Jordan and the Administrative Legacy of the Umayyads

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The Umayyad desert complex of Qusayra ‘Amra, one of Jordan’s famous “desert castles” (qusur), dated to the eighth century CE. Photo by Tareq Ramdan
The Umayyad desert complex of Qusayra ‘Amra, one of Jordan’s famous “desert castles” (qusur), dated to the eighth century CE. Photo by Tareq Ramdan

At the crossroads of numerous, sometimes overlapping and intersecting empires and civilizations, Jordan has become the final resting place for a dizzying array of historical and archaeological treasures. While dotted by the better-known and oft-studied sites from the classical period, Jordan is also home to some of the most unique buildings, monuments, sites, complexes, and material culture associated with the comparatively understudied early Islamic period.

The Umayyads (661–750 CE), the first ever Arab-Muslim political dynasty, enjoyed a steadily growing presence in the Levant beginning in the late 630s. Muawiya ibn Abu Sufyan (an Umayyad relative of Uthman ibn ‘Affan, the third political successor of Prophet Muhammad) became governor of Syria in 639, setting the stage for a large-scale Umayyad takeover of the region some two decades later. While the Umayyad Empire reached the borders of India in the east and penetrated deep into Spain in the west, its political epicenter remained in Greater Syria (with its capital at Damascus), which of course included significant portions of what is today Jordan.

During this highly transitional period in Late Antiquity, all of the territory that today constitutes modern Jordan was entirely integrated into the Umayyad Caliphate by the latter half of the seventh century. Straddling three of the first four Umayyad ‘ajnaad (singular jund), or military-territorial delineations crafted by its military and bureaucratic elites, Jordan’s geography makes it an invaluable asset towards understanding Umayyad political, economic, religious, and cultural orientations over time and space.

From Jerash to Quweilbah (Abila), from Amman to the beautifully haunting basalt desert to the east, and from Karak province to ancient Aylah in modern-day Aqaba, the Umayyads molded and manipulated both the physical and political landscape in ways they felt would be most conducive to constructing and maintaining power. Part of establishing their authority in the newly conquered territories, where they remained a small statistical minority for the entirety of their rule, hinged upon forming an efficient system of government, a process that, some argue, culminated with the standardization of currency, weights and measurements, and the propagation of standardized Islamic religious formulae as part of the state’s public, visual culture.

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As a testament to their power, Umayyad governments produced a rather extensive body of administrative objects, many of which bore epigraphic and iconographic elements, as a means to relay and sometimes proliferate certain political ideals and messages to their constituents. These instruments, many of which often had wide-reaching capabilities, included coins, seals, weights, and other durable materials bearing the signature of the state and which fortunately exist in rather large quantities in Jordan.

Left: Umayyad gold dinar stuck in the first half of the eighth century CE. (Collection of the Jordan Museum, Amman.) Right: Umayyad lead seal bearing lengthy Arabic inscription. (Collection of the Jordan National Bank Numismatic Museum, Amman) Photos by Tareq Ramadan.
Left: Umayyad gold dinar stuck in the first half of the eighth century CE. (Collection of the Jordan Museum, Amman.) Right: Umayyad lead seal bearing lengthy Arabic inscription. (Collection of the Jordan National Bank Numismatic Museum, Amman.) Photos by Tareq Ramadan.

While a large post-Umayyad body of history exists today in various forms, no internal histories of the Umayyads are known and the unfortunate reality is that the materials that do exist tend to be ripe with bias, often conveying strong anti-Umayyad sentiments. Therefore it has become challenging to reconstruct details of the Umayyad state’s (changing) religio-political character over nearly nine decades. However, with the increasing availability of archaeological, numismatic, epigraphic, and documentary materials, we may be able to write a more objective political narrative than the one provided for them by their many enemies, which, for centuries, was used to define the parameters of Umayyad historiography.

Fortunately, the archaeological record testifies to both the early and later state’s reach and, potentially, the evolution of its policies and it is this that I am most fascinated with. This task may be impossible without the role of Jordanian museums in preserving and highlighting these durable, often highly epigraphic materials. It is from the museum storage rooms and display cases at places like Dar as-Saraya and Yarmouk University’s Numismatic Hall in Irbid, and the Jordan Museum and the Jordan National Bank Numismatic Museum in Amman, that the whispers of the caliph and his bureaucrats can be heard from the distant Umayyad past.

These objects, in many ways, constitute expressions of Umayyad political identity and political culture and are densely packed with important linguistic, documentary, cultural, historical, and sometimes religious and economic data—all of which are collectively and continuously shaping our perceptions and understandings of this highly transitional period in Late Antiquity. Thus far, my work in Jordan has taken me to several Umayyad-era sites including the magnificent qusur such as al-Tuba, ‘Amra, and Kharaneh, while also spending hours in Jordan’s various museums photographing and documenting the inscribed material culture associated with the Umayyad state. These have included gold dinars bearing Islamic (hijra) dates, large bullae with lengthy inscriptions possibly used to secure important administrative documents, small cupped lead seals with short religious inscriptions, as well as copper coins found mostly in northwestern Jordan bearing both dates and the places where they were minted—Dimashq (Damascus), Iliya (Jerusalem), al-Ramla (Ramleh), and Tabariyya (Tiberias).

ACOR fellow Tareq Ramadan recording information about Umayyad coins, bullae, and other administrative objects held in the Jordan Museum. Photo courtesy Tareq Ramadan.
ACOR fellow Tareq Ramadan recording information about Umayyad coins, bullae, and other administrative objects held in the Jordan Museum. Photo by Jihad Kafafi.

Jordan’s rich Umayyad cultural heritage as well as its geographically privileged position as a region that intersected the military provincial divisions of Jund Filastin (Palestine), Jund al-Urdun (Jordan), and Jund Dimashq (Damascus) make it an ideal place to study Umayyad administrative material culture. Ultimately, I seek to reconstruct various aspects of Umayyad state formation and particularly its political and economic policies between 640–750 CE in Bilad al-Shamm (Greater Syria) through an analysis and interpretation of the numismatic and paranumismatic materials produced under their rule. This also includes documenting each object’s archaeological provenance as a way to understand the geographic parameters, popularity, and political reach of Umayyad rule. It is my hope that the icono-textual information derived from the coins, seals, weights, and other related objects will be crucial towards unraveling the administrative and bureaucratic policies of the Umayyad caliphs, as it is in this capacity that they could have expressed their positions most unambiguously.

Written by Tareq Ramadan

Tareq Ramadan is an ACOR-CAORC Pre-Doctoral Fellow for 2014–15 and a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at Wayne State University in Michigan. His research focuses on reconstructing the political, administrative, and economic culture of the Umayyads through their coins, seals, weights, documents, and other inscribed objects. He was previously awarded a Bert and Sally de Vries Fellowship in 2013, as well as a Jennifer C. Groot Memorial Fellowship in 2012. Read an informal biography of Tareq Ramadan on the ACOR website.

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