Photo Credit: Itamar Texel, Israel Antiquities Authority
The excavation site in Eilat’s mountains.

On the road to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, one could stop to consult a professional sorcerer, and it appears that Muslim pilgrims traveling from Cairo to Mecca some four centuries ago were still making these stops.

Research that was recently published in the Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World by Dr. Itamar Taxel of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Dr. Uzi Avner of the Dead Sea-Arava Science Center, and Dr. Nitzan Amitai-Preiss of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, analyzes artifact assemblages discovered in the late 1990s at an archaeological site in the Eilat region in southern Israel (A Unique Assemblage of Late Islamic Magical Artifacts from Netafim 2: A Campsite on the Darb al-Hajj, Southern Israel).

A section of the Pilgrims Road in the Eilat Mountains. / Uzi Avner, Dead Sea-Arava Science Center

The researchers consider that these artifacts were employed in magical rituals to ward off the evil eye and heal disease. According to Taxel, Avner, and Amitai-Preiss, “This discovery reveals that people in the Early Ottoman Period—just like today—consulted popular sorcerers on the outskirts of the formal belief in the official religion.”

The artifacts were discovered by Moti Shemtov, a resident of Eilat, and a subsequent archaeological excavation was directed at the site on behalf of the IAA by Uzi Avner and Asaf Holzer. The finds are associated with rituals and comprise dozens of fragments of clay globular rattles, many shaped like ping pong balls, containing small stones that make a sound when the rattle is shaken. There are two additional artifacts reminiscent of miniature votive incense altars, a small figurine of a naked goddess with raised hands––a characteristic feature of deities or priests, a few other figurines, and colored quartz pebbles.

Pebbles of colored quartz stones. / Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority

An examination of the clay used for the ceramic artifacts has shown that they came from Egypt. This is the first time that such a large assemblage of ritual objects of this kind has been found, and it is even more unique at a temporary site and not a permanent settlement.

A female figurine. / Courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority

The artifacts were found next to a unique assemblage of late Islamic magical artifacts from Netafim 2, a campsite on the Darb al-Hajj (Pilgrimage Road) that led from Cairo, crossed the Sinai Peninsula, and continued in the area of today’s Eilat to the town of Aqaba, and then continued south across the Arabian Peninsula. This route was in use from the rise of Islam in the 7th century through the 19th century. Several camping sites and structures that served the pilgrims have been uncovered in the area of the Eilat Mountains, and dated to the Mamluk and Ottoman periods.

An animal clay figurine. / Courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority

“The location of these artifacts next to the camping site, and their similarity to artifacts known in the Muslim world, as well as the fact that they were found in a cluster, suggest they were used in magical rituals,” say the researchers. “The artifacts were found broken, and may even have been purposely broken as part of a ceremony. These rituals may have been carried out by one or several people who specialized in popular magical ceremonies. Based on literary sources, we know that there was a demand for magical rituals among people from different strands of Muslim society. Such rituals were carried out daily in addition to the formal religious rituals and, likely, the pilgrims making their way to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina were no exception.”

An altar-like pottery that was used for incense. / Courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority

According to Dr. Omry Barzilai, IAA’s Southern Regional Archaeologist, the Darb el-Haj runs through the municipal boundaries of modern Eilat. The road and adjacent archaeological sites will now become part of a unique regional archaeological tourism area promoted by the Ministry of Tourism. The IAA will undertake the development and accessibility of the road and organize educational activities for the public emphasizing its cultural heritage role.

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