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XV - 2019


edited by
Michelina Di Cesare

ROMA 2019

Direttore Scientifico: Lorenzo Nigro

Redazione: Daria Montanari, Chiara Fiaccavento

ISSN 1127-6037
e-ISSN 2532-5175
ISBN 9788898154142

Cover illustration: Carved bone chess piece from Cencelle (courtesy of Progetto Cencelle



M. Di Cesare - Foreword VII

R. Sassu - Ivory for the Gods, Ivory for the Kings:

Some Remarks on Ivory Items Offered inside Greek Sanctuaries
(7th-4th Centuries BC) 1

C. Bianchi - Testimonianze della lavorazione dell’avorio e dell’osso

in epoca romana: stato della ricerca e recenti casi di studio 23

L. Colliva - Note su alcuni astragali di period achemenide - post-achemenide

rinvenuti a Persepolis West 75

P. Callieri - L’uso dell’avorio e dell’osso nell’Iran di epoca sasanide:

un’influenza delle concezioni zoroastriane? 89

G. Terribili - The Lovely Bones. Conceptions and Contention

on Portentous Human Remains in the Context of Late-Antique Iran 103

M. David - L’avorio conteso.

I dittici eburnei tra storici, archeologi e storici dell’arte 127

A. Santi - A Possible Early Iconography of Madīna

on an Ivory Plaque from al-Fudayn 145

A. Shalem - What’s All the Fuss about the ‘Humeima Ivories’:

A Note about the History of Writing on Early Carved Ivories
in the Lands of Islam 171

M. Di Cesare - The Contribution of a Tiny Ivory Hand

to the History of 11th-Century Iranian Material Culture 185

S. Armando - L’Avorio di elefante nel Mediterraneo Medievale:

Circolazione, disponibilità, usi (X-XIII secolo) 215

F.R. Stasolla - Archeologia del gioco degli scacchi nel Medioevo occidentale:
nuovi manufatti in Italia con Appendice di Beatrice Casocavallo 279


A. Asadi - A. Omidvar - Khatam, A Unique Art.

A Research on the History and Production of Khatam in Iran,
Focusing on the Use of Bone 299

[Quaderni di Vicino Oriente XV (2019), pp. 145-170]



Aila Santi - Sapienza University of Rome, Italy

Among the findings discovered in al-Fudayn (Jordan) there is an ivory plaque curiously moulded in
the shape of a dagger blade and incised with sketched drawings of some interest. They consist of an
arch with a hanging lamp, a palm tree and a she-camel, namely a set of subjects strictly connected with
traditional Medinan imagery. Due to the early date and archaeological provenance of the object, it
might be one of the earliest known attempts to canonise an iconography of the City of the Prophet. The
context in which the plaque was found and its iconography would suggest an early ʿAbbasid dating for
the artefact and the existence of a high-status trade of devotional objects of Ḥijāzī production
connecting the Arab homeland with the Bilād al-Shām.

Keywords: ivory; Madīna; al-Fudayn; ḥajj; Umayyad and ʿAbbasid periods

In 1986 the École Biblique et Archéologique Française de Jérusalem started its

investigations at al-Fudayn,1 an archaeological site located in the present-day city of Mafraq,
circa 70 km northeast of ʿAmmān, in northern Jordan.2
In the past, this region represented a natural and geopolitical interface between the
southern limit of the Syrian plateau and the Arabian Peninsula, 3 at the crossroads of crucial
routes connecting Ḥawrān to Jerash, the territories of the Decapolis to the Wādī al-Siḥrān,
and Damascus with the Ḥijāzī region via the Azrāq Oasis.4
The first archaeological campaigns at the site were directed by J. B. Humbert and
revealed a very interesting sequence of occupational phases, testifying that the site was
continuously occupied from the Iron Age 5 to the early Islamic period, with relevant Roman6
and Byzantine7 interludes.8 The plan (fig. 1) shows the archaeological area as it can be
observed nowadays and as it appeared before its abandonment in the late Umayyad-early
ʿAbbasid period. The complex is composed of three buildings occupying an overall area of
approximately 6400 m2:9 a former Byzantine monastic installation10 which was reoccupied

1 According to Humbert (1986, 354; 1989, 126) the toponym, of ancient Aramaic origin, would have meant
“stronghold, fortress”: an etymology confirmed in the occupational layers pertaining to the Iron Age, which
revealed the presence of a monumental enclosure with gigantic stone blocks (cf. Labisi 2015, 66).
2 Humbert 1986; 1989; 2001.
3 Humbert 1986, 354.
4 Ibid., 355.
5 When, according to French archaeologists, the Aramaic princedoms in the fringe of the Syrian desert flourished
after becoming vassals of the Neo-Assyrian empire (Humbert 1989, 125).
6 In Roman times the site, located on a variant of the Via Nova Traiana, conceivably worked as a statio
connecting Bosra to Gerasa (Labisi 2015, 66 and quoted references).
7 For the latest excavations carried out at the beginning of 2000, see the two reports in Arabic by Husan (2001;
8 Humbert (1986, 357) briefly mentions the presence of a further phase testified by an Ayyubid encampment (cf.
Labisi 2015, 67), showing that the area was sporadically reoccupied after the site was abandoned, between the
end of the 8th and the beginning of the 9th century. For the date of the downfall of al-Fudayn and the reasons
behind it see below.
9 Labisi 2015, 67.
ISSN 1127-6037
e-ISSN 2532-5175
ISBN 9788898154142
Aila Santi QuadVO

and partially refurbished by the Umayyads (Unit I); an Umayyad residential structure
comprehensive of a ḥammām and a lavishly decorated palatine mosque (Unit II); and an
Umayyad square tower (which Humbert calls « château arabe »11 Unit III).12 It was during the
first excavation season that, while investigating the previous Byzantine installation, the
archaeologists came across a remarkable discovery. They found that the former vestibule of
the monastery had been transformed by the later Umayyad occupants into an entrepôt (fig. 1,
a) filled with luxurious furniture thereby blocking the opening onto the courtyard.13 Among
the many peculiar objects discovered - including a set of steatite pots, a bronze brazier with
erotic scenes and kitchen moulds in the shape of animals14 - it is worth mentioning a curious
triangular ivory plaque (fig. 2).15 The object, measuring 28  7 centimetres long and just 2
millimetres thick,16 was found in fragmentary conditions17 and is now in the Jordan
Archaeological Museum in ʿAmmān.18 What makes it worthy of attention is not only its
unusual shape, somehow reminiscent of a dagger, but especially the thin sketchy decoration
incised on both of its faces. Its poor conservation notwithstanding, a reconstructive drawing
published right after its recovery (fig. 3)19 - when some of the fragments of the upper part,
now lost, were allegedly still preserved - enables us to appreciate its full decorative scheme,
revealing a figurative program of great interest which never received the attention it would
have deserved. The face reconstructed in the drawing from the bottom up features a date-
palm tree growing out of a small mound, with the trunk divided into longitudinal sections
alternatively filled with stylised geometrical patterns. Large leaves start stemming from the
middle of the trunk upward and culminate, on the top, in lush and beautiful foliage. While
considering the sketchy and to some extent naïve quality of the drawing, the harmonic
naturalism of the composition deserves some attention. In particular, the detail of the lower
leaves, gently curved downwards, recalls some of the palm trees pictured in the mosaics of
the Dome of the Rock (fig. 4).20 Moreover, both this feature and the attempt to render the
needle-shaped extremities of the foliage could be said to be reminiscent of the date-plant
portrayed on the coeval mosaic pavement of the Church of the Kàthisma in Jerusalem (fig.
An architectural structure is suspended on the upper part of the decorated surface,
virtually framing the top of the palm tree, but most of it is now lost. We know from the
reconstructive drawing that it consisted of a rounded arch leaning on two columns with a

10 Note that, according to the excavators, « le niveau byzantine reposait à même les couches du Fer » (Humbert
1989, 127).
11 Humbert 1989, 126.
12 For the latest comprehensive and detailed descriptions of the buildings see Labisi 2015, 67-72.
13 Humbert 1986, 356-357; 1989, 128-130.
14 Humbert 1989, 128-130; Ballian 2012, 212-215.
15 The object, which does not appear in either of the two brief reports by Humbert (1986, 1989), was first
published in an exhibition catalogue (Paris 1986, 369, fig. 355).
16 Ballian 2012, 213; cf. Naghawy 2018.
17 Since their recovery the fragments have been partly reassembled (Ballian 2012, 213).
18 Inv. J. 15709.
19 Paris 1986, 369, fig. 355. The same drawing was published again one year later in the catalogue of an exhibition
on Jordanian and Palestinian antiquities held in Cologne, Schallaburg and Munich (Köln 1987, 350, fig. 355).
20 Creswell 19792, 263, figs. 209-210; pl. 14c.
21 Flood 2012, 248, fig. 97.

XV (2019) A Possible Early Iconography of Madīna

hanging lamp. The surface of the column’s shafts is filled with a sketched continuous grid-
pattern. A similar motif alternates in the plinths, the capitals and the extrados of the arch with
triangular elements left blank, resulting in a sort of wolf’s tooth decoration. The body of the
hanging lamp, apparently hemispherical in shape, is similarly filled with a thick wolf’s tooth
pattern, in turn filled with a tiny lattice design. It can be hypothesised that this kind of
decoration - as well as the hatch pattern filling the three supports on which the lamp is
suspended - constitutes an attempt to render the openwork pattern characterising the metal
specimens of mosque lamps of the early Islamic period.22
A quadruped is depicted on the opposite face of the object (fig. 6). Although this part of
the piece is severely damaged, it is possible to recognise four distinct hooved feet, a long
neck and, in particular, a big hump: this latter detail makes it possible to identify the
portrayed animal as a Camelus Dromedarius, the unique species of camelid found in the
Arabian Peninsula. Nonetheless, the most interesting detail in the composition can only be
glimpsed with a closer and careful glance. Below the feet of the animal it is indeed possible
to distinguish a tiny camel, probably a calf, stretching its neck, apparently in the act of
suckling, towards the lower part of the larger animal’s belly, thus revealing it to be a female.
Speculating from an iconographical perspective, the most immediate explanation for the
presence of the calf is to specify the female gender of the adult camel, which leads to the
question of why the artist felt this need to explicitly indicate that the camel was in fact a she-
There are enlightening explanations for this and other questions if we look at each
element of the depicted scene in terms of the components of a precise iconographic program.


Starting with the palm tree, it is well known that from quite an early date - at least from
the 9th-10th century23 - it started to be associated with the city of the Prophet, Madīna, going
on to become one of the most distinctive iconographical elements in representations of the
blessed town and, specifically, in devotional portrayals of the masjid al-nabī (the Prophet’s
The palm tree, apart from having been a thousand-year old archetype for life and
prosperity among virtually all the cultures of Ancient Western Asia, 25 played an epitomizing
role in relation to Madīna, principally due to the centre’s ecological features. In the city-oasis

22 See as a comparison the mosque lamp in openwork sheet brass preserved in the David Collection in Copenhagen
(inv. no. 17/1970; von Folsach 1990, 187, fig. 303). Dating to the 10 th century, it constitutes one of the oldest
extant examples of metal lamps in the Islamic world. Both its shallow, basin-shaped body and its three flat
suspension arms carved in openwork closely recall the characteristics of the object depicted on the al-Fudayn
ivory blade. The only discordant detail is the tall flaring neck, whose absence in the drawing could be due to its
sketchy and rough nature.
23 The palm tree appears in the oldest surviving representation so far identified of the mosque of the Prophet in
Madīna, depicted on a fragmentary Egyptian paper scroll dated to the 9th or 10th century and currently preserved
in the Dār al-kutub in Cairo (Flood 2012, 249-250, fig. 99).
24 See for instance the Timurid pilgrim scroll in the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha (fig. 7; Chekhab-Aboudata et
al. 2016, 354-356, fig. 6); or the later miniatures in two manuscripts of the Khalili Collection Islamic Art (figs.
8-9, MSS 97 fol. 9b; Rogers 2010, cat. 287, 252.; and MSS 276, ibid., cat. 288, 253); or again, in the same
collection, the Turkish circular book of prayers dating to the 16 th or 17th century (fig. 10, ibid., cat. 272, 237).
25 For a comprehensive study of the symbolism of the palm tree in Ancient Western Asia, see Danthine 1937.

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of Yathrib, palm groves abundantly flourished due to the natural configuration of the soil,26
and the crucial role they played in the economy and self-sustenance of the microregion was
indeed fully established well before the Hijra.27 Moreover, the strict association between the
date plant and the Mosque of the Prophet began to be emphasised when the canonical
narrative about the foundation and early history of the blessed building - along with the
hagiographical biography of Muḥammad and the aḥādīth collections - were established in the
9th century.28 Following all the Prophet’s biographers and pious traditionists,29 palm trunks
and palm leaves were indeed used to erect the very first masjid al-nabī in the aftermath of the
Hijra.30 Muḥammad used to perform the salāṭ in the shade of these primitive columns and,
according to a tradition reported by al-Bukhārī, before the introduction of the minbar the
Prophet would deliver the khuṭba standing by one of the palm trunks of his ẓulla.31 The palm
tree was furthermore established in the iconography of the Prophet’s Mosque both as a
synecdoche for the rawḍa (lit. “the garden”), the name given to the “sancta sanctorum”32 of
the ḥaram after a saying by Muḥammad,33 and as an allusion to the palm tree that, according
to popular tradition, Fāṭima al-Zahrāʾ planted in front of the house where she lived with her
husband and sons.34 Over time, a proper small palm grove evolved from this tree, described
by Ibn Jubayr in the account of his visit to the mosque of the Prophet in Madīna in 1184 as
comprised of fifteen date palms35 and observable in all the later depictions of the mosque of
the Prophet,36 including a rare photograph dated 1881 currently kept in the Nasser Khalili
collection (fig. 11).37
It is interesting to mention that for the later shīʿa, the so-called Bustān Fāṭima, Fāṭima’s
garden acquired particular importance being endowed with the special significance of
representing the symbolic presence of the Ahl al-bayt or, alternatively, of the twelve imāms in
the blessed spot.38

26 Lecker 1995, 1-10.

27 Ibid.; for the importance of the orchards of date palms in Madīna during the Umayyad period see Kister 1977.
28 For an exhaustive and groundbreaking discussion on the emergence of the “classical” Islamic historiography,
see Donner 1998; for a reassessment of the recent Western scholarship on the aḥādīth collections, see Dudcrija
29 Balādhurī, Futūḥ 18-20; Ibn Saʿd, Ṭabaqāt I, 280-281; Ṭabarī, Taʾrīkh, 1258-1259; Ibn Isḥāq, Sīra 228-230;
Bukhārī, Ṣaḥīḥ I, 276-277; 285; V, 167-168 (nos. 428; 446; 3932); Ibn Rusta, al-aʿlāq 67-68; Samhūdī, Wafāʾ
al-wafā I, 347-349; 351-354.
30 Note that, according to most of the quoted traditionists, the place where the mosque was raised was a former
mirbad, namely, a threshold used to dry dates (Pellat 1993, 8; Lane 1968, III, 1010).
31 Bukhārī 1997, IV, 475-476 (aḥādīth nos. 3583-3584). We shall return to cover this tradition thoroughly later.
32 Namely, the area of the prayer hall extending from the Prophet’s tomb to the minbar.
33 «Between my house and my pulpit there is a garden from amongst the gardens of Paradise»: Bukhārī, Ṣaḥīḥ II,
171 (nos. 1195-1196).
34 The house of Fāṭima and ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib was adjacent to the courtyard of the mosque, south of the Prophet’s
tomb (Santi 2017, 214-215, 222, fig. 1).
35 Donaldson 1930, 37.
36 See the cases quoted above, n. 24; figs. 7-10.
37 Inv. no. ARC.pp 88. The photography is signed ‘Sadic Bey’:
mosque-at-medina-arc-pp-88/ (last accessed: 19-12-2018).
38 Massignon 1960, 298; Fontana 1980, 622.

XV (2019) A Possible Early Iconography of Madīna

The arch on columns with the suspended lamp is the most widespread and recognised
iconography of the miḥrāb.39 The interpretation of the burning lamp in relation to the so-
called Āyat al-nūr, the light verse of the Qurʾān,40 is largely accepted41 as is the function of
the niche as a symbolic reminder of the invisible presence of the Prophet in the mosque
space.42 Moreover, it is particularly worth recalling here that - as is nearly unanimously
acknowledged - the Mosque of the Prophet in Madīna was the very first building in Islamic
history to have been equipped with a miḥrāb mujawwaf during the reconstruction carried out
under ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz in 707-710.43
In view of this and the foregoing, the combined representation of a miḥrāb and a towering
date palm - due to its evocative semiotic potential - could be rightly considered as not due to
Looking for comparisons, it is furthermore interesting to note the striking resemblance of
the ivory plaque miḥrāb with the arcades and the miḥrāb of the mosque depicted in a folio of
the famous Qurʾānic manuscripts discovered in the Great Mosque of Ṣanʿāʾ (fig. 12).44 Here
a plethora of rounded arches leaning on columns can be observed of the very same type as
the one depicted on the plaque. Even more remarkable similarities can be identified in the
hanging system of the lamps, likewise hung by means of three flat suspension arms, and in
the continuous and thick filling pattern on the surface of columns and extradoses.
Although the dating and provenance of the Ṣanʿāʾ Quranic pages are a source of
disagreement (while von Bothmer proposed a fairly early date - early 8th century -45 Grabar
shifted the terminus ante quem for their creation to the 10th or 12th century)46 the illustration
could prove useful in our case from an iconographical and interpretative perspective. Indeed,
an intriguing hypothesis has been put forth that it and its companion - a drawing featuring a
hypostyle construction with a wide central nave culminating in a gigantic miḥrāb - should be
considered as representations of the Umayyad mosques of Madīna and Damascus,

39 Miles 2002, 155-158; Khoury 1991.

40 «Allāh is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp;
the lamp is within glass, the glass as if it were a pearly [white] star lit from [the oil of] a blessed olive tree,
neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil would almost glow even if untouched by fire. Light upon light.
Allāh guides to His light whom He wills. And Allāh presents examples for the people, and Allāh is Knowing of
all things»: Qurʾān 24: 35.
41 Burckhardt 1976, 91; Dodd - Khairallah 1981, I, 43-60; 68-83; Denny 1991, 37; Khoury 1991, 11.
42 For more on the various forms, purposes and meanings of the miḥrāb, see Sauvaget 1947, 145-152; Miles 1952;
Serjeant 1959; Fehérvári 1972; Bisheh 1979; Papadopoulo 1988; Melikian-Chirvani 1990; Khoury 1998; 1992;
Treadwell 2005; Mahmutćehajić 2010.
43 Grabar 1973, 120-121; Hillenbrand 1994, 73; Bisheh 1979, 215-216; Creswell - Allan 1989, 43-46; Khoury
1998, 2. For a discussion of the traditions concerning Madīna’s primate in the introduction of the miḥrāb, see
Sauvaget 1947, 24-39. For the introduction of the miḥrāb mujawwaf in other mosques during the reign of al-
Walīd I (705-715), see Di Cesare 2017.
44 Ṣanʿāʾ, Dār al-makhṭūṭāt al-yamanīya, inv. no. 20-33.1 (Graf von Bothmer 1987, pl. 2; Grabar 1992, 159, pl.
17, fig. 128; Flood 2012, 267).
45 Graf von Bothmer 1987, 180; 185; 1999, 100-101, cat. no. 36. Note that in the latter publication, the scholar
specifies «around 710-715».
46 Grabar (1992, 155) imagines that the Quranic manuscripts were hidden or discarded in the ceiling of the mosque
of Ṣanʿāʾ around 911-912, namely when the Qarmatians are reported to have deliberately flooded the building
or, alternatively, in 1130-1131, when Queen Arwā had the mosque rebuilt.

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respectively.47 Assuming that this identification is correct, and thus that the Ṣanʿāʾ painting
represents a realistic portrayal of the Mosque of the Prophet in its Umayyad stage, the close
resemblance of its imposing miḥrāb and arcades and the arch depicted on the ivory plaque
acquires even more significance. Indeed, it constitutes a further element foreshadowing the
hypothesis that this might be one the earliest extant attempts to establish an iconography of
the Mosque of the Prophet in Madīna. Significantly, such a perspective would in fact also
thoroughly explain the third element of the composition, the camel, and, in particular, the
curious need to specify its female gender in the plaque.

In light of the foregoing, by considering the corpus of canonical traditions preserved in
the aḥādīth collections and biographies of the Prophet, it seems possible to trace the origin of
the she-camel iconography back to an episode of the traditional narrative pertaining to the
foundation of the masjid al-nabī in Madīna. All the main authorities, including Ibn Isḥāq,48
Ibn Saʿd,49 Ṭabarī,50 and Balādhurī,51 agree that Qaṣwā, Muḥammad’s she-camel, should be
attributed a crucial role in choosing where the mosque was meant to be built. Indeed,
according to tradition, it was upon Qaṣwā’s wish that the Prophet, after having declined the
hospitality of the various anṣār who had rushed to welcome him, stopped in front of a mirbad
owned by the Banū al-Najjār and appointed that spot as the location where his masjid should
be erected: «The Prophet left Qubāʾ on Friday, as he offered the Friday prayer among Banū
Sālim ibn ʿAwf in the mosque at the bottom of the valley of Rānunā. […] ʿItbān ibn Mālik
and ʿAbbās ibn ʿUbāda ibn Naḍla with some of the Banū Sālim ibn ʿAws came to the Prophet
and said, “O Messenger of God, abide by us.” He replied, “Let it (the she-camel) step
forward freely, for it is commanded (by God)”. They did do, and when it reached the home of
Banū Bayāḍā […] they invited him but his answer was the same as before. The camel
continued with its slackened rein to Banū Sāʿida […] and he gave the same reply. The whole
thing was repeated by Saʿd ibn al-Rabī […] and this was also repeated with Salīṭ ibn Qays
[…]. At least the she-camel stopped at the house of Banū Mālik ibn al-Najjār as it knelt at the
site of his future mosque, which was then used as a drying-place for dates».52
The role of a divinely-inspired guide attributed to Muḥammad’s she-camel to some extent
echoes the functional character of the heavenly entities that led Ibrāhīm to the place where
the Kaʿba was meant to be built.53 It represents the literary counterpart of that process of
constructing the sacred topography of Madīna which, as well expressed by Harry Munt,
reshaped the landscape of the city of the Prophet between the late Umayyad and the early

47 Grabar 1992, 160-161; Graf von Bothmer 1999, 101.

48 Ibn Isḥāq, Sīra 228.
49 Ibn Saʿd, Ṭabaqāt I, 280.
50 Ṭabarī, Taʾrīkh 1258-1259.
51 Balādhurī, Futūḥ 18-19.
52 Ibn Isḥāq, Sīra 228. The story appears identical, except for minimal variations, in all the other accounts
mentioned above.
53 Such as Burāq, Sakīna and Ṣurad, bird-like jinn and hybrid creatures who, according to certain traditions, helped
Ibrāhīm and Ismāʿīl, to locate the spot designated by the divine willingness to host the Bayt Allāh (cf. Azraqī,
Akhbār 25-27; 34, and translator’s notes 20-22).

XV (2019) A Possible Early Iconography of Madīna

ʿAbbasid period (8th-9th century).54 That said, and wanting to consider the single elements
drawn on the ivory plaque as components of a precise iconographic program, it does not
seem so ventured to argue that the targeted choice of portraying a she-camel could have
constituted a specific reference to this tradition. In this case, the whole illustration would
represent an early attempt to draw - by picking up from the traditional pietistic narratives the
elements esteemed as the most typifying and recognisable - a fathomable representation of
the blessed building. In this respect it is interesting to mention that both the palm tree and the
she-camel are actually involved in one of the most famous miracles that occurred in the
Prophet’s mosque during Muḥammad’s lifetime, as related by al-Bukhārī:55 «Narrated Anas
bin Mālik that he heard Jābir bin ʿAbdullāh saying, “The roof of the mosque was built over
the trunks of date palms which were as pillars (for the roof). When the Prophet delivered a
Khuṭba, he used to stand by one of those trunks till the pulpit was made for him, and he used
it instead. Then we heard the trunk emitting a sound like that of a pregnant she-camel till the
Prophet came to it, and put his hand over it, then became quiet”».56 To obtain an idea of the
importance of this tradition, let us consider that, significantly, Ibn Jubayr included the kissing
of «the remaining piece of the date palm that longed for him (i.e. Muḥammad)»57 in the
rawḍa among the traditional rituals of the pilgrimage to the ḥaram of Madīna: «In front of
the small garden towards the Ḳiblah is the pillar which is said to cover what remains of the
date palm which “had a longing desire for the Prophet” and there is a portion of this date
palm imbedded in the middle of the pillar in such a way that it can be seen. People kiss it and
in order to obtain a blessing they rush forward to kiss it and to rub their cheeks upon it. To
one side of this (date palm pillar), towards the Ḳiblah, is the enclosure (around the pulpit)».58
The arguments put forth so far would demonstrate that the connection with narratives
pertaining to the holy topography of the Medinan ḥaram represents the most feasible - or
even the sole - semantic key making sense of each element of the incised decoration and their
deliberate juxtaposition. In this case, we would be faced with the visual counterpart of that
elaboration process pertaining to the canonical pietistic history of the Medinan ḥaram
attested in the written sources between the late 8th and the 9th century.59
What is more interesting is that, if accepted, this hypothesis would actually shed light not
only on the provenance and function of the object, but also on the vexata quaestio of the
chronology of the occupation of al-Fudayn.
The iconographical interpretation proposed here, in strict connection with the historical-
literary tradition of the early ʿAbbasid period, leads us to date the ivory plaque to the late 8 th-
early 9th century. This dating contrasts with that generally reported in publications, which
unanimously agree that the object was made in the first half of the 8 th century.60 This is due to
the fact that Humbert, in one of the two extremely synthetic reports he published on his
archaeological research at al-Fudayn,61 indicated the devasting earthquake of 748/749 as the

54 Munt 2014, 94-122.

55 I would like to heartily thank Avinoam Shalem who kindly suggested this reference to me.
56 Bukhārī, Ṣaḥīḥ IV, 476 (no. 3585).
57 Donaldson 1930, 31.
58 Ibid., 35.
59 See above.
60 Paris 1986, 369, cat. no. 355; Mainz 1987, 350; Ballian 2012, 213; Naghawy 2018.
61 Humbert 1986; 1989.

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event that marked the abandonment and definitive downfall of the site. 62 At that time, he was
evidently unaware of a substantial account by Yāqūt 63 according to which the ʿAbbasid
Yaḥyā ibn Ṣāliḥ destroyed the fortress of al-Fudayn as a consequence of the rebellion of its
patron, Saʿīd ibn Khālid ibn Muḥammad ibn ʿAbdallāh ibn ʿAmrū ibn ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān,
against the authority of the caliph al-Maʾmūn in 833. Although, in an article published in
1964, Oleg Grabar questioned the identification of the site referred to by Yāqūt with the al-
Fudayn near Mafraq based on some geographical considerations, 64 the name of its patron is
enough to remove any doubt in this regard. As the chain of nisab clearly reveals, he was
indeed a close relative of Saʿīd Khālid ibn ʿAmr ibn ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān: an influent
Umayyad and direct descendant of the amīr al-muʾminīn ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān, whom
Balādhurī65 indicates as the first Umayyad patron of the castle of al-Fudayn.66 This
circumstance would shift the date of the destruction and consequent abandonment of the site
from the mid-8th century to 833, and this fact would endorse the dating - and, consequently,
the iconographic reading - we proposed for the artifact under investigation. In this regard it is
fundamental to point out that Humbert himself, in an article dated 2001, partially retracted his
previous assumption, seeming much more inclined to consider 833 as a more feasible
terminus post quem for the abandonment of the site.67 Apart from considering, as Ghazi
Bisheh suggested, the episode reported by Yāqūt as an important historical document, he
mentioned the finding, among the rich treasure of the vestibule where the ivory plaque was
recovered, of a specific pottery ware of ʿAbbasid production68 which « militerait en faveur de
la demolition de el-Fedein en 833 ».69
As for the dating, it is important to point out that, as far as I could verify, the decoration,
composed by sketchier drawings supposedly traced by a stylus, while not having parallels in
coeval ivory artefacts, finds a comparison, for example, in terms of rendering in a glass
goblet now preserved in the Metropolitan Museum in New York and dated to the late 8 th-9th
century (fig. 13).70 This circumstance, apart from being a further argument upholding the
chronology we are proposing, calls into question the identification of the material as ivory,
suggesting that it could be a bone artefact instead - of camel, perhaps? - imported from the
“fringes” of the empire, as its finding context would seem also to indicate. In fact, as we
stated above, the plaque was discovered as part of a “treasure” comprised, among other
objects, of a fragment of a lantern and cooking pots made of steatite (fig. 14).71 As for the
decoration of the lantern, both the kind of technique employed - careful incision with a
pointed tool - and the decorative motifs, including grid and wolf’s tooth patterns and, in

62 Humbert 1986, 357.

63 Yāqūt, Muʿjam III, 858-859.
64 Grabar 1964, 44-47.
65 Balādhurī, Ansāb 108.
66 Cf. Genequand 2010, 439-440.
67 Humbert 2001, 153-154.
68 Namely, « une élégante petite cruche en pâte blanche que d’aucuns donnent pour abbaside » (Humbert 2001,
153). Very regrettably, we do not know anything more about this object, since it has never been published.
69 Humbert 2001, 153.
70 Inv. no. 65.173.1 (Carboni - Whitehouse 2001, 164-165, cat. no. 71. For other examples cf. ibid., 163-164, cat.
nos. 69-70a-e).
71 Humbert 1986, 356-357; 1989, 129; Köln 1987, 351, fig. 357; Ballian 2012, 214-215, cat. nos. 146, 147;
Naghawy 2018.

XV (2019) A Possible Early Iconography of Madīna

particular, a row of arcades with hanging lamps, could be said to be the most immediate and
striking comparisons for the decoration of the plaque, suggesting a common provenance of
the two objects. As is well known, in this period steatite was a luxury good imported from the
Ḥijāz72 to the Bilād al-Shām by the Umayyad élite,73 who allegedly wished to maintain a
symbolical bond with their Arabian motherland. 74 If we accept the possibility that the incised
plaque may had been involved in this very high-status trade originating from the Ḥijāz, the
presumed Medinan iconography carved on it would qualify the object as an early example -
actually the earliest known - of that class of artefacts, including paper scroll, tiles, small
objects and murals, later attested all over the Muslim world as keepsakes to memorialise
pilgrimage in holy places.75
As Barry Flood has brilliantly observed, it was indeed the commemorative aspect of the
ḥajj that provided the first and crucial impetus to the generation of graphic images of sacred
topographies, at times in the form of sketchier drawings.76 An interesting early example of
this phenomenon is represented by the already-mentioned fragmentary Egyptian paper scroll
preserved in the Dār al-kutub in Cairo.77 Datable to the 9th-10th centuries, it features a very
rough and sketchy view of the Mosque of the Prophet in Madīna, recognisable by means of
the palm tree (fig. 15).78
Mural paintings featuring sketchier illustrations of the Ḥaramayn interpreted as
pilgrimage ex-votos are furthermore attested on the walls of two mosques of the Iranian area.
Even considering the chronological gap, they could work as interesting comparisons in our
case: the first and most known are the Ilkhānid murals of the Masjid-i Gunbad at Āzādān,
depicting top views of the two Ḥaram (fig. 16);79 the second is a late Safavid painting on a
pilaster of the masjid-i Jumʿa at Iṣfahān.80
The latter, now very deteriorated but reproduced in a drawing published in 1980 and in
some photos,81 portrays an “Iranised” version of the Mosque of the Prophet in Madīna (fig.
17) which, due to the style of the incising, the rendering of the miḥrāb with the suspended
lamp and the presence of the palm, can be said to recall the illustration of the ivory plaque.
Interestingly, M.V. Fontana has interpreted it as a devotional painting, partially inspired by
the coeval miniatures observable in the manuscripts compiled to testify the accomplishment

72 While in antiquity steatite was mostly quarried in Yemen, in this later period the raw material came from the al-
Hawraʾ and Taʾif regions, in present-day western Saudi Arabia (Ballian 2012, 215; al-Ghabban et al. 2010, 442).
73 Steatite artefacts are indeed among the most common findings in the Umayyad layers of the cities of al-Shām
scattered along the trade and pilgrimage routes, such as Ayla, ʿAmmān, Umm al-Walīd, Jerash, Pella and
Tiberias (Ballian 2012, 215; Walmsley 2007, 68).
74 On the importance of the relationship between the Umayyads and the Ḥijāz see Munt 2014, 103-115.
75 The practice of representing sacred topographies is one of the most widespread habits in Islamic culture and it is
still attested nowadays. This has resulted in the production of a consistent means of representation which,
despite the huge variety of formats and media, was meant to render the sites portrayed through iconic
immediacy (Roxburg 2012, 33).
76 Flood 2012, 249.
77 Cf. above.
78 In the following centuries commemorative scrolls with these very graphic characteristics became the subject of
large-scale commercial production (Flood 2012, 250).
79 Wilber 1955, cat. n. 105, figs. 201-203; O’Kane 1999-2000, 15-16, figs. 19-20.
80 Fontana 1980.
81 For which I wish to thank Maria Vittoria Fontana who gave me access to the originals.

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of the ḥajj,82 but enriched by a dazzling, local, popular taste which perfectly reflects «il
momento emozionale della devozione del singolo».83
The phenomenon of the pilgrimage ex-votos eventually reached its peak from the 16th
century onwards, when the now perfectly canonised images of the masjid al-ḥarām and
masjid al-nabī proliferated in Ottoman art and spread through a variety of media, especially
on pilgrimage ceramic tiles and scrolls.84

Although the absence of comparable archaeological evidence prevents us from proposing

a definite conclusion, I think it is not ventured to hypothesise, in light of what has been stated
so far, that the artefact presented in this paper could be assimilated in its meaning and
functions to the devotional, apotropaic and protective objects connected with the Ḥijāzī
pilgrimage and still now widespread all over the Muslim world.


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XV (2019) A Possible Early Iconography of Madīna

Fig. 1 - Plan of al-Fudayn in the Umayyad period. Unit I: Byzantine monastery; Unit II:
Umayyad residence; Unit III: Umayyad tower; a: entrepôt (Genequand 2012).

Fig. 2 - Incised ivory plaque discovered at al-Fudayn during the 1986 excavation season,
ʿAmman, Archaeological Museum, inv. J.15709 (Ballian 2012).

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Fig. 3 - Reconstructive drawing of one face of al-Fudayn’s ivory plaque (Paris 1986).

XV (2019) A Possible Early Iconography of Madīna

Fig. 4 - Drawing of the interior mosaics of the Dome of the Rock (Jerusalem) showing palm
trees (Creswell 19792).

Fig. 5 - Mosaic pavement with palm trees of the Church of the Kathisma, Jerusalem (Flood

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Fig. 6 - Reconstructive drawing of one face of al-Fudayn’s ivory plaque (Drawing by A.L.

XV (2019) A Possible Early Iconography of Madīna

Fig. 7 - Section of a Timurid

pilgrimage scroll showing the
Mosque of the Prophet in Madīna,
Doha, Museum of Islamic Art, MS.
267.1998 (Chekhab-Aboudata -
Couvrat Desvergnes - Roxburgh

Fig. 8 - Folio of an Ottoman copy of the Dalāʾil al-

Khayrāt by al-Jazūlī showing the Mosque of the Prophet
in Madīna, London, Nasser D. Khalili Collections, MS
S97 fol. 9b (late 17th or 18th century; Rogers 2010).

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Fig. 9 - Folio of an Ottoman copy of the

Dalāʾil al-Khayrāt by al-Jazūlī dated 1265
AH (1848-9 AD) showing the Mosque of the
Prophet in Madīna, London, Nasser D.
Khalili Collections, MS S276 fol.17a
(Rogers 2010).

Fig. 10 - Ottoman circular book of prayers with views of the Ḥaramayn, London, Nasser D.
Khalili Collections, MS S312, fols. 1b-2a (16th or early 17th century; Rogers 2010).

XV (2019) A Possible Early Iconography of Madīna

Fig. 11 - Photograph of the Mosque of the Prophet in Madīna signed by Sadic Bey and dated
1298 AH (1881 AD), London, Nasser D. Khalili Collections,, ARC.pp 88
-the-prophets-mosque-at-medina-arc-pp-88/; last accessed 19-12-2018).

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Fig. 12 - Folio from a Qurʾān found in the Great Mosque of Sanʿāʾ showing the portrait of a
mosque, Sanʿāʾ, Dār al-makhṭūṭāt al-yamanīya, inv. no. 20-33.1 (Graf von Bothmer 1987).

XV (2019) A Possible Early Iconography of Madīna

Fig. 13 - Glass goblet with incised

decoration, Iraq or Syria, 8th-9th century, New
York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, inv.
no. 65.173.1 (Carboni - Whitehouse 2001).

Fig. 14 - Part of a lantern (a) and pot (b) of steatite discovered at al-Fudayn during the 1986
excavation season, ʿAmman, Archaeological Museum, inv. no. J.19312 (Ballian 2012).

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Fig. 15 - Fragment of a paper scroll showing the Mosque of the Prophet in Madīna, 9 th-10th
century, Cairo, Dār al-kutub, inv. no. 513 (Flood 2012).

XV (2019) A Possible Early Iconography of Madīna

Fig. 16 - Ilkhānid mural paintings in the Masjid-i Gunbad at Āzādān, Iran, depicting top
views of the Ḥaramayn (O’Kane 1999-2000).

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Fig. 17 - Safavid mural in the Masjid-i Jumeh in Iṣfahān (Drawing and photograph: Courtesy
of M.V. Fontana).


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