Nov. 10, 1994
Vol. 15, No. 6

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    Unearthing an early Islamic seaport: Exhibit of the art and industry of medieval Ayla

    s Artifacts from one of Islam's earliest cities are on display in the exhibition "Ayla: Art and Industry in the Early Islamic Port of Aqaba," which opened this week and continues through Sunday, Feb. 12, at the Oriental Institute Museum.

    The material for the exhibition -- including pottery, ivory reliefs and coins -- was recovered at the site of Ayla, a medieval seaport that lay buried under a beach in modern Aqaba, Jordan, until it was unearthed by Donald Whitcomb, Research Associate in the Oriental Institute.

    "Ayla was one of a series of cities founded directly after the Muslim conquest," Whitcomb said. "As such, it is a rare example of the earliest Islamic cities and illustrates the beginning of the development of Islamic civilization."

    The city was founded about 650 A.D., and it remained an important port until it was heavily damaged by an earthquake in 1068.

    The trading heritage of the city is illustrated through artifacts on display at the exhibition. The archaeological site, which has become a thriving tourist venue for Aqaba, is illustrated through photographs and drawings.

    Whitcomb initiated the search for the city after reading accounts of Ayla, including one written in 1914 by T.E. Lawrence, an archaeologist who became known as Lawrence of Arabia as a result of his military exploits during World War I.

    When Whitcomb first looked for traces of the ancient city, he found a few broken pieces of pottery on the surface of the beach. After digging test borings into the sand in 1986, he realized that a rich site lay beneath the surface. Whitcomb determined that the city was rectangular in shape and was surrounded by a wall with watch towers and four entrance gates.

    During successive seasons, Whitcomb has unearthed artifacts that have revealed the importance of the city:

    _ Besides being close to the sea, the city was blessed with fresh water. Although surrounded by desert, medieval Ayla was, like modern Aqaba, an oasis.

    _ As illustrated by a hoard of gold coins discovered by Whitcomb's team in 1992, the city was a stop along the pilgrimage route to Mecca from places as far away as Morocco.

    _ Ayla became a center for religious studies in the eighth and ninth centuries, and its mosque, excavated in 1993, played an important role in the study of religious and legal issues.

    When the mosque was excavated, a second hoard of gold coins was discovered in its floor. A selection of coins is included in the exhibition.

    For museum hours and information about other exhibitions and activities at the Oriental Institute Museum, see the Continuing section of the Calendar, page 6.