Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Water and Frontiers in Roman Jordan

I just got back from a short visit to Jordan.  It took me just under a day to get there.  I had five full days visiting the sites.  And then just over a day to get back home.  I took between 1500 and 2000 photos (the total eludes me because of some copying errors), which I plan to use in a host of publications.  Though brief, the trip was incredible.  So much so, in fact, that I'm pretty sure I want to shift my focus more squarely to Roman Jordan. 

It's fair to say I've loved (or at least really, really liked) the Near East for some decades now.  In the early days of my indoctrination in Classics, I even contemplated shifting to Near Eastern studies, and Assyriology in particular.  I was spurred, in part, by my first visit to the British Museum in 1999, when I saw the incredible Assyrian frieze.  It was only the relatively limited options for Assyriologists that kept me away. 

But there's more.  For a few years when I was little (1983 and 1986 - I was born in 1978), we lived in Saudi Arabia, first in Tabuk in the northwest, then in Dhahdran/al-Damman in the southeast.  While there, we visited Jordan and Egypt.  Somewhat surprisingly, many years later my parents returned to the Middle East, only in this case to the UAE, first Abu Dhabi, and for several years now Dubai.  There is, then, good reason for this personal affection for the Middle East. 

Coming to Jordan now, however, after I've managed to make a career (or at least started one) as an ancient historian/Classicist/Byzantinist, made the visit all that much more special, especially given that I've done some work on the area, and have desired doing more.  To see, then, some of the sites I've written about and/or studied as an undergraduate and graduate student was fantastic. 

The intention of the visit was to visit as many Roman military sites as possible, and I managed to make it to Petra (honorable mention on the military front - inscriptions, papyri), Udruh, el-Lejjun, Qasr-Bshir, Umm er-Resas, Qasr el-Hallabat, and Umm el-Jimal.  I missed quite a few, and hope to see some of those next year, in addition to some of the ones I've already seen. 

One of the purposes of the visit was to get a sense of Roman strategic sense in the choosing of these sites.  It's a big issue that's attracted a good deal of attention thanks in part to the work of Luttwak, Whittaker, and Isaac on frontiers more generally, and Parker, Mayerson, and Graf on the southeast frontier more specifically.  It is, admittedly, hard to know why certain sites were chosen, particularly new ones like el-Lejjun, which weren't occupied beforehand, unlike, say, Udruh, the history of which seems to stretch back to the Nabataean age.  We don't, really, have documents that explain their decisions, so scholars have tried to figure this out by means of evaluating the locations of the forts and fortifications themselves, and careful analysis of what documentary and literary evidence of relevance we have. 

I've visited Roman military sites in the opposite frontier before, namely Roman Britain, particularly along Hadrian's Wall.  Of the few that I've seen, it can sometimes be difficult to tell why particular places were chosen.  Roman Britain, however, is another story - and I think I would need to visit them all to really appreciate the British context.  The same's true for what little I've seen myself of Roman Bulgaria, though what I did see suggests to me that crossing points played a big part. 

Having now visited these few in Jordan, one of the last of Rome's frontiers, it seems careful consideration was given to sight-lines and general visibility, and access to water.  First, the site lines.  I've attached below some photos of select views from some of the fortresses I visited.  Udruh, el-Lejjun, Qasr-Bshir, Umm er-Resas, and Qasr el-Hallabat all offer excellent views of the surrounding countryside in all or most directions.  This is especially true of Qasr Bhsir (top) and Qasr el-Hallabat (bottom).

But this is also true, to a large degree, of Udruh (top) and el-Lejjun (bottom), two late Roman legionary sites of roughly the same size. 

But it's also the case that access to water was important.  Funnily enough, about two weeks before this trip I'd been in Vancouver giving a paper.  During the talk I mentioned el-Lejjun, and someone asked me about its water supply after I'd finished.  I didn't have a good answer, for it wasn't something I'd given much thought to beforehand.  Given the desert conditions, I'd assumed the water had to come from somewhere.  What I hadn't appreciated, however, was that each of the forts I visited was constructed with access to water well in mind.  Some were adjacent to free-flowing water (or what had been free-flowing water).  Note, for example, el-Lejjun below.

There was no obvious water source at Qasr Bshir (the wadi we crossed to reach the fort was dry), but the immediate environs of the fort itself was green, as you can see below.

Then those that were a bit removed from water sources had cisterns to store said water.  Note, for instance, this re-purposed - and still in use - cistern from Umm el-Jimal, admittedly not solely a military site.

In many ways, then, visiting these sites reinforced some of the beliefs I'd already had about Roman decision making when it came to the construction of forts.  But it also opened my eyes to others, especially when it came to water.  Suffice to say, the trip has done its trip and more, and I have reams of data to process as a result. 

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