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The Palace's Other Lives

November/December 2016

Khirbet Excavation Stables


The extensive damage to the structures of Khirbet al-Mafjar led one of the original excavators, Robert W. Hamilton of the British Mandate for Palestine’s Department of Antiquities, to conclude in the 1940s that the complex had been largely destroyed by an earthquake known to have hit the region in A.D. 747. Dmitri Baramki, an archaeologist who worked there during the same time, suggested in his writing that he thought it persisted longer.


The team working there currently, led by Donald Whitcomb of the University of Chicago and Hamdan Taha, the recently retired director of the Palestinian Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage, has uncovered new evidence to support Baramki’s theory. They have discovered buildings from the ninth and tenth centuries, when the caliphate was ruled by the Abbasids, who overthrew the Umayyads in 750. An Abbasid manor house, horse stables, and mosque were found north of the original palace in the area that had been the Umayyad agricultural estate. The Abbasid buildings were simple compared to the highly decorated Umayyad ones, and the later builders reused some remnants of earlier structures. Marble from the Umayyad pavilion was employed to construct a toilet in the Abbasid residential complex, and the formal hallway was found paved with stones from the older Umayyad gates. “It was a very economical reuse of available resources,” Taha says, adding that the Abbasid buildings appeared to be constructed hastily, directly on the soil rather than on stone foundations. This, he explains, is a sign that the estate was no longer being used by royalty, but instead by a rural family.


Whitcomb says that the original Umayyad palace complex was likely repurposed as housing for workers. He bases this on Baramki’s notes in which he recorded finding building materials and pottery dating all the way through the twelfth century inside the original palace and bath complex, including “intrusive walls” and sun-dried bricks that imply the large compound was divided up into smaller, more utilitarian rooms.


Although Whitcomb didn’t excavate the original palace and bath complex this time around, his team did carry out remote sensing and ground-penetrating radar studies in these areas. Beneath the ruins of the palace complex they identified several walls and what appears to be a rectangular building with a central courtyard surrounded by a series of rooms. This has brought up a new question: Could the site possibly have been a Roman site centuries before the area was chosen by the Umayyads for a strategic royal settlement? This can likely only be answered through additional digging, something that is not planned for now. 


Khirbet Palace Remains
Expanding the Story