Thousand-year-old Abbasid-era Islamic amulet found in the City of David, Jerusalem


The presence of Islamic art in the far-fetched corners of the known medieval world shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. This is because of the trade networks that connected the Middle East with even that of the Scandinavian realms – via both Rus and the Eastern Roman Empire. However, this time around, beyond trade, the discovery of an Islamic art piece rather alludes to the cultural framework of the said area. The find in question here pertains to a 1000-year old tiny clay amulet that was found in one of the historically significant areas of Jerusalem – the City of David. The object was found to be inscribed with the following devotional message – “Kareem trusts in Allah. Lord of the Worlds is Allah.”

The rare ornamental artifact was found courtesy of the collaborative effort of the researchers at the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and the Tel Aviv University. It was located beneath the Givati Parking Lot, in the City of David – which has often been described as the urban core of ancient Jerusalem whose time spectrum covers structures from the Late Bronze Age to the Ottoman period. This specific parking lot area is the largest excavation site within Jerusalem proper, and as such has been the source of numerous historical objects and treasures ranging from precious stones, seals, and gold coins.

Coming to this particular discovery in itself, like most amulets, the object probably had its symbolic and spiritual value. As Yiftah Shalev of the IAA said (in an interview with Haaretz) –

The purpose of an amulet like this is to gain personal protection. Since time immemorial, the purpose of amulets like these is to seek protection from the evil eye.

City of David, found underneath the Givati parking lot.

But beyond its perceived purpose, it is the workmanship and material of the amulet that has sparked the interest of the archaeologists. To that end, the object, with its fine bearing, is made of friable clay – and it survived the millennium possibly because of the ‘accidental’ safe place sealed between plaster flooring. Pertaining to the latter, the Islamic amulet was found inside a modest structure that possibly served as a small dwelling with a workshop.

And lastly, as for the historical side of affairs, the calligraphy of the amulet harks back to the Abbasid style, thus conforming to its thousand-year-old provenance. A lamp found in a proximate zone also dates from the Abbasid period. These Abbasids, forming the third great Islamic Caliphate (from circa 750–1258 AD), derived their name from that of Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib, the uncle of the Prophet Muhammad. Essentially, they challenged the Umayyad rule (Second Islamic Caliphate) by flaunting their lineage from the Hāshimite clan of the Quraysh tribe in Mecca. Ironically, while their claim pertained to a closer bloodline to Muhammad and thus relating to being ‘purer’ Arabs in nature, the Abbasid propaganda started in the distant oasis city of Marv in northern Khorasan (located near today’s Mary in Turkmenistan) – which was far away from the ‘core’ Islamic regions of Syria and Arabia.

In fact, their ultimately successful revolt was mainly supported by the Khurasani Arabs who had been living in distant Iran and Transoxania for almost a generation after the first Arab armies conquered the regions in 7th century AD. Suffice it to say, the Abbasids also appealed to the non-Arab Muslims (or mawalis), especially the culturally advanced Persians, who had generally been sidelined by the ruling Umayyads when it came to high government and military positions.

The oil lamp dating from the Abbasid Era.

Source: Haaretz / Image Credits: Eliyahu Yannai