Archaeological texts and contexts on the Red Sea: The Sheikh's House at Quseir al-Qadim

Burke, Katherine Strange

     The site of Quseir al-Qadim was a port on the Egyptian shores of the Red Sea that was active in the late twelfth through fifteenth century AD. A synthesis of archaeological and textual evidence found at the site reveals that this small port, which is only fleetingly mentioned in contemporary geographies and other texts, was a supplier of grain to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, gave passage to Muslim pilgrims there, and also traded with the Yemen, from whence it received goods from as far away as India and China.
     The port town is examined through the lens of a previously unpublished domestic and mercantile complex known as the Sheikh's House, excavations of which yielded at least 1,445 fragments of letters and documents written in Arabic on paper. This circumstance offers the rare opportunity to explore the relationships between texts and archaeology, long debated among archaeologists and historians. Reading the previously published texts in their stratigraphic order and in context with the other artifact categories provides a more nuanced understanding of events than is available without the archaeological evidence. The contents of the letters likewise illuminate the phases of building, rebuilding, and use of this space over the more than half-century in which it functioned as part of a shipping node and pilgrimage station: the complex was enlarged over time as the number of clients of the shipping and brokerage business increased. Occupation ended shortly after the death of the head of household and principal business owner. This coincides with the tumultuous transition from Ayyubid to Mamluk rule, which endangered the overland routes and disrupted the regular shipments of food and water from the Nile Valley.
     The building style of Ayyubid Quseir al-Qadim betrays similarities with other port towns, together with the ceramic assemblage revealing a distinctive culture of the Red Sea littoral. The architecture also reflects Egyptian urban traditions exported to the coast, and suggests the presence of inland populations moving to the shore when travel and provisions are protected by a strong central government.

Whitcomb, Donald