‘‘Sacred Landscapes’’: the Umayyad Syro-Jordanian Hajj Roads to Mecca and their Pilgrim Camps

By Claudine Dauphin.

8th May 2022: after two Covid years I am back in Amman to investigate the Umayyad Hajj road to Mecca, after tracing the Mediaeval and Ottoman routes.

Despite the fundamental role of the Ummayyad caliphs (661-750 CE) in shaping the Hajj, owing to the absence of Umayyad travelogues, the course of the first Hajj route after the Arab Conquest (636 CE) had remained elusive. Scholars took for granted that it was identical to the later Mediaeval road. Yet, as described in an early Islamic manuscript, Caliph Mu’âwiya ibn Abî Sufyan (r. 661-680) travelling on the Northern Hajj Road (Darb al-Hajj al-Shami) from Damascus to Mecca, invited the pilgrims from Egypt to join him at ‘Ayla (Aqaba) and follow the eastern bank of the Red Sea by Yanbu to Mecca. Thus, the course of the Umayyad route was not that of the Mediaeval road, or if partly, included a branch heading to Aqaba.

Concurrently, the search for parallels for the great camel enclosure of  the Ottoman pilgrim camp at el-Hasa, had led me to the enigma of twelve Big Circles (diam. ca 400 m) first spotted from the air in the 1920s. My scrutinizing satellite imagery and aerial photographs and spotting a desert track linking them, while refering to regional beduin oral tradition, enabled me to trace the Umayyad Darb al-Hajj and locate its camps.

The Circles fell into two groups: an Umayyad Northern Hajj road from Mafraq through Wadi Sirhan to Mecca, and a North-South road to Aqaba, with a branch from ‘Udruh to Ma‘an.

It was now time to check my hypotheses.

Before setting out into the field, I had drawn, based on Google Earth, the circles (Figs 1 and 2) and other sites, such as ‘Ayna. Thus, in the field, equipped with A3 print-outs, I pencilled-in at specific points the thickness of the circle stone wall and other details, and integrated the beacons (Arabic manarat) which led the Hajj pilgrims, travelling on Summer nights to avoid the intense day heat, towards the entrances at either ends of the circles. With a permit for reconnaissance from the Department of Antiquities of Jordan (DoA), by systematic photography I recorded features and alerted the DoA to large-scale vandalism and destruction by gold-searchers. Thus, the Qasr Mushash desert castle is now a caved-in heap of rubble surrounded by earth-and-stone mounds resulting from systematic bulldozing.

Starting in Northern Jordan, at Mafraq, I concentrated on the main NS axis, following by taxi, jeep or foot the existing Roman-Byzantine road network used by early Umayyad travellers, and hit into the Umayyad heartland: the desert castles of Qasr al-Muwaqqar with its large Umayyad water reservoir, Qasr al-Mushatta, Qasr Meshash with a circle in its immediate hinterland, Qasr al-Qastal, onto Zizia and its vast reservoir. For stretches of road devoid of circles, I was led by the knowledge of a module of distance covered daily by caravans (40-60 kms per day), hence ‘‘stop-overs’’, as well as by the vital importance for the Hajj caravan to access water. Thus, combining guess work and my ‘‘archaeological nose’’, I deemed ‘Ayna perfect as a pilgrim stop-over, because of its plentiful springs (Fig. 3 or Fig. 4). Checking ‘Ayna in the field, I discovered that I was right!

 Unexcavated, the circles have generally been dated to the Early Bronze Age on the evidence of surface sherds. Reuse by the Umayyad Hajj caravan is plausible, judging by the al-Hasa circle sheltering the sick camels of the Ottoman Hajj caravan according to local beduin tradition.

Initially I was baffled by the proximity (5 kms) to each other of some circles. Contextualising the ‘Udruh and the Bir Khidad/al-Jarba circles within post-Conquest pilgrimage travel, I realized that the caravan of Moslem pilgrims from Palestine who gathered at Al-Khalil (Hebron) and travelled south-westwards towards Mecca, hit the Darb al-Hajj al-Shami at Bir Khidad/al-Jarba (Fig. 1), joining there the Damascus caravan. Since the Umayyad caliph acting as Amir al-Hajj had precedence, his Shami caravan positioned itself ahead of the Palestinian caravan and thus camped at ‘Udruh (Fig. 2), slightly further south, while the Palestinian pilgrims camped at Bir Khidad.

On the last day in the field, at sunset, being jolted in a jeep between al-Hasa and Sirat Umm al-Heran (Fig. 5) on a dirt road winding its way into and across small wadis, with the vast desert landscape as backdrop, for the first time since the beginning of my Darb al-Hajj Project in 2012, I communed across Time with the Umayyad Hajj pilgrims, who accepted the rigours of Hajj travel to face God in the immensity of Creation, even before reaching Mecca.  

Fig. 5 Part of the circuit wall of the Circle at Sirat Umm al-Heran. Beyond it to the r., the Hajj road (© C. Dauphin 2022)