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sugar

"Not Found in the Order of History" now found exactly there

I got word a few days ago that a book featuring a chapter on Islamic period Faynan (and southern Jordan, more generally) has just been printed. As you might guess, I'm the lead author on that chapter (with Mohammad Najjar and my advisor, Tom Levy), and I'm excited to see it appear in print. The book, published by Cambridge Scholars and edited by Scott Stull, is From West to East: Current Approaches to Medieval Archaeology, which developed out of the first Conference on Medieval Archaeology. The conference itself was a great experience — and although I couldn't make the second one last year, I hope it continues — and the book reflects this. It's a nice survey of the current state of medieval archaeology, and the coverage is fairly broad. Ours is the easternmost (and southernmost) of the contributions, many of which, perhaps unsurprisingly, focus on the U.K., but there are several on Anatolia, as well, so we're not alone in the eastern Mediterranean.

Our chapter — titled "'Not Found in the Order of History': Toward a 'Medieval' Archaeology of Southern Jordan" (catchy, no?) — builds on the relationship between copper and sugar production that we've previously proposed and places this in a longer-scale analysis of the economy of the 'Araba, from the decline of Petra and a shift to an "Arabia-facing" economy in the Early Islamic period, to the decline of this system and the shift to a "Syria-facing" economy in the Middle Islamic. This is also the first publication, I believe, where we address the Late Antique and Early Islamic period material from our excavations at Khirbat Faynan, which I also covered in my most recent ASOR talk. This is, of course, very preliminary, considering that I gave the talk on which this chapter is based in 2013, but it's still quite exciting. Beyond this, we also try to connect the archaeology of southern Jordan to "medieval archaeology," by which people normally mean the medieval archaeology of Europe. We're not the first people to try to make this connection, but it does open up some interesting possibilities for thinking about the roles that a tiny copper mining village out in the desert might play.

The title itself, "Not Found in the Order of History," is taken from an Exodus itinerary reproduced in several medieval pilgrimage guides (in this case, the 12th century guidebook commonly, but incorrectly, attributed to "Fetellus"), which describes Faynan (or Fynon [Punon, really, I suppose]) in these terms. This account, in turn, is based on a letter of Jerome, who actually had rather more than this to say about Faynan. I discuss this account in more detail in my dissertation and an upcoming publication, but here it serves as a nice shorthand for the problems of doing "medieval archaeology" in southern Jordan. Medieval archaeology and Islamic archaeology are generally thought of as "historical archaeology" (in the broad sense of archaeology informed by history, rather than the narrow sense of "the archaeology of capitalism"). Southern Jordan, though — and Faynan in particular — is, for the most part, absent from the historical sources of this period. What does it mean to do historical archaeology in a place "not found in the order of history"? It's a difficult question to resolve, but we try here.

Interestingly, around the same time I heard that our chapter had been printed I also heard that Hagit Nol's paper in Palestine Exploration Quarterly, "The Fertile Desert: Agriculture and Copper Industry in Early Islamic Arava (Arabah)," had come out. I've been looking forward to this publication since she e-mailed me about it a year or so ago, and it is, indeed, a very cool paper. Hagit looks at a lot of material from the 'Araba, including a lot of work previously only published in Hebrew, and tries to grapple with the rather persistent misdating of Early Islamic sites in the 'Araba — a problem we also note in our chapter. It's funny, though. When I started working on my MA thesis six(ish) years ago, I would have been surprised to hear about multiple publications on the Islamic period in the 'Araba coming out in the same year, much less the same week. As Jasper would say, "What a time to be alive."

Does the word "sugar" come from southern Jordan?

As I've mentioned before, my research on copper production has led me to be more interested in the history and archaeology of sugar production than I otherwise might be. This interest has exposed me, on several occasions, to a wonderful etymology for the English word "sugar." Allow me to present a brief outline:At some point in the second millennium AD, the technology of sugar production made its way west into the southern Levant, where sugar became a lucrative cash crop in Galilee, the Jordan Valley, and – the important part for our story – the lowlands (aghwar; أغوار) around the Dead Sea (the exact date is a bit unclear, but some time in the 12th century AD is likely for the area around the Dead Sea). One of the key centers of this production was a town to the southeast of the Dead Sea, in Ghawr al-Safi, known then as Zughar. Zughar produced a lot of high-quality sugar, some of which was exported to Europe. Because of its quality, or the amount they produced, or whatever else, the name of the town became so closely associated with sugar that people simply began using the name of the town to refer to the sweetener.It's a neat story, especially for those of us who work in southern Jordan, as it confirms our suspicion that our research area is the center of the world. That's not to say that Zughar wasn't an important place, of course. 19th century scholars like Le Strange (1890:287) noted that, "[t]o the Arab Mediaeval writers, Zughar, the City of Lot, was as well known a place as Jerusalem or Damascus," which isn't that much of an exaggeration. Al-Muqaddasī (1896:2), for example, calls the town a "little Busrah."Getting back on track, I've always wanted to repeat this story, but two things have stopped me from doing so. First, it's simply too good a story, which raises my suspicions. Things that seem too good to be true, as the old adage goes, probably are. Second, it's difficult to trace the origins of the story. For example, the Rough Guide to Jordan tells the story and attributes it to a museum display. Politis repeats the story in brief reports in the AJA and the ACOR Newsletter, but doesn't give a source (Politis 1999:519; Politis 2010:4). I'm sure I've seen it in other sources (and I've been told the story in person on several occasions), but it's difficult to make much sense of where it came from, and I've been looking.I was rather content to regard this story as probably apocryphal without looking into it too much, but this quarter I'm TAing for a world history/writing course covering the period from 1200-1750 AD. One of the themes of this course is the commodification of luxury goods in the Early Modern period, and sugar is, of course, one of the goods that we're discussing. I'm certainly no linguist, but I have a passing interest in etymologies (and I enjoy ruining everyone's fun), so I decided to look into this one a bit to see if there was anything to it (tl;dr version: not really).My first thought, before really looking into it, was that the word for "sugar" is more or less the same in most languages I'm familiar with, including Arabic, and a quick look at the OED more or less confirms this. The first example given in the etymology for "sugar" is the French sucre, and most European languages seem to use basically the same word, derived from the Arabic sukkar (سكر). The exceptions are, of course, English, which replaces the "k" sound with a "g," and Spanish and Portuguese, which also include the Arabic definite article (in Arabic, al-Sukkar (السكر) is read "as-sukkar"). (Messner [1992] points out that leaving the article off is characteristic of Arabic words coming through Italian, apparently.) Ultimately, the Arabic word is derived from a Persian word, which in turn comes from an older Sanskrit word. All of this took place before sugar was produced in Zughar, so already things aren't looking good for our story. Let's not stop there, though.It's still possible that European sources conflated the two words (sukkar and Zughar), linking the two as sugar became more common in Europe. This also seems unlikely. As one example, William of Tyre's Historia refers to the town as "Segor" (see here, Book 10, section VII), but calls sugar zachara (unfortunately this isn't in the Fordham Medieval Sourcebook version, but see here, for example). It doesn't seem likely, then, that these two were closely associated, at least in William of Tyre's mind.The only thing we're really left with is the anomalous English word, with its "g" sound. As the OED notes, though, this isn't entirely uncommon in English, either. The word "flagon," for example, is derived from the Old French word flacon, and even in Middle English was flakon. It seems much easier to attribute the English word "sugar" to this change, rather than to an association with a town that most people in England were certainly unaware of.I wonder, to some extent, if the origins of this story don't have as much to do with the true etymology of the English word "sugar" as they do with a bit of clever wordplay on the name of the town. Obviously there's the "Sugar from a town called Sugar? No Way!" response that we can imagine. Beyond that, though, there's this excerpt from Yāqūt in Le Strange (1890:291): "The name of Zughar, according to the same authorities, is also spelt Sughar and Sukar." It seems fairly straightforward, then, to assume some connection between sukkar and Sukar. The hint to what's going on here, though, is in the fact that Le Strange also calls Yāqūt "Yakut," and generally transcribes the Arabic letter qaf as "k." What he's saying, then, is not that the town is also known as Sukar (سكر) but Suqar (سقر). And therein lies the punchline.You see, one of the sources that gives this alternate name is al-Muqaddasī, who quips, "The people of the two neighbouring districts call the town Sakar" – (read: Saqar, سقر) – "(that is, 'Hell'); and a native of Jerusalem was wont to write from here to his friends, addressing 'From the lower Sakar (Hell) unto those in the upper Firdûs (Paradise)'" (1896:62). So it seems that Zughar was closely associated with hell before they ever produced sugar there. If you've ever been through Ghawr al-Safi in summer, of course, you know this is pretty accurate.Overall, it doesn't seem like there's very much truth to this story. I definitely don't blame people for repeating it. It's certainly, to borrow a term from journalism, a story that's too good to check. Of course, it often turns out when you do check them that they're too good to be true, as well.Works CitedLe Strange, Guy1890 Palestine under the Moslems: A Description of Syria and the Holy Land from A.D. 650 to 1500. London: Alexander P. Watt.Messner, Dieter1992 Further Listings and Categorisations of Arabic Words in Ibero-Romance Languages. In The Legacy of Muslim Spain. S.K. Jayyusi, ed. Pp. 452-456. Leiden: Brill.al-Muqaddasi1896 Description of Syria, Including Palestine. In The Library of the Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, Vol. III. Pp. 1-103. New York: AMS Press.Politis, Konstantinos D.1999 Deir 'Ain 'Abata and the Ghor es-Safi. Pp. 518-520 in Archaeology in Jordan. Virginia Egan and Patricia Bikai, eds. American Journal of Archaeology 103(3):485-520.Politis, Konstantinos D.2010 Ancient Landscapes of the Ghor es-Sāfī: Surveys and Excavations 1997-2009. ACOR Newsletter 22(2):1-5.

Middle Islamic Faynan in BASOR

Oh right.  I meant to post something here right when this paper came out, but didn't, in part because of the beginning of a new quarter here at UCSD – as well as my first teaching assignment in two years, preparation for WAC 7, and some post-excavation things that needed to be taken care of – and in part simply because I completely forgot.  So, here we are, several weeks later, and I'm finally getting around to doing it.Anyway, as I said, I've just published a paper. The authors are myself, Tom Levy – my advisor – and our Jordanian colleague and co-PI of ELRAP, Mohammad Najjar, and it appears in the most recent issue of the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research. If you have access to BASOR through JSTOR, you a) can just click that link and download the paper and b) have probably already seen the latest issue anyway.The paper is, essentially, a heavily-revised version of my master's thesis, and so represents the culmination of a few years worth of work getting the Islamic Faynan portion of ELRAP off the ground and running. Primarily, what that involved was a (preliminary) analysis of the ceramics collected during the 2002 JHF (the Jabal Hamrat Fidan Project; ELRAP's predecessor) surveys of Wadi al-Ghuwayb and Wadi al-Jariya (I'd link to a PDF, but that doesn't seem to exist at the moment; there's this, though), focusing on the material collected at Khirbat Nuqayb al-Asaymir (KNA), a site I've mentioned before. Our main goals here, in addition to finally presenting the later material from these surveys, were (1) to tighten up the chronology of KNA with a large ceramic sample (1300 sherds exactly) and (2) to put forward some ideas about why copper production was revived in this period.(1) In the paper we argue, based on the ceramics and other evidence, that KNA is primarily an early 13th century site. This isn't a terribly huge redating – most previous work assumed it was primarily a 13th century site – but it has some interesting historical consequences, as we make no assumption that there's an early Mamluk period occupation at the site. We left ourselves a bit of room to adjust this, and pointed out that we couldn't really rule out a later 13th century date, and that the late 12th century also seemed like a possibility. Now that we've excavated the site for two seasons, I'm glad that we left ourselves that room, as the ceramic assemblage has surprised us a bit. In one sense, the excavated ceramic assemblage is rather different from the survey assemblage in terms of the wares that make it up (though I don't want to talk about this too much until we've had more time to go over the material and compile better frequency data), but it's also forcing us to think about dates that are a bit earlier, again. That in itself was interesting, though not entirely unexpected, and we'll be addressing the point in at least one upcoming paper.(2) We were rather dissatisfied with existing explanations for the re-emergence of the Faynan copper industry in the Middle Islamic period, which we thought were either overly dismissive or somewhat anachronistic. Our suggestion, instead, is that mining in Faynan primarily supported the sugar industry. This would have gone primarily toward making boiling vessels – known in Arabic as dusūt – for the cane juice. This image, from flickr user ciamabue, shows an iron boiling vessel from the U.S. It's not an exact match – for one thing, the vessels we're thinking of are made of copper, obviously – but the image at least gives you a sense of scale. 13th century dusut were about 3 feet in diameter and could weigh as much as 550 pounds, so we aren't exactly talking about the Mauviel in your kitchen. This is something that would require a significant amount of copper.So, that's a short summary of two of our key points from this paper. The project is still a work in progress – and will eventually become my dissertation – but the early stages are now published and out there.

Jones, Ian W. N., Thomas E. Levy, and Mohammad Najjar2012  Khirbat Nuqayb al-Asaymir and Middle Islamic Metallurgy in Faynan: Surveys ofWadi al-Ghuwayb and Wadi al-Jariya in Faynan, Southern Jordan. Bulletin ofthe American Schools of Oriental Research 368:67-102.Levy, Thomas E., Russell B. Adams, James D. Anderson, Mohammad Najjar,Neil Smith, Yoav Arbel, Lisa Soderbaum, and Adolfo Muniz2003  An Iron Age Landscape in the Edomite Lowlands: Archaeological Surveys AlongWādī al-Ghuwayb and Wādī al-Jāriya, Jabal Ḥamrat Fīdān, Jordan, 2002.Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 47:247-277.