Seaside fortress was a final stronghold of early Islamic power

Sep 15, 2011
This is an aerial view of the promontory on which Yavneh-Yam is located. Credit: Skyview.

Archaeologists have long known that Yavneh-Yam, an archaeological site between the Israeli cities of Tel Aviv and Ashdod on the Mediterranean coast, was a functioning harbor from the second millennium B.C. until the Middle Ages. Now Tel Aviv University researchers have uncovered evidence to suggest that the site was one of the final strongholds of Early Islamic power in the region.

According to Prof. Moshe Fischer of TAU's Department of and Near Eastern Cultures and head of the Yavneh-Yam dig, the recent discovery of a bath house from the Early Islamic period which made use of Roman techniques such as heated floors and walls, indicates that Arabic rulers maintained control of the site up until the end of the Early Islamic period in the 12th century AD. Considered alongside other datable artefacts — such as pottery, oil lamps and rare glass weights — this architectural feature demonstrates that Arabic control was maintained in Yavneh-Yam at a time when 70 percent of the surrounding land was in the hands of Christian crusaders.

The fortress was inhabited by military officers but not by high powered rulers, explains Prof. Fischer. Written Arabic sources from the same period, identifying Yavneh-Yam as a harbour, suggest that those who inhabited the fortress were responsible for hostage negotiations between the Arabic powers and the Christian crusaders, and the harbor itself served as a port for hostages to be transferred to their captors or returned home.

Roman bath technology, Arabic adaptation and style

Working with Ph.D. candidate Itamar Taxel, Director of Excavations, Prof. Fischer has been excavating the site of Yavneh-Yam for the past twenty years. Among the earliest finds were two glass weights, dating from the 12th century and which bore the name of the then-ruling Arabic power, the Fatimid dynasty. The weights themselves were of interest and certainly indicated an Arabic presence at the site, the excavators say. But the extent of this presence has been illuminated by the discovery of a bath dating to this period and built according to Roman principles.

This is an aerial view of the excavated areas at Yavneh-Yan. Credit: Skyview.

This year for the first time, researchers completed an in-depth analysis of the site's promontory, the piece of land protruding into the sea that made the site a natural harbor. The main structures, a series of fortification systems including a tower and strong walls that encircle the upper part of the hill, were discovered to be built in the distinctly Early Islamic style. The Roman baths uncovered within the fortress, says Prof. Fischer, leave little doubt that in the 12th century, the fortress was still inhabited by Arabs rather than Christian crusaders.

"This is an outstanding and rare find," he says, describing the baths as a scaled-down version of traditional Roman baths, heated by hot air circulating between double floors and pipes along the walls. The crusaders did not build these types of baths, and after the end of the Early Islamic period, they disappear altogether. "You don't see these installations again until the revival of such techniques by modern technology during the 19th century," explains Prof. Fischer. "This marked the finale of the use of a traditional Roman bath house in 12th century architecture."

Most likely, the fortress played host to a changing roster of military captains and their men, installing the baths to provide these men with additional creature comforts. Although the baths themselves are largely destroyed now, researchers found large marble slabs that adorned the walls, and ascertained that the view from the baths overlooked the sea.

A place of business?

The fortress served as more than a strategic look-out point to protect fragile Arab strongholds against the invasion of crusaders. Sources indicate that Yavneh-Yam, like the ports of Ashdod and Yaffa, was a place where Christian crusaders and Arabs haggled over hostages.

During this period, both the crusaders and Arabs took prisoners from the other side, who would later be exchanged, either for ransom or other prisoners-of-war who had been captured. The crusaders would have come over in boats to negotiate with Arab officials, then send word to the Ramla, the Arabic capital, waiting for orders and to conduct the required transaction.

Researchers will continue to excavate the site, now a national park, says Prof. Fischer. By connecting these new archaeological findings with historical evidence, "We get a nice picture of the complex relationship that existed in the Holy Land between a handful of Muslim enclaves, connected with the Arab rule in Cairo, surrounded by crusaders."

Explore further: Cougars' diverse diet helped them survive the Pleistocene mass extinction

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Lost Roman port found in Wales

Aug 24, 2011

The remains of a 2000-year-old Roman port have been discovered in south Wales by archaeologists from the University.

Secrets of an ancient Tel Aviv fortress revealed

Dec 28, 2010

Tel Qudadi, an ancient fortress located in the heart of Tel Aviv at the mouth of the Yarkon River, was first excavated more than 70 years ago ― but the final results of neither the excavations nor the ...

UK archaeologists discover Roman armor

Sep 15, 2010

Cardiff University archaeologists excavating at the Roman Fortress in Caerleon, South Wales have discovered what they believe is a complete suit of Roman armour.

Israeli archaeologists uncover Roman pool

Nov 22, 2010

While excavating the site for a planned new ritual bath for Jews in Jerusalem, Israeli archaeologists uncovered a pool belonging to the Roman legion that sacked the city nearly 2,000 years ago.

Archaeologist uncover possible medieval mosque in Sicily

Jul 30, 2007

Earlier this summer, while standing in an archaeological pit adjacent to an ancient hilltop castle in west-central Sicily, Northern Illinois University graduate student Bill Balco could literally reach out ...

Recommended for you

Archaeologists, tribe clash over Native remains

16 hours ago

Archaeologists and Native Americans are clashing over Indian remains and artifacts that were excavated during a construction project in the San Francisco Bay Area, but then reburied at an undisclosed location.

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Au-Pu
not rated yet Sep 18, 2011
Being a site for negotiated exchange of hostages hardly makes it an Islamic stronghold.
This suggests that it would have been more akin to a diplomatic outpost.
It would be good if writers could try to be more accurate.

More news stories

Male-biased tweeting

Today women take an active part in public life. Without a doubt, they also converse with other women. In fact, they even talk to each other about other things besides men. As banal as it sounds, this is far ...

Not just the poor live hand-to-mouth

When the economy hits the skids, government stimulus checks to the poor sometimes follow. Stimulus programs—such as those in 2001, 2008 and 2009—are designed to boost the economy quickly by getting cash ...

Archaeologists, tribe clash over Native remains

Archaeologists and Native Americans are clashing over Indian remains and artifacts that were excavated during a construction project in the San Francisco Bay Area, but then reburied at an undisclosed location.

When things get glassy, molecules go fractal

Colorful church windows, beads on a necklace and many of our favorite plastics share something in common—they all belong to a state of matter known as glasses. School children learn the difference between ...

SK Hynix posts Q1 surge in net profit

South Korea's SK Hynix Inc said Thursday its first-quarter net profit surged nearly 350 percent from the previous year on a spike in sales of PC memory chips.

FCC to propose pay-for-priority Internet standards

The Federal Communications Commission is set to propose new open Internet rules that would allow content companies to pay for faster delivery over the so-called "last mile" connection to people's homes.