week here, but it’s better than nothing.
I find myself, for the first time in my life, supervising. Fortunately for the data I end up supervising a desperate search for bedrock that comes up empty.
My main square, before I failed to find rock. Personally I blame whoever built the terraces on these rolling hills: everywhere else they were like ‘bedrock? No problem!’.
Much cooler stuff is happening around the basilica. I use basilica in the architectural sense, as structures that evolved out of the pre-Christian Roman Period into the default style for Orthodox buildings after the adoption of Christianity. Often relatively modest things, the one we’ve got here is no more than 10 x 20m in area, but it’s very well preserved and is frankly really nice. This has all been done before I got here, in the space of three weeks: for supposedly new students they know how to work.
Incidentally, this is all geometric mosaics under there. It’s a real shame you can’t see them.
This view is running along the nave of the church away from the altar, before the recovery of the mosaics ,which will be reburied under breathable material and sand just in case someone else wants a look. The atrium or open courtyard also borrowed from Roman architecture doesn’t seem to have survived but the narthex has: the narthex, an officially unconsecrated area of the church structure, was for the purpose of permitting heathens to enter the church for baptism and general ‘ooh, look at the artwork’ chicanery (the facetious jerk in me wants to call this the ‘try before you buy’ room). These things stop appearing in structures once Christianity is dominant in an area, and as such can either be used as an upper limit for construction dates (when the Christian trajectory of a province is known) or as an insight into Christianity’s status in an area (when the construction date is known). To make this a little easier to visualise I’ve stolen a map from Wikipedia.
From Wikipedia, a floor plan of Old St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City
The basilica we’ve got our hands on seems to have fewer aisles than this one – Greek and Latin churches are different long before the Schism – but balances this out with a sacristy (base for the priest) at the back, sadly collapsed along with the NE wall. This collapse seems to me to signal the end of the settlement, probably not long after the rise of the Umayyad Caliphate and the socio-populational upheaval implied: the only indication that anything happened afterwards is the fact that the terracing stones clearly came from buildings here.
The one thing that I’m curious about is the basilica’s position relative to the rest of the settlement. There’s been a bit of work done on an unidentified public building to the west, where most of the settlement is (a modern road runs just E of the basilica and cuts off any remains from there, but it seems that it sits on the settlement’s E edge anyway). This itself is only halfway up the hill, but the basilica sits at the bottom. I always thought that religious buildings went on high ground: seeing as we’ve got hints of a Roman presence maybe the structures of the time simply made this impractical.
Back on the road: stay tuned for more oversimplification and self-regarding waffle.
You know Jericho. Seriously, you do: it’s one of those Old Testament stories that we’ve all heard of. The Israelites invade Canaan, sweeping all before them until they reach the grand city of Jericho, thick-walled and belligerent. Joshua pulls his stunt with marches and trumpets and the walls come down, and that’s that. Suddenly and briefly this unknown city of a barely known people is thrust onto the world stage, and then disappears from the Biblical narrative.
To be fair to Jericho though, the Israelite invasion is barely an eyeblink of its time. Excavations at Jericho in the early 50s by the fantastic Kathleen Kenyon, whose work pioneered archaeological principles like stratigraphy, took the site of Tel-es-Sultan just north of modern Jericho, and what she found made it abundantly clear that Jericho was a damn sight older than Joshua, the Bible, Canaan, Egypt or the concept of monotheism.
This tower, some four metres tall, dominates the defensive walls of its period. This period, incidentally, is the pre-pottery Neolithic – approximately 9400 BC. The defensive structures enclosed what was a sizable city-state, comparable to Catal Hoyuk. Indeed, the Palestinian Authority goes so far to market it as ‘the oldest city in the world’, celebrating its 10000th anniversary in 2007. Claims of ‘oldest’ are never possible to substantiate, as radiocarbon dates (also pioneered by Kenyon, in fact) still give error margins of +-400 years for such old material, and of course we’ve not excavated everywhere: Jericho can, however, make a reasonable claim to oldest continuously occupied city, which is also pretty cool.
N.B. My time in Palestine is going to be out of sequence, mainly because I cannot help myself but to talk about this first. I remain of average intelligence, limited faculties and incomplete information. I beg you to do your own reading.
I entered the West Bank ten days ago. Contrary to the stories on the news, the warnings of my family and the general implications throughout Israel that Palestine is not safe, whilst in here the only reason I’ve managed to get anything done is the long succession of complete strangers who have led me around cities to my destinations, negotiated with their countrymen in Arabic on my behalf and given me advice on things to see and do without any expectation of reward. Some of them give me their phone numbers when they head off: “if you need anything at all, you call me”. This includes students, taxi drivers, shop assistants, academics and anyone else you can think of whom I’ve met. I’ve been given free food and water, reduced rates on shared taxis (servees) simply because I can’t find exact change and in-depth discussions of the political situation with people across the Palestinian political spectrum (even when we discuss Britain’s role in this travesty, it’s made clear that they acknowledge the difference between governments and their people). The English word that literally everyone knows is ‘welcome’. Their friendliness is breathtaking: if I had been walking around Scotland this clueless I would have been knifed by now.
Stepping onto the Temple Mount/Haram Ash-Sharif (hereafter Mount Moriah to make things easier) is a complicated proposition for a non-Muslim. Held by an Islamic waqf or charitable foundation since Jerusalem fell to Saladin in 1187, today it is the only Islamic-controlled territory in Jerusalem, a provision made for it in 1967 when Israel captured and annexed East Jerusalem during the Six-Day War. The Muslim authority is thus allowed to set its own terms for non-Muslim visitors: there are set times each day except Friday, and these set times are very strictly enforced.
Walking to Mount Moriah (walkway to gate on left). It almost looks as if there’s been excavation in this no-man’s land patrolled by the IDF.
The digs I obtained in the Christian Quarter were somewhat spartan. By this I mean that I was sleeping on a roof. The heat in the morning burned my face and cooked me in the sleeping bag that the cold nights demanded. Even if I had somehow survived unmolested by weather until half past eight in the morning, the sound of every church in the city trying to out-bell-ring one another is enough to wake the legions of the dead buried on the Mount of Olives (the idea there is that the closer you are to the Temple Mount the sooner you’ll be resurrected on Judgement Day, so presumably those guys are the light sleepers).
The view makes up for it though. Those blue domes there are the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site in Christendom as the traditional site of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The spire to the right is the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, interesting as one of the few Protestant sites in Jerusalem. The city itself is a beautiful maze of little churches, mosques, side alleys and souks, and the Sepulchre rises above them all, challenged only by the Dome of the Rock.
So naturally I went to have a look.