The Rural Renaissance of Mamluk Jordan: Tall Ḥisbān in Context

By Bethany WALKER

 The recent “rural turn” in Islamic archaeology is nowhere more evident than in the rapidly growing interest in the Middle Islamic period in Jordan. The 13th-14th centuries CE is a rich time culturally and historically. Having documented the Mamluk-era phases of construction and reuse of castle sites, archaeologists are now turning to the extensive archaeological remains of rural settlements to reconstruct daily life in small communities. As most of what stands above ground is Mamluk in date, and the Citadel and village houses are quite well preserved, the site of Tall Ḥisbān, located 20 km south of Amman, has become the type-site of this period in Jordan (Fig. 1).

This lecture summarized the rather surprising results of the last two decades of fieldwork at this site, and what light they shed on such issues as rural revival, peasant migration, agrarian knowledge and crafts, family life, and the relationship between Jordanian villages and the Mamluk state. It focused on three themes: archaeological evidence of rural revival in the 13th and 14th centuries, daily life in a 14th-century village, and the nature of settlement and rural decline from the late medieval era.


Fig. 1. Aerial view of Tall Ḥisbān (courtesy APAAME)

The emergency of a “Mamluk archaeology”

The growing popularity of the archaeology of the Mamluk period in Jordan is due to several factors: the expansion in salvage projects documenting Middle Islamic remains, the comparatively good preservation of archaeological remains of the period, and the general shift to the study of rural society in Islamic archaeology as a whole. More archaeologists specializing in this period are making use of the rich body of textual material available (though difficult at times to access), and more historians of the Mamluk Sultanate are turning to the results of archaeological work to explain and enrich their research and ask new questions about the period.

The ongoing excavations at Tall Ḥisbān on the Madaba Plains have been a driving force in promoting archaeological methods in Mamluk Studies, and can be credited with helping to raise the profile of Mamluk Archaeology as a specialized area of study. Fieldwork has focused in the last two decades on the Mamluk Citadel and the contemporary “farmhouses” that sat in its shadow at the base of the tell (Fig. 2). They are well preserved, with relatively good stratigraphic separation and an abundance of sealed contexts and middens, and with excellent botanical and faunal preservation. A project commitment to responsible textual analysis has resulted in new narratives about village society, the relationship of these communities with the Mamluk state, and the economic and political factors behind settlement cycles and cultural change. In this way, this archaeological site has been pivotal in defining many of the debates in the field today.

Fig. 2. Doorway of Field C house, Byzantine reused in Mamluk period (Walker et al 2018: fig. 20)

Archaeological evidence for rural revival

Household industries

In comparison to the Early Islamic period, ceramic production throughout Bilād al-Shām was decentralized in the Middle Islamic period. One could see in this shift to localized production evidence of the strength of the rural economy and its resilience. One factor behind the Early Mamluk rural revival of the region was the building of viable local industries (very much a local initiative) and the development of a good infrastructure for transport and exchange (an imperial project).

During recent seasons of excavation at Tall Ḥisbān, a local tradition in stone-working and evidence for site-based ceramic and glass production have been identified. While most of the building materials incorporated into the Mamluk construction were spolia, some new limestone blocks were quarried from the ubiquitous caves and the wadi beds. The debitage from the final stages of the shaping of the blocks clutter the courtyards of each farmhouse cluster. We have identified, as well, both debitage and the final products of flint-knapping, namely scrapers and drills fashioned from local flint. This flint, which is readily available in beds across the Wadi Majar, was used for the roughly-hewn opus sectile floor that covers a small storeroom, in the North House of the Field O farmhouse cluster. The style imitates the pavements of imperial mosques and madrasas in Cairo and Damascus, suggesting either familiarity with imperial style or the involvement of craftsmen from the cities.

One annex of the same North House, which was built in the Abbasid period, may have been repurposed in the 13th century into a workshop. We have only recently identified local production in this period of two goods at Tall Ḥisbān which require some degree of specialization: glass and glazed ceramics, crafts which are technologically connected. Glass cullet and tank furnaces suggest local glass production, possibly from an earlier period. Further evidence of glass production comes from probe analysis of the glazes of glazed pottery from the site. In combination with thin-section petrography, XRD, and XRF, this analysis has suggested local (or regional) production of four readily recognizable Mamluk-era glazed wares: slip-painted, glazed-relief, monochrome-glazed, and “barracks ware” sgraffitos.  

While no pottery kiln has even been identified at the site, some traces of ceramic production is coming from ongoing excavations in one room in the Field O farmhouse clusters, which has a plastered basin and covered drains. Here a domestic space of the Late Byzantine and Early Islamic period appears to have been converted in the 13th century to industrial use, with several installations sunk into the earlier medieval levels. Tools associated with ceramic production and deposits of worked clay were recovered here. A firing tripod was identified, as well, from a contemporary structure at the base of the west slope.

Growth of the rural economy

The rural economy of Middle Islamic Jordan was heavily monetarized. Copper coins (fulūs) of the Mamluk period, the small change used in market exchange and for daily use, have been recovered in large numbers at Tall Ḥisbān, like many other contemporary sites in Jordan. They bear witness to active participation in a market economy. We know, of course, from period chronicles that Ḥisbān hosted a large market that serviced hundreds of villages in the region. The ongoing numismatic study of this material by Prof. Warren Schultz (of De Paul University in Chicago) is changing our notions about the supposed barter economy of late medieval society.

Further evidence of a market economy has been reconstructed through a tightly integrated multidisciplinary study of foodways at the site. A range of botanical methods and zooarchaeological analysis – combined with study of period agricultural texts, chronicles, and documentary sources – has suggested some important ways in which local peasants produced for both markets and local consumption, namely through diversification of cereal production and intensification of the same through irrigation.

Daily Life in a medieval village

Vernacular architecture

Because so much of the fieldwork today at Tall Ḥisbān has focused on the well-preserved clusters of barrel-vaulted houses at the base of the tell, we are able to say much more about the contours of daily life in the village than ever before (Fig. 3). An architectural study including photogrammetry and 3-D modelling is allowing us to better understand the evolution of what is a regional tradition of vaulting. The houses at Ḥisbān have the same size, form, and roofing structure. The single-room house with plastered floors and walls and a barrel-vaulted roof appears to be one variant of a regional koine found in the central highland plateaus of Transjordan. This form has a long history in the region.

What is new in the Mamluk period is how such structures were modified. Mamluk-era building practice in southern Bilād al-Shām includes reuse of what is stable, demolition of what is not and a preference to build on bedrock, and entirely stone construction. Most of this work appears to have been done by local hands.

Fig. 3. Site plan (courtesy Nicolo Pini)

Evidence of wealth

While the architecture adhered to a long local tradition, many of the small finds associated with the houses do not. Ceramic imports occupy not only a large percentage of the assemblage in the Citadel storeroom, but also in the farmhouses. In fact, there is little difference between the pottery used in households and that used by the soldiers in the castle on the hill. More astonishing was the recent recovery of enameled and lustered glass from the same house (Fig. 4). They are likely Damascene imports, and include fragments of beakers, bowls, and lamps. It is quite possible that some of the houses below the tell were occupied by a new class of tenants in the 14th century: the officials serving the Mamluk state.

Fig. 4. Fragment of a glass bowl or beaker with Arabic inscription and blazon (Walker et al 2018: fig. 18)

Diet and kitchen culture

We are learning ever more about what people ate and how they prepared their food. This has only been possible because of an intensive effort at studying a wide range of botanical and faunal remains, in addition to residue analysis of cooking and storage wares, interpreted against a reading of period cookbooks. The recent discovery of an intact elephant-eared cookpot underneath a plastered floor in the Field O North House has provided a unique opportunity to study kitchen culture (Fig. 5). The pot contained the remnants of the last meal cooked in it.

Fig. 5. Buried cookpot of Field O farmhouse

Rural decline

Like many sites in the region, Tall Ḥisbān was gradually abandoned over the course of the late 15th and 16th centuries, with only periodic visitation to the site. After a peak in Middle Islamic occupation in the 14th century, the site contracts slowly, and in stages, after an earthquake in the 3rd quarter of the century. This “phased abandonment” can be identified throughout the site: in the conversion of former living spaces and cisterns into middens, in the domestic use of the former Citadel, in attempts to repair structural damage and then abandon those buildings, in coin hoarding, and in the temporary burial of household goods (such as a pantry of storage jars in a house south of the tell – Fig. 6). Eventually the slopes of the tell were converted to agricultural terraces, in a familiar pattern of reuse of archaeological ruins. The site was occupied again on a full-time basis only in the 19th century, when the center of the village shifted to the south.

Fig. 6. Underglaze-painted jars from Field B house (Walker et al 2017a: fig. 17)


Walker B.J. 2011. Jordan in the Late Middle Ages: Transformation of the Mamluk Frontier. (Chicago: Middle East Documentation Center, University of Chicago).

Walker B.J. 2020. “Southern Syria”, in Walker B.J., Insoll T., & Fenwick C. (eds.), Oxford Handbook of Islamic Archaeology (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 49-79.

Walker B.J., Bates R. D., Hudon J.P., & LaBianca Ø. S. 2017a. “Tall Hisban 2013 and 2014 Excavation Seasons: Exploration of the Medieval Village and Long-Term Water Systems”, Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 58: 483-523.

Walker B.J., Bates R., Polla S., Springer A., & Weihe S. 2017b. “Residue Analysis as Evidence of Activity Areas and Phased Abandonment in a Medieval Jordanian Village”, Journal of Islamic Archaeology 4.3: 217-248.

Walker B.J., Greer T., al-Shqour R., LaBianca A., Bates R.D., Hudon J.P., Schultz W., Henderson J., Corbino C., Laparidou S., Hansen A., & LaBianca Ø.S. 2018. “Tall Ḥisbān 2016 Excavation Season: Household Archaeology in the Medieval Village”, Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 59: 557-595.

Walker B.J., Laparidou S., Hansen A., and Corbino C. 2017c. “Did the Mamluks Have an Environmental Sense?: Natural Resource Management in Syrian Villages”, Mamluk Studies Review 20: 167-245.

Pour citer cet article : Bethany Walker, “The Rural Renaissance of Mamluk Jordan: Tall Ḥisbān in Context”, Les carnets de l’Ifpo. La recherche en train de se faire à l’Institut français du Proche-Orient,, le 17 mai 2021. [En  ligne sur

Bethany Walker (PhD 1998, University of Toronto, Middle Eastern Studies) is a Research Professor at the University of Bonn, where she holds the Chair of Mamluk Studies and directs the Research Unit of Islamic Archaeology in the Department of Islamic Studies. She was also the co-director of Bonn’s Annemarie Schimmel Kolleg, a Center for Advanced Research in Mamluk Studies. A historically trained archaeologist and Arabist, Walker directs multiple archaeological projects in Jordan and abroad, including the excavations at Tall Ḥisbān. Prof. Walker is founding editor of the Journal of Islamic Archaeology, founding co-editor of Equinox’s Monographs in Islamic Archaeology, and co-editor of the recently published Oxford Handbook of Islamic Archaeology; serves on numerous American and French editorial boards; and is a long-time Board member of the American Center of Research in Amman. Her monograph Jordan in the Late Middle Ages: Transformation of the Mamluk Frontier was published by Chicago Press in 2011. She has worked in Jordan for over twenty years.

This blog article is based on a lecture given by the author for the Ifpo’s Webinar « Archaeology of the Middle East and North Africa from Late Antiquity to the Ottoman Period. First Series: Lebanon and Jordan » organized between January and December 2021 by the Ifpo (Julie Bonnéric & Valentina Vezzoli):

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Ifpo (2021, 17 mai). The Rural Renaissance of Mamluk Jordan: Tall Ḥisbān in Context. Les carnets de l’Ifpo. Consulté le 18 mai 2024, à l’adresse

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