Thursday, 2 March 2017

Qasr el-Hallabat and the Edict of Anastasius

Last spring, an internal grant allowed me to make a grand tour of the UK, which included stops at Roman military sites, and some libraries (London, Oxford).  At the Institute for Classical Studies Library in London, I spent some time pouring through its excellent collection of published volumes on epigraphy in late antiquity.  One inscription I came across was the Edict of Anastasius found in Qasr el-Hallabat.  I had already spent a bit of time reading about the similar edict (or one of several edicts) Anastasius had published at Perge, so coming across this other one was something of a boon.  I made some notes, made a scan, and determined to come back to it at a later date.  Needless to say, I would never have expected that I'd be able to visit Qasr el-Hallabat, an unknown entity to me in early May of 2016, only nine months later.  I owe that opportunity to a major external grant I never imagined I'd get.

When in Jordan I put a visit of Qasr el-Hallabat near the top of my list.  And on the fourth day, it was our first top, sometime after 8:30am.  We were just about the only ones there, barring a few people working at the beautiful welcome centre.  The site itself is some ways up from the centre, and it sits on a little plateau with spectacular views of the surrounding countryside.

Once I made it to the top I resolved to make a tour of the walls, which included a stop at the "Roman" crane in righthand side of the photo.  I then plunged in, eager to find traces of the edict.  Much of the structure, which at various times was an imperial-era (Roman) fort, a late antique quadriburgium, a monastery, and eventually an Umayyad (?) palace, had been reconstructed and reinforced.  The presence of the crane suggests that more is planned.  Among the many interesting things I stumbled across were yet more mosaics, in this case carefully protected behind a gate.
If the mosaics are, roughly, in the eastern section of the structure, the fragments of the edict are in the southern section.  Several pieces are fixed into the walls.  Some were placed in the middle of other bricks, as below.

Some are placed with the letters oriented as they should be, like the photo above.  In other spots, the letters are upside down.
In yet others, the letters are sideways, and even partially cut off.
As it happens, these fragments are, well, only a fraction of the original total, and by all accounts they seem to be in situ, at least with respect to the time when these blocks were fixed into these walls at el-Hallabat.  Many more fragments, however, had toppled over, and though these particular fragments were visible to early excavators, those that had fallen over were not.  Although I don't have any visual evidence for what the pile of rubble is likely to have looked like, there are other sites in Jordan, military ones too (it seems), that are overrun with blocks, and which are undoubtedly concealing all sorts of wonderful things.  For instance, the fortress at the heart of the World Heritage Site of Umm er-Rasas is strewn with blocks.

This is in contrast to many of the surrounding structures, many of them churches, which are filled with incredible mosaics, like those below.
Anyway, in good time many more fragments of the edict were recovered, and these have been fixed to a wall in the visitor centre.  A picture of one of those fragments is below, with a shot of a good portion of the total below that.
One feature that stands out about these fragments is their colour:  it contrasts, sharply, with the limestone found in the modern visitor centre (above), and the majority of the blocks in the reconstructed structure.  A little detective work determined that these blocks had likely come from Umm el-Jimal, some 20km down the road (a fair distance by car, as it happens), and just south of the modern border with Syria (and not far from a Syrian refugee camp incidentally).  Umm el-Jimal, a remarkable site itself, and with hardly a visitor, me aside, is filled with these black basalt blocks.  Note, for instance, the photos below, the first a shot of the town, the second a larger house/villa.
Archaeologists four blocks from the larger edict at Umm el-Jimal, and largely on that basis (and the coloration), it seems likely the edict was initially posted at this larger, and seemingly more prominent centre.  Umm el-Jimal was at the halfway point (roughly) on the road between Bosra and Gerasa, unlike Qasr el-Hallabat.  A copy of the edict is posted on a wall on the visitor centre at Umm el-Jimal.
Now, we don't know where the edict was originally posted, though the suggestion that it was posted at the praetorium (headquarters) at Umm el-Jimal, which happens to be near the main gate to the town, seems sensible enough.  At present work continues on the edict.  Professor Denis Feissel, along with Drs. Ignacio Arce and Thomas Weber, have been working away, and it seems that a complete edition will be published before long (a precis I found of theirs forms the basis for this post).  Regrettably, the easily accessible (free, online) version of the text contains only a portion of the total - fragments discovered later have filled out our picture of the original, though 20% of the total remains lost.  You can see that earlier version on the link below.

A majority of the fragments remain at Qasr el-Hallabat.  Some more are scattered at Umm el-Jimal, and assorted museums, universities, and military (contemporary) mess halls in Jordan.  It's hard to overstate the importance of this text.  While there are other comparable edicts from Anastasius, including an English translation of a comparable edict found at Cyrenaica (Libya) below, this particular edict seems particularly important for some of the administrative and military-organizational changes implemented by the emperor.

We are told, for instance, that this edict, covers a number of issues ranging from the salary of dukes and assorted branches of the military administration in the east, to the regulations regarding soldiers unfit for service and the requirement that public money for churches not be funnelled to military issues.  Needless to say, I eagerly the publication of this edict, and for the time being will content myself on working my way through the currently published portion of the text.


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