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Qasr al-Hayr, Syria

1964, 1966, 1969, 1970, 1971

Director: Oleg Grabar

Aerial view of Qasr al-Hayr

The excavation of Qasr al-Hayr al-Sharqi, a medieval Islamic town partially buried under Syrian sand, provided Middle Eastern scholars with important information about the history of a region previously considered barren. The site lies in the center of the semi-arid zone between the fertile Euphrates Valley and Damascus. By its placement at the foot of one of the few mountain passes in the central Syrian desert, it commanded a commercial and strategic position of importance between settled and nomadic groups.

The site consisted of an outer wall nearly 19 kilometers long, with round towers, two enclosures, a mosque, olive presses, a large bath, an elaborate canalization and water-control system, and an artificially developed area for agriculture. Excavation of the four main units—the Outer Wall, Small Enclosure, Outer Bath, and Large Enclosure—provided basic architectural evidence and an abundance of ceramic, stucco, glass, and bronze materials. The stout outer wall appeared to have safeguarded residents from animals and marauders, with a sluice system to protect against natural floods. It also produced a very elaborate water supply system, but certain questions remain about how the water was conducted. (It is known that the surrounding land was kept fertile through irrigation.) The large enclosure was apparently an administrative and aristocratic living center with axial streets connecting four main gates. Within were the mosque, two olive press rooms, a large cistern with an elaborate system of canalization leading to regions outside the wall, and seven similar large living units. The small structure, with its massive facade, was originally thought to have been a princely palace, but Dr. Grabar challenged this conception in "Three Seasons of Excavations at Qasr al-Hayr Sharqi" (Ars Orientalis, Vol. 8, 1970). Because of the total lack of architectural detail and artwork, and because the internal arrangement of the building was undifferentiated, relatively unlighted, and lacking in such features as entranceways with benches and other waiting areas, he suggested that it was less likely a palace than a khan, a trade enclosure of monumental proportions. Such an establishment would be expected at a commercially important site. A large bath nearby with partly preserved mural paintings served the needs of both travelers and local inhabitants.

Architectural evidence and ceramics, stucco decorations, and other materials reflect a development and decline at Qasr al-Hayr al-Sharqi that closely coincides with that of the general area. The buildings appear to have been completed over a 75-year period before and during the 8th century, after which there is evidence of decline and destruction by fire in the 10th century, a renaissance in the 11th century, and final abandonment in the 14th century. Thereafter the site was used only as a temporary shelter in the desert.

Scholars from a variety of disciplines have found the excavation at Qasr al-Hayr valuable. For Middle Eastern scholars, it has provided an opportunity to reconstruct and study the physical setting of the urban civilization of medieval Islam. Some known sites, such as Damascus and Aleppo, have been occupied without interruption and have undergone so many alterations that their early Islamic character can be ascertained only partially. Others, such as the Abbasid "Round City" of Baghdad or the palace-cities of Sammarra and Raqqa, have symbolic plans and special functions. Still others, especially in Iran, are so extensive in size that a detailed archaeological investigation is hardly possible. To outline the main features of the early Islamic urban setting, it is therefore necessary to compile data from several different towns of this period. One such town is Qasr al-Hayr al-Sharqi. For the cultural historian, the site has provided an excellent source for establishing a profile of an urban type on the edge of the desert. In this regard, Qasr al-Hayr exemplifies a regional center with a minimal permanent population and a supporting agricultural population that made good use of irrigated land. For the archaeologist, the town furnished a ceramic sequence for comparison with other Syrian and Mesopotamian sites, and its elaborate water establishments offered a useful dictionary of techniques of water control, conduction, storage, and utilization. For the architectural historian, the site yielded a completely new type of commercial establishment. And, since there has been no occupation of the town over the past six centuries, scholars from other fields have an unprecedented opportunity to study an early Islamic urban site.

The site was excavated under the sponsorship of the Kelsey Museum with additional funds from the Center for Near Eastern and North African Studies, the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies, the Roy-Neuberger and Laird-Norton Foundations, and a grant from Harvard University.