OLESON John et FOOTE Rebecca


The Max van Berchem Foundation awarded grants in July 1994 and 1996 to assist with the excavation of an early eighth-century qasr and masjid in Field F103 at Humeima (Jordan). Support of the Foundation was crucial for our success, and we are very grateful for the awards.
Two structures had been identified during the 1992 and 1993 seasons in Field: a large rectangular structure (61 x 50 m) centered around a trapezoidal court; a small rhomboidal structure with bonded niche on the south side, located just southeast of the rectangular structure. Ceramic evidence indicated that both were erected in the early eighth century C.E. and therefore probably in association with one another. The rectangular structure was labeled a qasr and the rhomboidal one a mosque because of typological similarities to other Umayyad-period qusur with extra mural mosques (al-Hallabat, Jabal Seis, Qastal, al-Risha, Umm al-Walid and al-Zabib). Since historical texts relate that the Abbasid family built a qasr and masjid at Humeima during the Umayyad period, in the decades before their rise to power, and given the absence of any other pertinent structures at Humeima, the complex was attributed to the Abbasid family (Akhbar ad-Dawla al-Abbasiyya 1971: 107, 108, 149, 154, 195; al-Bakri 1945-51: 130).



plan of qasr and masjid

J. Oleson and R. Foote. Humeima : plan of qasr and masjid

The 1995-96 Seasons

In 1995, we discovered the entrance to the qasr on the east, just to the south of the central east-west axis of the building, inset from the line of the east exterior wall (Fig. 2, page 4). The perimeter wall of the qasr lacks towers; this feature, along with the recessed entry way mark distinct departures from the plans of other eighth-century qusur in Bilad ash-Sham. It has traditionally been argued that the other qusur were built on local Byzantine models. The qasr at Humeima may instead correlate with building traditions from the Arabian Peninsula which the Abbasids brought with them when they immigrated from Ta'if. Alternatively, the south of Jordan may simply have escaped Byzantine influences prominent further north.
Also in 1995, a post-reform, silver dirham was unearthed just outside the qasr entrance. Struck in Wasit in the year 115H/733-4 C.E. it is a well-known issue of common circulation in the 730s (Walker, 1956, pp. 1xi-1xvii, xcii, 104-05, 197; Broome, 1985, pp.8-11). The coin not only further supports the early eighth-century date for the qasr but also signals the participation of southern Jordan in the contemporary inter-regional economy.


ivory panel with figure

J. Oleson and R. Foote. Humeima : ivory panel with figure

During both seasons excavation continued in a central room in the western wing of the qasr where frescoes had already been discovered. The results show that the room was originally decorated with a fresco, executed in fresco secco technique, probably as a solid red wash dado below an expanse of non-figural patterning. As a result of fire, the patterned plaster collapsed into fragments onto the white plastered floor, among debris of mudbrick and burnt palm wood of the superstructure. Although much of the fresco was damaged by the fire, we have recovered significant remains of the mostly vegetal, floral and geometric designs, many set within pearl-beaded rectangular bands. A wide range of colors was used.


ivory panel

J. Oleson and R. Foote. Humeima : ivory panel with figure

Thousands of ivory fragments were also recovered from the "fresco-room", derived from long, narrow, thin sheets of the material (L 30 cm. W 10 cm, Th. 03-05 cm. Enough has been assembled of several panels to identify the subjects. The largest, now about 90% complete, depicts a male figure standing frontal, his head in profile, and wearing military headgear; he holds a long rod or spear shaft diagonally in front with both. The design was carved in a vigorous, rounded style. Smaller panels bear relief scenes involving fish and birds. The small holes drilled through each of these thin panels and the large amounts of charred pine and iron found in context, suggest the panels served as veneer assembled by iron fasteners to wooden furniture. Stylistic considerations suggest Persian, Indian, Chinese or Sogdian origin, though no specific parallels have been identified.
Twenty-one new squares were opened in the qasr during the 1995 and 1996 seasons. Almost every new room revealed its own unique dimensions and evidence for vaulting, fenestration, and doors. No bayt module was determined. We have now also found evidence for three later phases of occupation, two of them involving squatters. During the latest phase, of the Ottoman period, there was significant reorganization of most rooms and the courtyard. Since this activity included removal of the initial occupational deposits, it is difficult to determine the original functions of many rooms.


map of site

J. Oleson and R. Foote. Humeima : map of site

The mosque was the object of systematic excavation in 1995. Small and rhomboidal with bonded mihrab, the qibla is oriented due south. Foundation pottery collected beneath the entire area of the mosque floor supports the eighth-century date conjectured from 1993 probes. Only three wall courses of the original, eighth-century mosque are still extant, and the upper courses of walls, arch and springers part of a later rebuild. In order to restore the mosque more closely to its original character, we removed a late extension of the south wall which impinged the mihrab and opened the blocked original door on the north. We also consolidated the walls, arch, and mihrab with a mortar of lime and local sand that is reversible and blends well with the original mud.


view of qasr and mosque

J. Oleson and R. Foote. Humeima : view of qasr and mosque after removal of spoil heaps

The removal of drifted fill outside the eighth-century mosque exposed other, later walls with only one course extant. Square walled areas we tentatively termed "pens" extend east and west of the original mosque, with their walls laid half a course higher than those of the mosque and abutting them, indicating a second, later phase. To the southwest there was a surprising and somewhat perplexing discovery: a second mosque. It is rectangular, the south wall of the west "pen" functions as its north wall, and, curiously, its east wall was built to abut the mihrab of the original mosque, thereby creating a convex northeast corner for the later mosque. Traces of its damaged mihrab were found along its south wall. Because the east wall clearly abuts the original mihrab and the west wall abuts the west "pen" this mosque is a yet later, third phase of building in the mosque environs. There are not distinguishable doorways between the original mosque and later additions. Foundation pottery for both the "pens" and later mosque was scant and inconclusive, so absolute dates are undetermined. Nonetheless, the second mosque is suspected to parallel the significant remodeling phase inside the qasr dating to the Ottoman period.

al-Bakri, Abu Ubayd. Mujam ma Istajam min Asm al-Buldn wa al-Maw. ed. Mustafa al-Saqa. Cairo, 1945-51.
Broome, M. A Handbook of Islamic Coins. London, 1985.
al-Duri, Abd al-Aziz, and al-Mutallabi, Abd al-Jabbar, eds. Akhbr ad-Dawla al-Abbsiya. Beirut, 1971.
Walker, J. A Catalogue of the Arab-Byzantine and Post-Reform Umaiyad Coins. Oxford, 1956.