Southern Jordan’s Medieval Copper Industry

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Ian W. N. Jones was an ACOR-CAORC Fellow, Fall 2017.  He is a Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology at the University of California, San Diego. He writes below about his research into copper production in the Feynan region during the Ayyubid period (late 12th to mid 13th century).

The Faynan region as seen from the plateau near Juhayr, south of Shawbak. Photo courtesy of I.W.N. Jones.

It is a little ironic that southern Jordan’s Faynan district, now an ecotourism destination, was once among the most important industrial regions in the Levant. It is well known among archaeologists and historians for its early extractive copper metallurgy in the Early Bronze Age, as a massive copper production center during the Iron Age, and as the Roman imperial metallum of Phaino. Most, however, are less familiar with the final major episode of copper production in the region during the period of Ayyubid rule, or roughly 1188-1263 AD. Since 2009, I’ve investigated the Ayyubid copper industry in Faynan as part of the UC San Diego Edom Lowlands Regional Archaeology Project (ELRAP), directed by Thomas E. Levy and Mohammad Najjar.

The Khirbat Faynan Area 15 slag mound during excavation, with the corner of the Byzantine monastery exposed. Photo courtesy of I.W.N. Jones.

During this period, copper was produced at two sites in the region. At Khirbat Faynan — the Roman town of Phaino — furnaces were constructed near earlier, ruined buildings. Waste from this process accumulated in two slag mounds, the larger of which eventually covered a corner of a late 6th century building, most likely a Byzantine monastery. Most of the production occurred 7 km to the northwest, though, where a new village was built about 1 km away from the largest of the Iron Age production sites in Faynan, Khirbat en-Nahas. This village is now known as Khirbat Nuqayb al-Asaymir (KNA), “the ruin of the small, dark pass,” named after the ancient road that connects it to Khirbat Faynan.

Map of buildings at KNA, with excavation areas labeled.
Background image: IKONOS satellite imagery courtesy of GeoEye.
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In 2011 and 2012, I supervised ELRAP excavations at both KNA and Khirbat Faynan. Taken together, the dating evidence from these excavations — diagnostic ceramics, including imported glazed pieces, radiocarbon samples, and a small number of coins — indicates a fairly short occupation, concentrated primarily in the period archaeologists call the Midde Islamic IIa, 1200-1250 AD. In other words, the industry was established early in the Ayyubid period, and abandoned during the same period or shortly afterwards.

Why was this the case? Why did the copper industry not continue to operate under the Mamluks? Moreover, what motivated the establishment and provisioning of a village that probably only produced about 100 tons of copper?

A prehistoric site, WAG 601, south of KNA. Nuqayb al-Asaymir, the pass connecting KNA to Khirbat Faynan, is visible in the background. Photo courtesy of I.W.N. Jones.
Fragment of a glazed bowl produced in Damascus. Photo: Leah Trujillo, courtesy UC San Diego Levantine and Cyber-Archaeology Laboratory.

The answer to the last question seems to be sugar.  During the late 12th and early 13th centuries, sugar was rapidly becoming the southern Levant’s dominant cash crop. There are dozens of sugar factories dotting the Jordan Valley and Dead Sea lowlands, many of which were established during the same period as KNA. The largest known, Tawahin al-Sukkar or Masna‘ al-Sukkar, is in Ghawr al-Safi, about 40 km north of KNA. The medieval sugar production process, which was described by al-Nuwayri, the early 14th century encyclopedist, involved the use of large, copper cauldrons. (The association between these vessels and copper is so strong, in fact, that on Caribbean sugar plantations they were called “coppers” even when made of iron.)

To answer the first question, we need to consider the political situation of the 13th century. At the same time these industries were being established, the Ayyubid principality of Karak, in central Jordan, was, in fits and starts, becoming increasingly autonomous from the political centers of Cairo and Damascus. This depended to some extent on economic autonomy, justifying investment in a local source of copper, which in turn allowed the expansion of a local sugar industry. Any chance that Karak might have remained autonomous from Mamluk Cairo, however, ended with the assassination of its last Ayyubid prince, al-Mughith ‘Umar, in 1263. The Mamluk political system was more centralized, and elite land tenure was much less permanent. The motivation to maintain an entirely local system for provisioning the sugar industry would have been much lower under this new system, and perhaps even actively discouraged. While the sugar industry was active into the 15th century, copper from Faynan was, probably rather suddenly, replaced with copper imported from Europe in the mid-13th century.


Ian W. N. Jones is interested in the lives of local people in southern and central Jordan during the politically dynamic 12th and 13th centuries.  His ACOR-CAORC Fellowship in  Fall 2017 supported his research project “Economy, Society, and Small-Scale Industry: Social Approaches to Middle Islamic Copper Production in Southern Jordan.”

Ian is a Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) where he is affiliated with the UCSD Edom Lowlands Regional Archaeology Project (ELRAP). He earned an M.A. in Anthropology from UCSD in 2010, and a dual B.A. in Anthropology and English from the University of Massachusetts in 2007. To learn more, see Ian’s ACOR profile, his web site, and his CV.

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