Sunday 9 October 2011

Limes Academicus and Jordan never ceases to surprise

Recent arrivals for this season include myself from the UK, Karen Henderson and Don Boyer from Australia. Don’s arrival was the most impressive; he hardly had time to drop his bag inside the door of the Institute and he was being whisked off, with the rest of us, to Qasr Hallabat (see Ancient Jordan from the Air pages 177-178, and looking very different from today).

However that’s getting ahead of ourselves: yesterday David, Mat and I went to look for a Roman road, spotted at the end of last season in the western suburbs of Amman. We have spent many hours, on previous excursions, both driving around and flying around possible Roman roads, but this time we found it first time; excellently well preserved in one small section but completely trashed in others – either built over, scraped away or piled up with stones and rubbish.

Having had success here we had a plan to go to the Wadi Seer for Mat to see Qasr al Abd (also known as or Iraq al Amir, which is the name of the nearest town); one of the most wonderful places in the region, and after a slight detour the plan worked. The building is such an amazing architectural statement – built by Hyrcanus, one of the Tobiad (a Hellenistic family) - clearly a demonstration of their wealth and status. The size of the limestone blocks is incredible (and clearly from the Greek tradition going back to the buildings at Mycenae – though this is much later). Unfortunately the size of the stone construction was also its downfall, as the next earthquake (in 365 AD) brought the stone blocks crashing down, not to be restored until the 20th century.

Qasr al Abd (near Iraq al Amir). Photographed by Bob Bewley

On Saturday David had been invited by the excavator and restorer of Qasr Hallabat (Dr Ignacio Arce) to accompany him and a few Italian visitors to visit the site. We tagged along, as did a few more Italian friends, so we were a party of almost 15. The site started life as a Roman fort (and possibly an earlier, Nabatean site too) and then developed – as the balance of power shifted - into a Christian church and then an Islamic centre of power and religion.

Ignacio then treated us to a rare and stimulating open-air lecture, on his version of the history of the region from the early Roman period, through the Ummayyad expansion and up to the Abassids (10th century AD. This tour de force introduced not only a wonderful overview of the reasons for the collapse of the Roman, Persian, Ottoman and British empires (it was the nomads…) but also new concepts to the barriers for a modern appreciation of new insights; hence the title of this page, the Limes Academicus. The barriers (Limes) being in the minds of scholars not seeing the importance, throughout both prehistory and the historical periods, of the social relations between the conquerors and conquered, between (especially in this region) nomadic tribes and the farmers in settled villages and towns. It wasn’t all about power and the economy but the long-term impact on the local, indigenous population too.

The other part of the title is not only because of the amazing work the Spanish and Jordanian teams have done on the reconstruction at Hallabat, but also at the nearby bath house, with the very appropriate name - the "Baths of the Desert" or Hamman as-Srah; where the dome has been reconstructed (on the inside) using a wonderful fluted design of wood. So unexpected and such quality but the sting in the tail is that project is in dire needs of extra funds to complete its work. If only there was a Heritage Lottery Fund in Jordan….

The restored fluted wooden dome of Hammam as-Srah. Photographed by Bob Bewley


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