A rare clay Arabic amulet unearthed by archaeologists in the last days of Ramadan brings an unexpected 1,000-year-old blessing from Allah.
Discovered last week in the City of David’s Givati Parking Lot excavations near the Old City of Jerusalem, the minuscule 1-centimeter Arabic-inscribed piece of clay bears an unusual two-line personal prayer that reads, “Kareem Trusts in Allah; Lord of the Worlds is Allah.”
It was especially resonant to the archaeologists last week as during the month-long holiday, Muslims traditionally greet each other by saying, “Ramadan Kareem.”
The amulet was uncovered in the flooring of an Abbasid-period structure (circa 9th-10th centuries CE), alongside several examples of pottery sherds and an almost entirely intact oil lamp, upon which black soot attests to its everyday use. It was found in a small room near a tabun, or oven, and sealed between plaster flooring, perhaps indicating it was intentionally placed there during the room’s construction.
In conversation with The Times of Israel, co-director of the dig Dr. Yiftah Shalev of the Israel Antiquities Authority said that based on its small size and the fact that there is no hole for a string, it can be assumed that this is a personal item or amulet rather than a seal impression for closing documents or cloth sacks, such as have been discovered elsewhere from other time periods.
In an IAA press release, co-director Prof. Yuval Gadot of Tel Aviv University and Shalev state, “The size of the object, its shape, and the text on it indicate that it was apparently used as an amulet for blessing and protection.”
There are very few examples of such clay amulets. Most similar inscriptions are from seals, which bear only one line, not two, such as this recent discovery.
The inscription underwent preliminary deciphering by Dr. Nitzan Amitai-Preiss of the Rothberg International School at Hebrew University. She will continue to examine and research the unusual, only partially legible, two-line inscription, said Shalev.
According to the IAA press release, “The wording of the first line is familiar from seals made of semiprecious stones, as well as from roadside inscriptions (graffiti) along the pilgrims’ route to Mecca (Darb al-Haj) from the 8th-10th centuries CE. The lower portion of the letters in the second line are faded, and its interpretation is based on similar wordings that appear on personal seals and in several verses from the Koran.”
The Abbasid Caliphate ruled the region from circa 750 CE to 970 CE, during what is often called the Golden Age of Islam. In the latter part of its Baghdad-based empire, Egypt and Palestine were ruled by governors given the title of Al-Ikhshid (Prince). Indicating the importance of Jerusalem to these princes, at least one was buried in the city.
According to Shalev, the Givati excavations aims to preserve evidence of all the many historic periods represented at the site and display them to the public. Already, visitors can see low-lying Hellenistic-era structures in the deeper excavated areas presented alongside more modern Abbasid-era finds closer to the street level. Shalev’s particular excavation is rather high, he said, but due to the slope of the land, only about 40-50 centimeters from bedrock.
“The idea is at the end of the excavations that every period will be presented. As archaeologists, we see importance in all periods and want to exhibit them,” he explained. “The idea is to discover the ancient world, not any specific period.”
Previous excavations have uncovered other Abbasid-era finds, including an industrial complex. What the specific purpose of the amulet’s location was used for remains somewhat unclear.
“Unfortunately,” the researchers said in the IAA press release, “the poor preservation of the architecture make the purpose of the structure difficult to determine. It is interesting to note that several installations indicate cooking activities that occurred here. Modest structures from the same period were found in prior excavations at the same site, including residential homes interspersed with stores and workshops. It is reasonable to assume that this structure was used as part of that same industrial zone.”
Shalev said that his team pushed to publicize the amulet, which was discovered just last week, because they thought it would be fitting to announce it during Ramadan.
“We wanted to publicize it quickly, so to give everyone its blessing during the holiday,” said Shalev.