Three Cemeteries and a Byzantine Church: A Ritual Landscape at Yasieleh, Jordan

By Al-Shorman, Abdulla | Antiquity, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Three Cemeteries and a Byzantine Church: A Ritual Landscape at Yasieleh, Jordan


Al-Shorman, Abdulla, Antiquity


Introduction

The Byzantine period in Jordan can be taken to run from AD 324 when Constantine defeated his rival Licinius and gained control over the eastern empire (Sauer 1973), until AD 634 when the Moslem forces annexed it. During the Byzantine Period, all of the major cities of the Roman era continued to flourish, but Christianity spread and churches and chapels began to spring up, especially during the reign of Emperor Justinian (AD 527-565). There were of course setbacks: plague in 542 (Conrad 1981, 1986), earthquakes (Russel 1985; Amiran et al. 1994), and the Sassanians who had invaded Persia and Iraq during the early third century and who had a strong negative impact on the Jordanian population (Parker 1999).

Many ethnic groups inhabited Jordan and Palestine during the Byzantine period, such as Arabs, Aramaics and Greeks. The ethnic and linguistic diversity was paralleled by religious diversity and included Judaism, Samaritanism, Christianity and paganism. Such intellectual diversity, as well as the varied landscapes and climate of Jordan (Piccirillo 1985) created some regionalism in the area (Meyers et al. 1976; 1981). But all of these ethnic groups were ruled by the Christian Byzantines and employed by them in building churches. The Arab Ghassanids, for example, were employed to build and design many of the churches and their names still appear on the mosaic floor of several churches, such as the church of Ya'amoun excavated by Jerome Rose in 1999. Whatever the ethnic group that inhabited the area during the Byzantine period, Byzantine culture dominated over them and left its imprint until today.

Landscape and societies

Landscape as defined by Knapp and Ashmore (1999) is the "backdrop against which archaeological remains are plotted. It provides resources, refuge and risks that impel and impact on human actions and situations. It is an entity that exists by virtue of its being perceived, experienced, and contextualised by people". Through landscape, we can interpret societies. Besides being a metaphor for people's actions; landscape also plays a significant role in cultural relations (Ashmore 1991; Lyton 1995; Schmidt 1997). Landscape has long been known as an active component in our experience (Alcock 1993, 1994; Alcock & Osborne 1994; Edlund 1987; de Polignac 1991, 1994; Tilley 1994), and we shape, modify and invest in it mainly through architecture.

The investigation of the relationship between landscape and its associated architecture also has the potential to draw out a picture of cult practice (Steinspar 1999). For example, at Chaco Canyon, USA, Stein and Lekson (1992) argued that concepts expressed in architecture at site level reflected the organisation of communities, and were replicated in the Chacoan landscape as a whole. Following the same concept, this paper employs landscape and the associated architecture in one of the Byzantine sites in north Jordan to throw light on the social organisation of that community.

The Byzantine site Yasieleh and its landscape

Archaeological sites of the Byzantine period in Jordan can be divided into two major categories: villages fortified by enclosures or built near military installations, mainly founded in the plain, and agricultural villages founded on fertile landscapes and close to water resources (Piccirillo 1985). Their location was influenced by those of previous Roman cities, and by proximity to water, their principal rationale being agricultural (Al-Shorman 2002). The site of Yasieleh, located 9 km east of the city of Irbid and occupied from the Late Roman to the beginning of the Islamic Period (Al-Muheisen 1991), provides a useful example of a Byzantine landscape. The presence of many water reservoirs, many irrigation canals, and a dam indicates a tremendous amount of rain fall during the occupation period. Because of these favourable climate conditions; moister than today (Shehadeh 1985; Koucky 1987; Rehav 1989; Kuniholm 1990), agriculture productivity could have been on a very large scale. …

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