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Ian Straughn

Islamic Archaeology

Archaeology and Religion

Islamic Landscapes

Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology



Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Brown University
Box 1837 / 60 George Street
Providence, RI 02912
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Akram F. Abed
April 4, 2007
Reading Response #3

The account of Naser-e Khosraw struck me as a travel guide. Instead of listing the accommodations, such as hotels or restaurants, it listed the urban centers and their level of protection against marauding “arabs”. Instead of discussing the nightlife and the quality of shopping, it discusses the life of the populace, primarily their socio-economic status and how they are treated by their ruler. It also struck me as an exaggerated account of life. I found myself questioning if a Sultan would really expend funds as easily, and for such ridiculous and lavish reasons, as Khosraw depicts. Could a palace really house thirty thousand individuals, such as that in the city of Cairo? But at this moment, one can begin to understand other motives for such literature; to raise the level of adoration for Cairo and cause others to desire a glimpse of the city for themselves. In explaining how the Sultan ran his domain, we are constantly told that no one is forced to do anything against their own will. Everything is bought fairly by the Sultan, such as the expensive buqalamun. Is this a rare approach in most other domains Khosraw has traversed? Do most of the subjects living in the Islamic empires face unbearable administrations? The introduction led me to believe that he was spiritually changed because of his pilgrimage to Mecca, but that he also felt politically safe in the Isma’ilis’ realm of Egypt. Although our condensed reading of his account never mentions this, I would assume this is also a call to other Isma’ilis, informing them of a safe haven if they needed one. In this way, the “travel guide” becomes a “brochure” handed out to prospective travelers.

His description of the less lavish Mecca and the ritual customs of Pilgrims on the Hajj were a stark contrast with our previous reading from the contemporary Hajj guide. Where the current guide emphasized the mental preparations that must be undertaken in order for the Hajj to be a success, Khosraw merely described the actions that were actually undertaken. He lay down no guidelines for the preparation of the Hajj. In an age where travel was much more time consuming and unquestionably more dangerous, the pilgrims seem to have assumed that their true intent, to undertake the Hajj, had been shown.

Elly Power
AE120 S12
April 6, 2007
Reading Response #3

Whitcomb’s article “The Darb Zubayda as a Settlement System in Arabia” focuses on the archaeological remnants of the Abbasid ‘palaces’ along the Darb Zubayda, the major pilgrimage route from Iraq to Mecca. The immediate use of this term ‘palaces,’ and the quotation marks adorning it, made me cautious of it and curious about the scholarship that assigned, and later rebuked, this term. Whitcomb seems opposed to using the term (hence the quotation marks), and must be doing so more out of a need for continuity of terminology in the field. He approaches the term head-on when discussing the architecture of these structures, saying that ‘palace’ “implies the accommodation of caliphs, princes, military elites and their entourages” (1996:28). Even more telling about the disfavor of this label is the use instead of “formal building complex” proposed by the surveyors. This description is remarkably meaningless – diplomats would be proud. It seems that these buildings, despite their regularity in form may be little understood. I may be overstating the problem here. I’m guessing that the use of the word ‘palace’ to describe these structures probably stemmed out of their original classification as part of some Orientalist endeavor. More recently, the problems inherent in using such a loaded term (which Whitcomb mentions) were probably noted, and a call was made for a new nomenclature. I searched through the footnotes for some reference to the history of ‘palaces’ to corroborate my hypothesis, but found nothing. There may indeed be a consensus about the function of these buildings and the practices that went on within them, but the history of the label applied to them has perhaps resulted in the overly vague ‘formal building complex.’

The history of a debate over at least the term applied to these structures that is so clear in Whitcomb’s paper made me curious about what could extrapolated about the function of the ‘palaces/formal building complexes’ from their archaeological remains. What is most immediately impressive about these buildings is the clear oversight of their construction – they were built over a short period of time with very similar plans. This was clearly a project organized by the Abbasids, responding to a need of such services for pilgrims undertaking the hajj. That it follows traditional routes is not surprising, but that 86 structures were newly built is quite a testament to the power of the Abbasids. These structures, with their rigorously ordered plans would have created a sense of urban space across the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. They must have appeared as strange transplants in an otherwise open landscape – though Whitcomb mentions one site with pre-Abbasid pottery, it was probably more likely that these buildings were the first major permanent buildings in an area otherwise frequented by nomads. With the main ‘palace’ structures was a local infrastructure of cisterns, small residences, and some agriculture and industry, as can be seen at al-Rabadha. Still, what exactly the main buildings were used for is not yet clear. If they do not follow the typical palatial forms of the Abbasids, what were they? In all likelihood the answer to this question is on pages 30 and 31 of Whitcomb’s article, which are missing from our PDF. Without this, I’ll have to rely on the last paragraph of the article and my own powers of deduction. It seems that these buildings were erected to serve the particular needs of pilgrims traveling from Iraq to Mecca. What they would have needed would be some form of oversight and protection, food and other goods, religious facilities (given the spirituality of their journey), and perhaps a place to rest. These needs would have required that the ‘palaces’ had a combination of administrative, religious, and commercial facilities. These stations along the Darb Zubayda were probably populated by a small community of administrators and other service staff, oriented around the economy of the pilgrims coming through. They must have been tethered to the government back through the route, and may have had little relation to the local nomads of the area (in fact, there may have been an antithetical relationship between these groups, with these buildings appearing somewhat fortified). This linear chain of stations isolated from their surroundings suggests the singular image of the Abbasids in regards to Arabia, with the greatest importance placed on Mecca and Medina. The impressive structures along the Darb Zubayda may not have been palaces in the proper sense, but they nevertheless would have presented a surprising injection of empire and urbanism into the now inconsequential (in the eyes of the Abbasids) lands of Arabia.