An Introduction to Islamic Archaeology

An Introduction to Islamic Archaeology

An Introduction to Islamic Archaeology

An Introduction to Islamic Archaeology

Synopsis

This introduction to the archaeology of the Islamic world traces the history of the discipline from its earliest manifestations through to the present and evaluates the contribution made by archaeology to the understanding of key aspects of Islamic culture. The author argues that it is essential for the results of archaeological research to be more fully integrated into the wider historical study of the Islamic world. His organisation of the book into broad themes allows a focus on issues that are relevant across different regions and periods, and the broad geographical scope reflects the main focus of archaeological work in the Islamic world to the present day.

Excerpt

We dug out a well in the region of the Banu Wurayq. We were unaware of anything
(exceptional) existing in it until we noticed the mark of old excavations, which
informed us that the place had been dug out at some previous date. Our excavations
led us to a huge rock. Turning it over, we found underneath the corpse of a man in a
sitting posture and looking so unlike the dead that one would think he was engaged
in conversation. Above his head we found the following inscription: ‘I am Qidir ibn
Isma‘il ibn Ibrahim, the friend of the Compassionate God. From among a people
whose king is unbelieving I fled carrying the torch of the true faith. I testify that
there is no god but Allah; I associate none with Him and turn to no other than Him
for help.’ Thereupon we restored the place to its former condition.

Attributed to one Salim al-A‘raj, this report is contained within a collection of anecdotes about the antiquities of southern Arabia entitled al-Iklil and written by Hasan ibn Ahmad al-Hamdani (d. 945). in this description of the discovery of a male burial during the digging of a well, the excavators are startled by the pose of the body – standard Muslim practice would require a supine position with the head turned towards the qibla – although the inscription above the dead man’s head, with its profession of the oneness of God (shahada), evidently persuades them to leave him undisturbed and, presumably, to sink the well at a different location. This brief account is interesting for the ‘archaeological’ approach apparently adopted by the excavators: first, they are alerted to something unusual by the signs of earlier digging into the soil; second, they note the strange arrangement of the corpse; and, third, they decipher an inscription as a means to come to a conclusion concerning the confessional allegiance of the dead man.

The surviving parts of al-Iklil abound in descriptions of the exhumation of ancient tombs, often providing entertaining observations about the remarkable preservation of bodies, the clothing of the corpses, the precious artefacts, and the associated inscriptions. Al-Hamdani also gives accounts of famous monuments of southern Arabia, including the massive Ma‘rib dam, parts of which survive to the present, and the lost palace of Ghumdan. He was not the only Islamic author to be intrigued by the material record of pre-Islamic Arabia (known by Muslims as the jahiliyya, or ‘time of ignorance’); for instance, the Kitab al-Asnam of Hisham ibn al-Kalbi (d. 821–22) contains numerous descriptions of idol stones . . .

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