Saving a desert palace in the green Jordan valley

9 November 2015

The caliph's palace Khirbat al-Minya is an important testimony to early Islamic culture in Israel. However, the site has been falling into disrepair ever since German archaeologists uncovered it in the 1930s. Dr. Hans-Peter Kuhnen, Head Academic Director at the Department of Ancient Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), has taken a first step towards stopping the decay.

"Desert palace in the green Jordan valley – we picked this motto intentionally so it would attract attention," explains Dr. Hans-Peter Kuhnen. "Nearly all caliph’s palaces are on the edge of the Arabian desert. But this one is actually surrounded by greenery. That is not at all what you would expect for such a site."

The ruins of Khirbat al-Minya are located on the west bank of the Sea of Galilee. "The site is very important for the archaeology of early Islam in Israel." Kuhnen has been coming here since 2009, working together with his students and trying to raise public awareness of the site. The archaeologist has had to watch as the palace slowly decayed.

It was not until this year, thanks in part to the celebration of "50 Years of Diplomatic Relations between Germany and Israel," that Kuhnen was able to set up a program to save Khirbat al-Minya. The JGU Department of Ancient Studies received EUR 30,000 from the German Federal Foreign Office to undertake pilot restoration of the palace. "It is an important first step," says Kuhnen. But he leaves no doubt as to the need to do even more.

A sort of imperial palace

Khirbat al-Minya was built in the early eighth century A.D. The palace complex was intended to perform a function similar to that of the medieval German "Kaiserpfalz" (imperial palace). The ruler traveled with his entourage from place to place to take care of government affairs. The palaces were fixed stops on the ruler's route, and as such they became cultural and economic centers.

"The palaces in Germany had their own chapel, Khirbat al-Minya had its own mosque," explains Kuhnen. "The caliph’s palaces – just like the German imperial palaces – were built in places where there was already settlement.” High-quality building material was used in construction. The base of the palace was made from black basalt, the walls from white limestone. "Back then the ruling class epitomized the culture of the times." This is seen in the palace complex.

The builders of Khirbat al-Minya could have been the Umayyaden caliphs Walid I (705-715) or Walid II (743/744). "Their ancestors as allies served in the military of the Byzantine Empire. They then used elements of Roman Byzantine fortification architecture to underline their claim to power."

Khirbat al-Minya has a square ground plan, just like a Roman fort. "And just like the casemates of forts from the 4th to 7th centuries, the interior rooms are built into the outer walls." They open to an inner courtyard. An enormous 15-meter high gate complex dominates the east side. The palace even had corner and intermediate towers. "They were in fact only decorative and also served as toilets."

Preliminary digs

Overall, the palace had elements of a defensive structure but was never actually intended to serve as a fort. Kuhnen points to the south-east corner of the square ground plan. This is where the mosque was located. "You can see there is an exterior door for reaching the house of worship if the main gate was closed." That would not be a good idea in a fort. "The door also shows there must have been an Islamic settlement outside of the palace, where the faithful could have direct access to the mosque."

Khirbat al-Minya is illustrative of a tolerant form of Islam. "Judeo-Christian elements were not suppressed – there was a certain togetherness." Khirbat al-Minya, however, is also the symbol of failure. In 749, an earthquake shook the region. The palace, still under construction, was severely damaged. "A crack spread through the entire east wing, through both the mosque and the gate. The entire front tilted some 15 degrees towards the lake." On top of this there were political upheavals. The Abbasids took over from the Umayyad dynasty. The new rulers moved the center of their rule from nearby Damascus to far-off Baghdad. The palace on the lake was never completed.

In the Middle Ages, crusaders built a furnace in the ruins to process sugar cane. This furnace bears testimony to a decisive epoch in the history of the Holy Land. The depletion of domestic forests made sugar processing economically inefficient. Slowly the palace sank into obscurity. The ruins disappeared under layers of sediment – until they were uncovered from 1932 to 1939 by German archaeologists working for the Catholic Görres Association.

Mainz students do research at the palace

"Nowadays we are skeptical about digs that have no clear handle on what should happen afterwards," says Kuhnen. What is dug up is exposed to wind and weather. "You basically need a protective roof if you want to maintain a ruin like this." But a roof was never built. The digs stopped at the outbreak of the Second World War and work was only very sporadic thereafter. The palace lay there half-forgotten and decayed and decayed.

In 2009 Kuhnen came to Khirbat al-Minya with students from Mainz University. Back then, a rusty sign was the only information provided about the ruin. The Germans designed a set of information signs about the palace complex. However, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority did not want to put up any signs as long as the area was not secured. They feared vandalism. "So, using our signs as a basis, we published a guide book to the palace." The guide is sold in book stores and in some of the towns in the region.

Kuhnen and his students have returned again and again to do research. He is now thinking about projects that could help maintain the palace complex and possibly transform it into a tourist destination. The archaeologist shows extensive plans for a protective roof with a viewing platform and the like. "It would cost EUR 900,000." The German Federal Foreign Office balked at such a sum.

An initial restoration

But they did feel some responsibility. Thus, Kuhnen received EUR 30,000 from the Cultural Preservation Program of the German Federal Foreign Office for the pilot conservation of the gate. "We can use the funding to commission a restoration expert and to buy conservation materials." The Israel Nature and Parks Authority is also helping by providing workers. "The Israelis have proven to be very open-minded." Kuhnen was surprised they showed such interest in helping to preserve a testament to early Islamic culture.

Work on the gate is going to finish soon. The archaeologist is already looking further into the future. "A small kibbutz is located in the region. A Roman boat is displayed in the kibbutz's museum and they call it the Jesus Boat, even though it had nothing to do with Jesus. They get 100,000 visitors come a year." In addition a popular beach and a major road, an important transport artery to the north, are both located nearby. It should be possible to wake the palace from its Sleeping Beauty slumbers.

Kuhnen is doing what he can to make it happen. He will travel to Israel again to monitor the restoration work and Mainz students will again come to do research at the palace. Khirbat al-Minya will not be let slide back into obscurity again.