The Discovery of an Umayyad Open-Air Mosque in Southern Jordan and its Early Kufic Inscriptions

The Wadi Shīreh open-air mosque. Courtesy of Firās al-Bqāʿīn

Two scholars from the American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR) recently discovered an open-air Mosque in Wadi Shireh, Jordan. Glenn Corbett and Firas Bqain were examining an archaeological site in Wadi Rum in the south Kingdom, which was being overlooked. On that site, a mosque is located from the times of the Umayyads, which dates back to the 7th to 8th centuries. It was found in a remote location of Wadi Shireh. Although both scholars were studying and researching the archaeological site for quite some time now, they were not the first to discover this mosque. Their researchers sought help from the research of late William Jobling of the University of Sydney, who was the first to identify this important archaeological site and the mosque. Corbett also mentioned in an article that they are not the first to discover or study the mosque located in Wadi Shireh. Corbett is Associate Director in ACOR and holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern archaeology from the University of Chicago. Jobling recorded the whole area in his research. He did not dig the area and just recorded what remained on the surface. There were early Islamic inscriptions on the surrounding site.

Corbett said in a statement that mosque inscriptions and the surrounding structures are all visible when walking through the wadi. Jobling’s Report about this mosque was a gem for the Arab and foreign scholars, and it attracted their attention. The centre of attention of scholar’s research was the Kufic inscriptions on the site, which were dating back to the month of Ramadan in the year 109 Hijri. These Arab and foreign Scholars then published articles in the Journal of Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam and Jordan Department of Antiquities and the University of Jordan’s journal Dirasat. Firas Bqain was one of these Jordanian scholars, and he is now an administrator in ACOR. He also wrote his master’s thesis on Shireh Mosque. Corbett and Bqain started working together in 2012 to attract the attention of academic scholars all around the world to this beautiful ancient Umayyad mosque of Wadi Shireh. They were interested in understanding how this mosque came to existence and what meaning the inscriptions hold. They also sought to understand the structure of the mosque and what importance it stays in a broader historical, archaeological, and environmental context.

Kufic inscription dated 109 AH. It reads: “In the name of God, the gracious, the merciful. O God, accept from ʿAbd al-ʿAlā bin Saʿīd his prayers and his fasting and keep him among his family, and support him in his [victory or travel] and make him virtuous, for you are[capable of all things]. May God bless him and grant him peace and peace be upon him and the mercy of God and his blessings. He wrote in Ramaḍān, year nine and one hundred.”

According to Corbett for the easy access of water, there were seasonal water pools located near the mosque. Also, the mosque’s Kufic inscriptions point towards its building and ascribed to Salamah Ibn Rawh. It is believed that the mosque was built by important figures of Judham and the dominant tribe of the Hisma that were allies of the Umayyads. The tribe of Hisma and Umayyads greatly benefited from this site by taxing the trade and pilgrimage caravans. This region was suitable for caravans to go through. The site acted like a seasonal way station for caravans. It served early Muslim travellers were journeying through Hisma to southern Jordan. The site appears to be heavily settled in early period. Because of the isolation and uniqueness of Wadi Shireh and the mosque that is in these barren lands of the Hisma, little can be said about their historical context. These archaeological sites need more research and investigation to understand more about the history and social culture of these sites.

The mosque’s foundation stone. It reads: “In the name of God the gracious, the merciful. This is the mosque of Salamah ibn Rawh. May God bless who prays [in it]

The existing research gives us a hint that these barren lands ones were filled with civilization. The Shireh mosque is located in much larger Wadi Rabigh. Near Wadi Rabigh is Wadi Hafir and both Wadi’s are adjacent to each other. Wadi Shireh provided easy access to the caravans and travellers between these two Wadis (Valleys). Wadi Shireh was also a big source of natural water reserves in the shape of pools that retained water for several months through out they year. The Wadi was also engulfed in acacia trees which are a favourite food of camels and also was home to lush patches of vegetation and pasture. Wadi Shireh also acted as a station for the travellers. It provided a secluded and secure camping point. The Kufic inscriptions further support that the Shireh Mosque was mostly visited by travellers. The inscriptions make references to the travellers who visited the site and the mosque during their journey.

The Mosque is built in a rectangular shape the construction is double-wall and resembles its surrounding structures. It is aligned and oriented according to the cardinal directions which gives a sense of a planned and purpose-built structure which is perhaps authorized by local or regional authorities of Umayyad period to facilitate travellers. These types of simple structures were quite common in early Islamic period. The southern Wadi Arabah and nearby regions of Negev are also considered to be agricultural villages or industrial sites that were thought to be established by Umayyad people. According to the research the authorities built these settlements to expand their trading to southern Palestine and other zones that were near to the desert.

Wadi Shireh mosque due to its remote location has been the target of destructive digging in past few years. It is situated in an area which is far from the region’s main road and tourist camps. It is one of the most important heritage of Islamic history and should be preserved. Authorities, archaeologists and Islamic scholars should take measures to preserve this holy site.

Editor’s note: The content of this article is based on the scholarly publication of al-Bqāʿīn, Firas & Corbett, Glenn & Khamis, Elias. (2015). An Umayyad Era Mosque and Desert Waystation from Wadi Shīreh, Southern Jordan. Journal of Islamic Archaeology. 2. 93-126.

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