Khirbat al-Mafjar Archaeological Project, Jericho, Palestine

Mahmoud Hawari.

Six seasons of landscape archaeological survey and excavations (2009 – 2014) in the Khirbat al-Mafjar hinterland of ‘Hisham’s Palace’, Jericho, sponsored by Barakat Trust (2010-2014) and Council for British Research in the Levant (architectural drawings 2010), including a recent 4 days topographic survey sponsored by the PEF (March 2022), were carried out. The project, directed by myself, and with the participation of staff and students from Birzeit University, and the collaboration of staff and students from University College London (UCL), aimed to achieve better understanding of the palace in the context of its historical and cultural landscape.

Figure 1. ‘Hisham’s Palace’, inner courtyard looking south-east. Photo Mahmoud Hawari

The first survey of the Jericho area, including Khirbat al-Mafjar, which was carried out by Warren and Conder on behalf of the Palestine Exploration Fund, as part of the Survey of Western Palestine (published in 1884), which recorded a system of aqueducts, bridges and mills. Excavations at the palace were conducted by Baramki and Hamilton, on behalf of the British Mandate of the Palestine Department of Antiquities during 1930s and 1940s. More recent excavations at the palace were carried out by Taha and Whitcomb (2011-2012), as part of the joint Palestinian – American expedition.  

Our project utilised a multi-disciplinary archaeological landscape survey and research, drawing upon the previous surveys and excavations. It involved various teams and fieldwork methods, including reconnaissance walking survey, surface artefacts collection, topographical survey, architectural survey, geophysical survey. The entire hinterland of Khirbat al-Mafjar area (roughly about 10 sq km) was subject to standard mapping using GIS and GPS methodology, as well as carrying out geophysical survey in four selected areas, using magnetometry. A large-scale topographical survey was employed to plot the surviving archaeological and architectural features that are associated with the palace and its water management system on a satellite image.  These structures were also recorded by means of digital photography, sketches, drawings and written descriptions.

The PEF grant covered the expenses of hiring survey equipment (GPS Receiver and Rover Rod) for a period of 4 days (March 2022), operated by an experienced local surveyor Mohammad Abdullatif. The objective was to conduct a small-scale and targeted topographical survey in order to provide levels and coordinates for various features and spots, including those of additional archaeological features identified after the completion of the previous survey and excavations.

Figure 2. Surveyor and myself over Aqueduct A, Khirbat al-Mafjar, photo Mahmoud Hawari
Figure 3. Satellite image showing levels and coordinates (in red) of spots of the archaeological features at Khirbat al-Mafjar hinterland, north of Jericho, compiled by surveyor Mohammad Abdullatif

The fieldwork resulted in significant findings that have changed our perception of Hisham’s Palace. These include numerous segments of an enclosure wall surrounding fertile lands to the east, north and south which were most probably irrigated by the aqueducts and used to grow crops, and might have also included grounds for hunting game; remains of an extensive and well- developed water management system consisting of two major aqueducts, canals, two monumental bridges, and large water reservoir; a water mill on one of the aqueducts, which represents the only surviving horizontal-wheeled mill in Palestine dating to the Umayyad/ Early Islamic period (8th -11th century) and was restored in the late Ottoman (19th – early 20th century). The elucidation of the water management system that supplied the palace, its baths and agricultural lands with water changes our perception of Hisham’s Palace. It was founded as palatial complex at the centre of a large agricultural estate, similar to numerous Umayyad palatial complexes in the Levant. Such agricultural settlements were established to generate revenues for the Umayyad treasury and elite, perhaps to fund their architectural projects, and to help the Umayyads in expanding their political power into the periphery of urban centers.

Figure 4. Satellite image showing the results of the archaeological landscape survey at Khirbat al-Mafjar hinterland, north of Jericho. Compiled by Lesley Davidson and Mahmoud Hawari

I have published a preliminary report on the Archaeological Landscape Survey at Khirbat al-Mafjar – 2009 and 2010, in: CBRL 2010 Bulletin of the Council for British Research in the Levant 5, 21-32. I will shortly submit a new report on the excavation of the Umayyad water mill at Khirbat al-Mafjar to PEQ.  Finally, I am seeking to publish the results of the Khirbat al-Mafjar Archaeological Project as a PEF annual.

Figure 5. General view of mill structure, looking west. Photo Mahmoud Hawari