JORDAN – Within 40 kilometers of Syria near a small Bedouin village in Samra, the Dominicans of the Biblical School during their excavations uncovered the remains of Hatita, an ancient Byzantine village of the 7th and 8th centuries. It is an unexpected archaeological discovery, revealing one of Jordan’s jewels and offering an opportunity for study and analysis of a world in transition.
From an inscription to the discovery of a Byzantine collection
The story goes back to 1924, long before the birth of the Jordanian nation. Raphael Savignac, a Dominican photographer, in one of his stops while traveling through the desert roads east of the Jordan, randomly discovers mysterious inscriptions on Byzantine steles. At the time, these epigraphs strangely resembling Arabic surprised him. “It is Arabic that I cannot read” says a Bedouin when asked by the Dominican. The discovery becomes the subject of an article, to which no research has been conducted. It was not until much later in 1977, that the archaeologist Father Jean-Baptiste Humbert decided to undertake excavations to analyze these writings. The team, mainly consisting of volunteers, have not imagined the extent of the work that awaited them. While the purpose of the expedition was originally epigraphic, the mysterious steles led to the discovery of an immense Byzantine cemetery. “We had few archaeologists but sufficient manpower and so we started digging.”
Year after year, Father Jean-Baptiste and his team detected more than a thousand steles. They then discovered, adjacent to the cemetery, the ruins of a Byzantine settlement: a complex full of mosaics still magnificently preserved, with 11 churches. The first phase of the excavations ended in 1993, followed by a second between 2002 and 2009, which allowed the results to be refined. Between 700,000 and 800,000 pieces of pottery were collected, from the Roman period to the Byzantine era, a formidable fragment of history concentrated within two hectares. What drove the Dominicans to pursue this long adventure with patience and determination was that the work provided a dissection of a village at the dawn of the Muslim transition.
Samra … from the Byzantine time to Islam
Samra is an open-air laboratory to understand the evolution of a Byzantine world that was rapidly changing. “At the moment, the stones in themselves do not tell us anything. Only later will we be able to analyze, understand … ” explains Father Humbert. It is noted that while the steles of the cemetery have epigraphs in “Syro-Palestinian”, either an advanced cousin of primitive Arabic, the ruins of the 11 Byzantine churches only contain inscriptions in Greek, the official language of the Eastern Church. Father Jean-Baptiste attempts to offer the following analysis: the presence of these inscriptions in the Semitic language testifies to the existence of a Church in resistance in the Byzantine era. The Empire of Constantine, then in full Christian development, imposed his authority through the Greek language. According to him, this Hellenistic hegemony played a crucial role in the advent of Islam. “Islam has thrived in the breach of the Byzantine Church torn by heresies, the cause of political struggles,” he summarizes.
The weakness of Byzantine power in itself has provided a fertile ground for the early Islam: Greek domination and fierce struggles over the two natures of Christ and the success of Arianism which denied the divinity of Christ have prepared this transition. “I think that in Christianity, the mystery of the Incarnation precedes the mystery of the Resurrection in theology,” smiled Father Jean-Baptiste. For the Dominican, it is partly man’s rejection of the concept of God that contributed to the success of Islam: those who rejected the divinity of Christ came together to give birth to Islam. So, 40 years later, the archaeological mission of 1977 leads to the historical analysis of the transition between the Christian world and the Muslim world.
In the heart of the very modern Amman, in a house loaned, Father Jean-Baptiste Humbert and his team established their temporary laboratory to pursue the research and analysis of the excavations every summer. Thousands of ceramic and bone fragments still litter the basement of the house, waiting to be cleaned, sorted and classified, photographed and drawn. A painstaking work that the Dominican carries on supported by two equally passionate conservators of art. “We do it for the future generations,” concludes the Dominican with a puff of his cigar