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Shway shway, slowly slowly to the caravan station, The Bir Madhkur Project

September 10, 2013


Third post in a series

Working at the caravan station

Working at the caravan station

On the Bir Madkhur Project, on a typical workday began with my alarm clock going off at 4:30 AM, followed by a wordless, expressionless  breakfast and a dash to gather my water, photo gear and sun ware.   By 5:00 AM, we leave camp packed in three trucks and by 5:15 AM we started driving off road, traveling over a rocky no man’s land, to get to the excavation site.  If you hoped to catch some shuteye or if you had a weak stomach, you did not get into Andrew’s truck.  His robust 4-wheel driving made the trip something like an amusement ride. Riding in Andrew’s truck bed, students giggled and sometimes danced in the reverberating waves.  If a Bedouin was aboard, they would lean forward and gently say, “shway, shway, Dr. Andrew”, meaning – slowly, slowly.  Often, I could forget the jerking and bouncing by imagining that the Wadi Araba we were driving through was the same desert, that the three wise men, with their frankincense and myrrh, traveled through – slowly, slowly .

Driving to the site through the wadi

Driving to the site through the wadi

Unlike the our excavation team, the travelers 2,000 years ago came slowly, slowly by camel to our excavation site, an ancient caravan station or Caravanserai. The caravans of hundreds of camel carried goods from the east on the Spice Road through the mountains of Petra, then across the desert to port cities and eventually to the West. The caravan stations, much like gas stations and motels for modern travelers, stops along the Spice road were beacons of life to refresh, get water, food and rest.

Caravan Station or Carvansara plan, from Wikipedia

Caravan Station or Carvanserai plan, from Wikipedia

This past summer, Andrew’s excavation team dug at a caravan station in the Wadi Araba, about 8 miles west of Petra near the Roman Fort at Bir Madhkur.  The site was occupied in the late Hellenistic (Nabataean), Roman, and Byzantine periods (Possibly 100 BC through 400 AD). The caravan station was located next to a wadi, the term “Wadi” usually means a dry riverbed.  When the river flooded during ancient winters, the river was damned and water saved for summer use.  Typically square or rectangular shape, the caravan station had a portal wide enough to permit large animals, like camels, to enter.  The courtyard was normally open to the sky, and the inside walls of the enclosure had chambers to accommodate merchants and their servants. After earthquakes in the area, the caravan station structure was built and rebuilt several times.

Working at the caravan station

Working at the caravan station

The findings from this season will be published in the future, but to learn more about the Spice Road, Bir Madhkur and the caravan station go to the Bir Madhkur Project

To see more images from this past summer go to

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