From: Hell, To: Paradise – Climate, Landscape and Affect


In addition to a nuts and bolts quantitative analysis of the more recent material from the MacDonald surveys, I’m also interested in how the ways in which people inhabit a landscape are reflected in contemporary historical sources. Khirbet Sheikh ‘Isa (SGNAS 4) and al-Rujoum (SGNAS 45), which were both investigated as part of the Southern Ghors and Northeast ‘Arabah Archaeological Survey, have been identified with the medieval town of Zughar mentioned by several geographers. MacDonald suggests that Khirbet Sheikh ‘Isa was the Byzantine town known as Zoara, and Donald Whitcomb follows up with a discussion of the possibility that al-Rujoum was Zughar.

The tenth-century geographer Muqaddasi wrote of Zughar (or Sughar), the capital of al-Sharat (better known as Edom):

The people of the two neighboring districts call the Saqar (that is, “Hell”); and a native of Jerusalem was wont to write from here to his friends, addressing “From the lower Saqar (Hell) unto those in the upper Firdus (Paradise).” And verily this is a country that is deadly to the stranger for its water is execrable; and he who should find that the Angel of Death delays for him, let him come here, for in all Islam I know not of any place to equal it in evil climate…

Its people are black-skinned and thick-set. Its waters are hot, even as though the place stood over Hell-fire. On the other hand, its commercial prosperity makes of it a little Basra, and its trade is very lucrative. The town stands on the shore of the Overwhelming Lake [the Dead Sea] and is in truth the remnant of the cities of Lot, being the one that was spared by reason that its inhabitants knew nothing of their abominations. The mountains rise up near by the town.

From LeStrange 1896, 62-63 as quote in MacDonald et al. 1992, 116-117.

There is much to unpack in this little description. The invocation of the cities of Lot should alert us to the fact that there are literary tropes structuring Muqaddasi’s encounter with the place, although even these tropes may provide a glimpse of the affective power of the landscape and climate. The sarcastic epistolary reference to the town as Hell would appear to be a comment on its climate and landscape: the area south of the Dead Sea is incredibly hot, and the water of the Dead Sea is not only improbably salty but also, especially in the summer, very warm. But it might also be a subtle commentary on the backwards culture of the town as seen through the eyes of a metropolitan outsider.

Not only is the region deadly, but the climate is “evil.”  I’ve been thinking about the essentializing rhetoric of geographers in which the affect and temperament of people are enfolded within a descriptive context of a specific place and climate (what Deleuze might call a haecceity) ever since I read Karl Steel’s mini-post on Mandeville over at In the Middle. Sidestepping the question of race in the Middle Ages, Karl considers the causal connection that Mandeville implies between climate and personality as a potentially disruptive repositioning of agency and responsibility: “The Tartars are bad like the weather is bad.” But the “evil climate” of Zughar, which could, Muqaddasi points out, result from a physical position relative to “Hell-fire,” does not necessarily produce bad people. Although Muqaddasi states that Sodom and Gomorrah were located in the same quasi-infernal region, their destruction (and the decision to spare Zughar as an urban island of innocents in a debauched network of cities and towns) has cleared the way for a flourishing economic center, “a little Basra.”

For more on the term saqar, we can turn to the Encyclopedi of the Qurʾān entry for “Hell and Hellfire” by Rosalind W. Gwynne, who lists it among the 10 or so names for Hell mentioned in the Qurʾān:

saqar is not defined at its first occurrence in Q 54:48 (“taste the touch of saqar”) but Q 74:26-31 contains a functional definition: it “lets nothing remain and leaves nothing alone, turning human beings red” ( lawwāḥatun lil-bashari, see Ṭabarsī, v, 386-9)

Extreme heat and bothersome or outright deadly wildlife are the two key components of hell, and both are found in the area south of the Dead Sea. Vegetation (gardens) and water (rivers) are both identified with paradise, and these are generally absent from the region (although relatively abundant in the Jordan Valley, and less scarce on the nearby Kerak plateau).

While Karl reads Mandeville’s description of the Tartar’s environment as a non-human agent actively shaping the personalities of its inhabitants, what can we do with the prosperous, “black-skinned, thick-set” people of Zughar who lucked out when Sodom was destroyed but who still live in a region that is, in the summer at least, Hellish? Even their skin color implies that they are like the sinners punished in the Qur’ān with black faces. Could it be the other way around, that the wicked people of al- Muʾtafikāt contaminated the landscape itself with their vile deeds, rendering it permanently hellish for future generations? Perhaps there a kind of moralizing eco-criticism at work in Muqaddasi’s description of Zughar and its hinterland.


Gwynne, Rosalind W. “Hell and Hellfire.” Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān. General Editor: Jane Dammen McAuliffe, Georgetown University, Washington DC. Brill, 2011. Brill Online. Bryn Mawr College. 09 May 2011.

MacDonald, Burton, and Khairieh ʼAmr. The Southern Ghors and Northeast ʼArabah Archaeological Survey. Sheffield: J.R. Collis Publications, 1992.

Al-Muqaddasi. The Best Divisions for Knowledge of the Regions (Ahsan al-taqasim fi maʻrifat al-aqalim). Translate by Basil Anthony Collins. Reading, UK: Centre for Muslim Contribution to Civilization, 1994.

Tafila-Busayra: Crunching the numbers

I’ve been going through the most recent Burton MacDonald survey trying to apply some critical thinking skills to the data for the periods after, oh, say the lower Lithic, when MacDonald and his team lose interest. The published results, in a pleasantly sturdy volume titled The Tafila-Busayra Archaeological Survey 1999-2001, West-Central Jordan are exciting but also frustrating. For one thing, much of the information is available on a website! The TBASwebpage may not be pretty, but it allows you to copy and paste, for which everyone under the age of 35 will thank their deity of preference. The formatting is a little wonky, so I cleaned up the data I’m working with in Excel and put it up as a GoogleDoc for anyone interested.

The region was surveyed using several different methods, primarily random squares and purposive site-based survey based on aerial photos (see the sweet flickr page for the Aerial Photographic Archive for Archaeology in the Middle East) and earlier surveys, namely those by Glueck and Parker. I’m focusing on the major sites identified by MacDonald (78 out of 290), for which he helpfully gives a separate list.

On of the more interesting things MacDonald does is to distinguish between three landscapes (actually, there are two more sub-landscapes), which would provide a basis for doing a comparative study on what kinds of landscapes are being utilized for what kinds of activities during different periods. If you noticed the would, however, we’ve entered the realm of the hypothetical because MacDonald only provides the zone information for sites in or near the random squares, not for the purposive sites. Most of the major sites were purposively surveyed, which is why the final column for the zone information is full of holes.

While MacDonald publishes drawings of diagnostic material for many of the sites (hooray!), he does not publish the amount of pottery from each period found at the sites. From this presentation, one can only make binary presence-absence distinctions for the different periods. Although this is a little frustrating, perhaps this is all one really should try to conclude from surface surveys.

Some early-stage analysis:

There are many more Byzantine sites than there are for any other period. This can partially be explained by the nature of the region in the Byzantine period, which served as a militarized defensive zone dotted with forts and towers. The drastic drop in sites between the Byzantine/Late Antique and Early Medieval periods is basically what I’m going to talk about in my paper for the landscape archaeology seminar, some of which will get posted here in its inception, so I won’t dwell on that. Basically it seems to be the result of a combination of plague and economic and political instability in the late sixth and early seventh centuries, along with the disappearance of the main reason people had to live there (defending the frontier).

Perhaps more interesting are the sites that MacDonald identifies as churches, which have ceramics present from a number of periods after the conquest. It’s possible that these buildings were reused for other purposes, but it’s also possible that they were reused (or even constructed) as mosques. I haven’t looked more closely at MacDonald’s write ups of these sites yet, so this idea is probably hasty and wrong. But the long lives of the buildings is interesting nonetheless.

Looking at the sites not by number, but by the proportion of sites from each period that appear to have served different functions is also pretty revealing:

The church issue is clear here as well. One fifth of the (admittedly few) sites with Early Medieval ceramics are considered to be churches. This is not implausible, after all churches continued to be constructed for centuries after the conquest. But it also makes me wonder if some of these were actually mosques, and just typologically very similar to rural Byzantine churches or chapels. I’m thinking in particular of the small mosques associated with the rural estates at Hallabat and Qastal, but why these would or wouldn’t be necessary in the Tafila-Busayra region is a question I still have to consider more carefully.

What’s kind of neat is the fact that, overall, a similar percentage of the sites was serving any given function over the course of 1900 years. One notable exception is the Roman and Byzantine emphasis on defensive structures, which are unnecessary in the Early Medieval period but become relevant again in the Later Medieval period (a connection to the crusades is likely but it’s impossible to rule out other causes).

Expect a site time line and a map, perhaps tomorrow.