By Jamie Fraser (Project Curator – Ancient Levant, British Museum)
In March 2015 I submitted my PhD thesis “Dolmens in the Levant”. For six weeks I had worked frantically in the library at the American Centre for Oriental Research in Amman, attacking my keyboard like a pianist the Rach 3, dreams haunted by an unfinished Chapter 9, or a bibliography missing any author with a name starting with ‘C’. Oh the elation near midnight at the end of the month, when I clicked ‘submit’ on the University of Sydney’s webpage; the burden slipped from my shoulders; my head became light; and I ascended, weightless, the library stairs to the Residences above, where the Director poured me a scotch, agreed that she too could hear heavenly choirs, and suggested I go home to bed.
I awoke three days later like Dorothy in Oz, keen to explore a new technicolour world. “Let’s go dolmen hunting!” I cried to my friend Isabelle Ruben, an archaeologist, botanist and long-time Amman resident, whose books include a Field Guide to the Plants and Animals of Petra. Isabelle readily agreed, but on condition we visited the Wadi Zerqa, a likely spot to find in bloom the famous Black Iris of Jordan. “You hunt your dolmens, I’ll shoot my flowers”, she replied, reaching for her camera and macro lens.
The Zerqa is the second largest tributary of the River Jordan. It rises near Amman, then drops almost 2,000 m in elevation as it flows through the escarpment to the rift valley below. Known as the Biblical Jabbok, the wadi was supposedly the place where Jacob fought with an angel, and these resonances drew scholars such as Capt. Conder (1889) and Dr. MacKenzie (1911) of the PEF. However, it was the psychedelic carpet of wild flowers that drew Isabelle and me: poppies, anemones, daisies and buttercups – it was enough to stir the heart of any battled-wearied thesis survivor. Just as I was about to burst into song, Isabelle pounced. “Aha!” she cried, whipping out her macro lens like a great white hunter on safari, “Iris nigricans – the Black Iris of Jordan!” Although their petals range from purple to black, their beauty, Isabelle explained, belies a remarkable reproductive machine: three upright petals help advertise the flower to nectar-gathering insects; three drooping petals draw the insects to the stamen within. Unfortunately, their beauty has also seen numbers decline, and the iris is now protected by law.
After sniffing our last Ranunculus, we crossed the Zerqa to the Wadi Rayyan, one of the most fertile wadis in Jordan. The well-watered Rayyan has long been known, somewhat ironically, as the ‘dry’ or ‘barren’ Wadi ‘Yabis’. Scholars explain this incongruity by identifying in the toponym ‘Yabis’ the name ‘Jabesh’ Gilead, a town mentioned in the Bible in relation to Kings David and Saul and their battles with the Philistines and Ammonites. Regardless, the wadi was renamed the ‘verdant’ Wadi Rayyan in the late 1990s, with possible associations to the Rayyan door named in the Qur’an as one of the Gates of Heaven through which the virtuous may pass into paradise.
The Wadi Rayyan is also renown for its dolmens. Dolmens are megalithic tomb monuments that were probably built as stone charnel houses by village communities at the start of the Early Bronze Age, c.3800-3000 BC. Early travellers were fascinated by these megalithic monuments, which seemed so familiar to the European experience; indeed, in his Survey of Eastern Palestine (1889), Conder declared dolmens to be “one of the most interesting features of the survey expedition”. Although they once numbered in their thousands, many cemeteries are now destroyed, and descriptions by travellers such as Conder are the only accounts that some dolmen fields ever existed. As part of my postgraduate research, I had surveyed over 100 dolmens on the north side of the Wadi Rayyan, and I was back to validate reports of a smaller cemetery near the Byzantine period site of Deir el-Halawa on the opposite ridge.
After parking the car at the bottom of a hill, we climbed through olive orchards towards the ridge-line above, which marked the south side of the wadi. We weren’t disappointed: although overgrown and partly collapsed, we found at least 15 dolmens scattered across the hill-side, their upright slabs, rectangular chambers and megalithic capstones highly distinct. I took a few notes, then we headed to the Deir el-Halawa ruins at the top of the hill, almost falling into a massive rock-cut cistern on the way.
The ridgeline affords a spectacular view over the impressive site of Tell el-Maqlub (the ‘upside down mound’). The tell is strategically located on a perennial stream at the only point where the steep-sided wadi can be easily crossed, and it is no coincidence that the Roman road between the Decapolis cites of Pella and Jerash ran right past the site. This location makes Tell el-Maqlub the best contender for the Iron Age settlement of Jabesh Gilead itself, although no archaeological work has ever been conducted on the mound. Feeling the weight of my trowel in my back pocket, I sighed, turned around, and traipsed back down the hill with Isabelle, passing more dolmens covered in wild flowers on the way.