Hegira 1st century / AD mid-7th century
The Islamic city of Ayla is located in the centre of Aqaba, Jordan's port which lies at the northeastern corner of the Gulf of Aqaba, an extension of the Red Sea. In the Byzantine period when Christianity became the official religion of the Eastern Roman Empire, the city became a station for pilgrims on their way to Mount Sinai. Its bishops attended the Church Councils of Nicaea (AD 325), Chalcedon (AD 451) and Constantinople (AD 536). It is also reported that the architect in charge of building the monastery of St Catherine at Mount Sinai in the middle of the 6th century AD was Stephanos from Aila (the Roman-Byzantine name as distinct from Islamic Ayla).
Among the Byzantine structures uncovered in the course of recent excavations are the city wall and a church dating to the late AD 3rd–early 4th century. The wall built of stone and standing over 3 m in height, can be traced for over 125 m. North of the city wall is a monumental mud-brick building identified as a church; it measures about 28 m x 24 m. If this identification and dating is correct it will certainly be the earliest church built not only in Jordan, but also in the entire Holy Land.
Excavations between 1986 and 1993, uncovered an AH 1st- / 7th-century Muslim settlement to the south of the Byzantine city which had been enclosed by a stone wall measuring 165 m x 140 m. The wall, 2.60 m thick and preserved to a height of 4.50 m, had a series of U-shaped towers with a single gate pierced in the centre of each wall and flanked by semi-circular towers. Behind the gates ran straight streets that intersected in the centre thus dividing the city into four quadrants. The point of intersection was marked by a tetrapylon (a four-way arch); this structure was transformed into a luxurious residential building decorated with frescoes in the second half of the AH 4th / AD 10th century. A rectangular mosque measuring roughly 55 m x 35 m occupied the northeast quadrant. (The northeastern extremity cut off by a drainage wadi).
The sanctuary consists of two aisles (riwaqs) formed by two arcades running parallel to the qibla wall. On the other three sides of the courtyard is a series of one-bay deep riwaqs. In the centre of the southeastern wall there was once a deep niche, (mihrab) which indicates the qibla (or direction of prayer). After the AH 2nd / AD mid-8th century the mosque was enlarged and a new suq (market) was constructed outside the southwest wall facing the sea.
At the turn of the AH 5th / AD 11th century, Ayla was in decline and when Baldwin I (r. 1100–18), king of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem, arrived with 200 knights in AH 509 / AD 1116 the inhabitants could offer no serious resistance. In the course of the AH 6th / AD 12th century the walled town was abandoned and a new settlement sprang up further south, near the present late Mamluk castle.
The orthogonal plan of Ayla strongly recalls the legionary camps of the Roman period, for example that of Lajjun and Udhruh in southern Jordan. Such a camp also existed in the late Roman town of Aila to accommodate the Legio X Fretensis one of the Roman legions, which in around AD 300, was transferred from Jerusalem. This camp may have served as a model for the early Islamic Ayla.
The plan of Ayla provides a rare example of an early Islamic town and sheds light on the organisation of the camp-towns (amsar) founded by the Arab Muslims to serve as springboards for further campaigns and territorial expansion. Unfortunately, there is no direct evidence for the plan and layout of these amsar; what is known about them comes largely from historical sources which suggest more regular planning than has been hitherto thought.
Ayla is in the centre of Aqaba, Jordan’s port at the northeastern tip of the Red Sea. A walled Muslim settlement from the AH 1st / AD 7th century lies to the south of an older Byzantine city. Behind its gates ran straight streets that intersected in the centre. Ayla’s orthogonal plan recalls the Roman legionary camps and sheds light on the organisation of the camp-towns (amsar) founded by the Arab Muslims to serve as springboards for further expansion. By the turn of the 5th / 11th century, Ayla was in decline and was abandoned by the 6th / 12th century. A later settlement was founded further south.
The monument has been dated with the help of historical sources and archaeological excavations where pre-Umayyad ceramics have been recovered.
غواتمة ، يوسف درويش ، أيلة ( العقبة ) و البحر الأحمر ، اربد ، 1984.
Parker, S. T., “An Early Church: Perhaps the Oldest in the World Found at Aqaba”, Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 61, no. 4, 1998, p.245.
Parker, S. T., “The Roman Aqaba Project: the 1997 and 1998 campaigns”, Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, XLIV, 2000, pp.373–94.
Whitcomb, D., Ayla: Art and Industry in the Islamic Port of Aqaba, Chicago, 1994.
Whitcomb, D., “The Misr of Ayla: Settlement at al-Aqaba in the Early Islamic period”, in King, G. and Cameron, A., (eds) The Byzantine and Early Islamic Near East II: Land Use and Settlement Patterns, NJ, 1994, pp.155–70.
Ghazi Bisheh "Ayla (Aqaba)" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2023. 2023. https://islamicart.museumwnf.org/database_item.php?id=monument;ISL;jo;Mon01;12;en
Prepared by: Ghazi BishehGhazi Bisheh
Ghazi Bisheh is an archaeologist and former Director General of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan. He studied archaeology at the University of Jordan, and history of Islamic art and architecture at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, from where he holds his Ph.D. He was affiliated to the Department of Antiquities of Jordan for most of the period between 1980 and 1999, and was its Director General twice (1988–91 and 1995–9). He was also an associate professor of archaeology at Yarmouk University during the early 1990s. He is the author of numerous publications, including The Umayyads: The Rise of Islamic Art (Brussels: Museum With No Frontiers, 2000), of which he is a co-author. He has carried out excavation work both inside and outside Jordan in sites such as Qasr al-Hallabat, Madaba, Carthage and Bahrain. He is a member of the German Archaeological Institute and is the Deputy Director of the International Council of Museums for the Arab countries.
Copyedited by: Mandi GomezMandi Gomez
Amanda Gomez is a freelance copy-editor and proofreader working in London. She studied Art History and Literature at Essex University (1986–89) and received her MA (Area Studies Africa: Art, Literature, African Thought) from SOAS in 1990. She worked as an editorial assistant for the independent publisher Bellew Publishing (1991–94) and studied at Bookhouse and the London College of Printing on day release. She was publications officer at the Museum of London until 2000 and then took a role at Art Books International, where she worked on projects for independent publishers and arts institutions that included MWNF’s English-language editions of the books series Islamic Art in the Mediterranean. She was part of the editorial team for further MWNF iterations: Discover Islamic Art in the Mediterranean Virtual Museum and the illustrated volume Discover Islamic Art in the Mediterranean.
True to its ethos of connecting people through the arts, MWNF has provided Amanda with valuable opportunities for discovery and learning, increased her editorial experience, and connected her with publishers and institutions all over the world. More recently, the projects she has worked on include MWNF’s Sharing History Virtual Museum and Exhibition series, Vitra Design Museum’s Victor Papanek and Objects of Desire, and Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s online publication 2 or 3 Tigers and its volume Race, Nation, Class.
MWNF Working Number: JO 12
Islamic Dynasties / Period
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