In February 2018 we carried out a three-week excavation season at Khirbet al-Kerak/Tel Bet Yerah, now securely identified with Ṣinnabra, perhaps the earliest qasr (Caliphal estate) of the Umayyad dynasty. The excavation was accompanied by an intensive archival survey and ground-truthing of previous documentation, both necessitated by a long history of ground-level and subsurface interventions by the National Parks Authority and the Kinneret cemetery groundskeepers that had to be disentangled from the ancient remains. As we noted in our initial request, the poor preservation of the buildings, at foundation level only, compounded by the inadequate methods of the early excavation and later interventions, meant that any surviving remains would have to be sought in previously untouched areas, north of the fortified compound. This was also identified as the possible location of the palace mosque.
The results of our excavation are extremely promising: after removing invasive vegetation, intrusive backfills and random elements placed by groundskeepers in the 1960s-1980s, the new excavations found evidence for a large paved court extending north of the fortified enclosure, dated by coins to the 7th century CE. Just beneath its surface, the tops of at least two rows of large pillar bases, each of them over one meter in diameter, made of stone-and-mortar concrete and placed at regular intervals, point to the existence of a large hypostyle hall, similar in conception to the halls of contemporary mosques in nearby Tiberias and in Damascus. The court and hall were clearly planned and built in concert with the main enclosure, sharing its building style and aligned with its main architectural features. Further excavation is required to establish the breadth and depth of the hall, and to determine whether it can be securely identified as the ‘missing’ mosque.
A three-week season of excavations was conducted at al-Sinnabra, under the joint direction of Drs Tawfiq Da’adli (Hebrew University), Donald Whitcomb (University of Chicago) and Raphael Greenberg (Tel Aviv University), and with the participation of Alon Arad (field supervisor), Veronica Morriss (asst. supervisor and phographer), Slava Pirsky (surveyor), Sasha Flit (photographer), and workers from Sakhnin and Shefa‘amr. Our work was coordinated with the Israel Antiquities Authority and National Parks Authority, who have begun conservation work at the site, and with the managers of the Ohalo Manor hotel and the Kinneret cemetery, which border the site.
In our proposal for this excavation we pointed to two lacunae in our knowledge of the qasr, at least one of which may have begun to be filled after the first excavation season. The proposal included this paragraph:
“With the interior of the palace and its southern façade cleared in its entirety, the absence of a mosque is striking. Mosques were a regular feature in Umayyad palaces such as in Khirbat al-Mafjar and Khirbat al-Minya, if we just consider the palaces on the Jordan valley and on the shore of the Tabariyya lake (Creswell 1989; Ettinghausen, Grabar and Jenkins-Madina 2003). Since the Ṣinnabra palace shows ample evidence for piecemeal, modular construction, with rooms added to the central basilica and the bathhouse built after the fortification, it is likely that the mosque was attached to the palace on one of its unexcavated sides. The most likely candidate is the northern side, where a narrow trench excavated between the citadel and the church to its north revealed an ashlar stairway leading to a raised platform at the northwest corner of the fortified enceinte. The area was never excavated, beyond the confines of the trench, but was partly covered by the excavation dumps. Additional structures cut by the trench might be palace outbuildings.”
Moreover, in our recent report, Bet Yeraḥ III: Hellenistic Philoteria and Islamic al-Sinnabra, we recount confirmations that the Caliph Mu'awiya spent winters and preached in Sinnabra, presumably in its mosque (Da’adli 2017, 126). If the "fortified palace" may be taken as the dar al-imara for this community, one may expect the mosque should be located immediately to its north, following patterns of many early Islamic cities.
The new excavations of February 2018 were intended to explore this possibility, i.e. to search for the mosque of Mu’awiya, datable to the later 7th century. After almost three weeks of near frustration, due to the disturbed conditions of the site caused by the deposition of dumps and excavation backfill, the excavation of ditches and other recent interventions, we began to piece together information from six separate excavation trenches in the western part of the northern façade and from archival information gathered during our stay in the region, indicating that a broad, plaster-and-gravel paved court which we had been excavating was indeed part of the original palace complex. This led to the opening of the final, westernmost trench, which provided startling confirmation of the possibility that we may have located the mosque.
The large paved court revealed in the new excavations, extending north of the fortified enclosure, is securely dated by coins to the 7th century CE. In its eastern half, just beneath its surface, the tops of two rows of large (> 1 m in diameter) pillar bases made of stone-and-mortar concrete and placed at regular intervals (fig.1), point to the existence of a large hypostyle hall, similar in conception to the halls of contemporary mosques in nearby Tiberias (Cytryn 2009) and in Damascus.
Fig.1. The column bases, looking east.
The description of that mosque is best expressed in the words of its excavator:
“It was of a modest size, ca. 48 x 21m, 7 by 11 aisles, separated by columns in secondary use, erected over rustic round foundations, cast into a deep fill, a technique introduced into Palestine after the Muslim conquest." (Cytryn-Silverman 2015, 207)
These column foundations are of the same type as those at Sinnabra, and have the same dimensions. Perhaps a better impression of such column foundations may be seen from examples excavated in the early Islamic mosque at Aqaba (then known as Ayla). What is more interesting among these examples is that the size of these mosques is closely comparable: Tabariyya, 48 x 21; Aqaba, ~50 x 31; and Anjar, 49 x 32. While the interval between columns seems comparable among these mosques and the bases at Sinnabra, there is no evidence for the dimensions of this latter structure (fig.2).
Fig.2. The trenches of February 2018 from west to east: stairway, gravel courtyard and the column bases.
The second lacuna cited in our proposal was the dearth of artifacts that could be associated with the palace. In this case, the results of the new excavations actually confirmed the results of earlier work: there are indeed remarkably few finds in the palace complex, which seems to have been stripped clean at the time of its abandonment, presumably in the 8th century CE. A handful of ceramic fragments and five coins – four of them from the courtyard and hall and one from the re-excavation of the northwestern tower of the palace enclosure (Tower 4, fig.3) – can all be associated with the 7th and early 8th century occupation (fig.4).
Fig.3. Arabo-Byzantine 7th century coins.
The palace of Al-Sinnabra forms a part of the Tel Bet Yerah National Park, which also includes the remains of a Byzantine-period church (of the 6th century CE) and the monumental ‘Granary’ of the Early Bronze Age city of Bet Yerah (c. 2900 BCE). All three structures are included in a new conservation project launched jointly by the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Nature and National Parks Authority, with the intention of making the site accessible to visitors by 2019, after decades of neglect.
Fig.4. Stairway attached to Tower 4.
In February, while the excavation was in session, a team of conservators launched the maintenance project, which is still ongoing. Among other things, they have brought to light some forgotten corners of the site, including the Umayyad bathhouse and parts of the palace itself. Hence, we would like to emphasize that – thanks to the generous support of the Max van Berchem foundation – not only is new important evidence being added to our understanding of early Umayyad palaces, but a synergy has been created between new research and the renovation of the archaeological park. This, if we may add, is part of our vision concerning archaeological sites as purveyors of a rich heritage associated with the many different cultures that have left their footprint in the land.
Dr Tawfiq Daʿadli
Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies and Art History
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
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