Multi-Disciplinary Approaches to the Islamic Period in Egypt and the Red Sea Coast

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Rationale of the research

This paper offers an introduction to research carried out by Japanese scholars in the area of northern Egypt, the point where the European, Asian and African continents converge (Figure 1). This research, which has been going on for a quarter of a century, has as its objective the understanding of one of the world's great cross-roads. This area has seen the exchange of goods, people and languages between the East and the West and between the North and the South. Contact between the North and the South, that is to say, Mesopotamia and Africa, was very close long before exchanges with Europe began. Contact between the East and the West has gradually expanded, so that in the Roman period the exchange zone spread from Spain to India. With the passage of time, the exchange zone enlarged until in the sixteenth century it included Japan.

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The vehicle of our research programme has been an interdisciplinary study of the dynamic society of Islamic Egypt, with the premise that the exchange of goods, people and languages are major factors in the formation and development of culture (Kawatoko 1983a, 1988, 1994b). In brief, the main themes are the history of East-West maritime relations, the transformation of material culture and daily life in Egypt and the Red Sea area, and the form and structure of the Islamic city. To this purpose we have conducted archaeological excavation and survey in collaboration with specialists in other fields, including human sciences (e.g. philology, cultural anthropology, linguistics and epigraphy) engineering (e.g. architecture and urban engineering) and the natural sciences (e.g. physical anthropology, botany, oceanography and analytic chemistry).

Our work hitherto has focused on two main areas: al-Fustat, an area within the modern metropolis of Cairo, and the Red Sea coast of the Sinai peninsula. Fustat was the greatest city in Egypt between the seventh and ninth centuries, and a great commercial centre between the tenth and fourteenth centuries. Here we have excavated two sites, one about 250m east of 'Amr Mosque (Figure 2) and the other about 15m east of the mosque. The Sinai coast has been the principal maritime connection between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean world since ancient times. In 1985 we carried out a survey in the south-west part of south Sinai (Figure 3) and selected some sites for further investigation. Here we conducted excavations at the port city of Raya (sixth-twelfth or thirteenth century) in the south-west part of the peninsula, the Monastery of Wadi al-Tur (sixth-twelfth century) and at al-Kilani, al-Tur (thirteenth century to the present). We have also conducted surveys of the Raya/al-Tur area, which is in the hinterland of the Monastery of Mt. Sinai (St. Catherine's Monastery). We have carried out work at other Red Sea sites including 'Aydhab (tenth-fifteenth century; Kawatoko 1993c), close to the border with Sudan, and Badi' (seventh-twelfth century; Kawatoko 1993b), close to the boundary with Eritrea in Sudan. In 2001 we started surveys of the rock inscriptions in Najran and al-Madina of Saudi Arabia, and in the winter of 2003 we began an excavation at the al-Jar port site in Saudi Arabia. Our work also includes anthropological studies of the Bedouin.

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Our aim is to make an integrated study of medieval society, considering the role of the city, the monastery and the trade and pilgrimage routes, and the trilateral structure provided by the Orthodox Christians, the Muslims and the Bedouin. This paper offers a brief account of our multi-disciplinary approach and some of its conclusions to date, presented in an approximately chronological order.

Excavations at al-Fustat

Since 1978 the expedition team of Waseda University (later joined with the Idemitsu Museum of Arts and the Middle Eastern Culture Center in Japan) has conducted eight seasons of excavation at al-Fustat (Sakurai & Kawatoko 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1984, 1986, 1987; Kawatoko 1983b, 1987; Sakurai & Kawatoko (ed. …