Qana Reveals its Secrets [Archives:1998/08/Reportage]
Prepared for publication by Ismail Al-Ghabiry
Since 1985, the urban site of Qana (Bir Ali) has been the focus of excavations led by a staff of Russian and, recently, French archaeologists. The results of these systematic researches are of great scientific evidence for the history of this important South Arabian town.
Moreover, with ancient Greek and Latin sources, mainly the Periplus of the Red Sea, a kind of log book written by a Greek sailor around the middle of the first century AD was found. It contains several trade routes to India, Persia, Egypt and several other countries of the Western Mediterranean Sea from the two harbors of Hadhramaut and Qana. According to this guide, all the frankincense grown in the land was brought to a warehouse in Qana. From early on in the first century AD, Hadhramaut became the largest and, probably, the most powerful kingdom of the South Arabian states. The main reason for this was the increasing sea trade between this South Arabian Kingdom and the Roman world, the rest of Arabia and India.
The main local products, frankincense and aloe, were being sent in large quantities by shipping cargoes instead of the traditional land routes. Direct sailing between Egypt and India became common because of the monsoon sailing. For this reason, transit stations were created on the southern Arabian Peninsula to supply water and food.
The location of Qana is rather surprising, since the coastal area around it is wild and inhospitable. It is mostly sandy with black stones, very little vegetation and saline water in the wells. There are two reasons why Qana was chosen; first there were good caravan roads connecting it with Shabwa, the capital rich in fresh water and frankincense. Second, is that the width of the bay of Qana is marked by 4 small islands and the titanic rock of Husn Al-Ghurab, which were highly visible from the sea.
Excavations have uncovered domestic remains, storage areas, water tanks, what is thought to be a lighthouse and other buildings on the top of the rock of Husn Al-Ghurab, which appear to have been used from the late first century BC until the early seventh century AD. This has been proven by the dating of ceramic materials, glass and hundreds of pieces of bronze coins found during the excavations.
The 1st-2nd century AD artifacts testify to the predominance of contracts with some areas of the Italian peninsula, Palestine, Asia Minor, Parthia, probably India some areas of the Arab Gulf and the Socotra Island. According to some Sabaa inscriptions dated back to the beginning of the third century AD, Qana was destroyed during a military raid by Sabaa troops, when 47 boats were sunk in its bay. Archaeological evidence shows that the ancient town was rebuilt quickly. From the late third century AD, Qana was a possession of the Himyarite Kingdom. More than half of the coins found in the ruins dated back to this period could be identified as Himyarite. Russian archaeologists noted a preferential relationship with the areas of North and East Africa and Mesopotamia. In the final stage of Qana’s prosperity, artifacts confirm intensive commercial exchanges with Southern Palestine (Gaza), the region of Antioch and Mesopotamia.
In 1996, an underwater archaeological survey was performed for the first time. In a South Arabian document, it tells of the attack on Qana by the army of the Sabaa King Shar Awtar around 225 AD, in which 47 ships were sunk in the harbor. Another one says that in July 360 AD, some Yazanite princes from Wadi Abadan (Misab) bought 5 equipped ships at the Qana harbor. Moreover, J.R. Wellsted, an English officer who explored the Arabian coast in 1834 aboard the ship Palinurus, described two ports at Qana. The first one was located in the northern bay and the second one, located in the southern bay was silted up at that time.
In October 1996, work was started with a visit to the top of Husn Al-Ghurab, the best place to see the topography of the site. The southern bay was almost completely silted up. Hypothetical archaeological evidence could be identified after a careful geological study of satellite photographs confirming the ancient coast line.
In the first phase of this survey, a systematic investigation has been carried out looking for the various possible mooring structures in front of the ancient warehouses (depth max. 5 meters), as have been observed in several examples of Mediterranean harbors (Portus, Piraeus, Delos, Kenreai, Leptis, Magna, Massalia, etc.) Neither structures nor ceramic fragments have been found. The investigation was extended from the west side to the southern bay without success because of the sand.
The inner northern bay was explored next (depth max. 6-8 meters). It is 150 meters away from the coast, warehouses and houses situated on the shore. It is a large gulf advancing deep into the coast, opening wide to the east and protected from wind on the south and west. The area of the sea bed measures about 330 square meters, as the 1996 underwater surveys indicate. The site is very rich in archaeological finds. A stone anchor, 70 ceramic fragments, amphoras and five dead weights used as mooring stones were all found here. The artifacts have all been delivered to Ataq Museum.
The main finds consist of:
2 fragments of amphora 2/4 Dressel type from Italy
1 fragment of amphora 2/4 Dressel type from Tarraconensis
4 fragments of amphora 47 Pelichet type from South Galia
3 fragments of amphora 2/4 Dressel type from the Koan region
These artifacts have been dated to the 1st-3rd century AD. No fragments of terra sigillata (fine pottery) have been found, but they could be under the sand.
Other finds were:
1 Nubian oil lamp
Some lips of jars and fragments of amphora, yet identified
1 fragment of amphora 2/4 Dressel type made in Egypt
1 fragment of amphora 2/4 Dressel type from the Black Sea region, the first evidence found at Kane.
All the artifacts confirm the change of commercial relationships in the 3rd-4th century AD, towards North and East Africa and the Black Sea. The pottery from this area, dated from the 1st-4th centuries AD, confirm and enrich the data of the archaeological excavations of Qana. During dives along the coast, many mooring structures were discovered. Five rectangular stone blocks, with a long grove in the middle to fasten rope, were found during surveys of the area. These objects are rough and too big for stone anchors and inconvenient to be carried aboard the ships. They are thought to be a kind of dead weight used as mooring stones placed on the bottom of the bay to give the cargo ships a better mooring. Once moored, the cargo ships were unloaded by little boats. then the goods were carried to the warehouses. The results of the preliminary surveys confirm the presence of an organized mooring place in the northern bay of Kane.
Recent Work & New Finds
On January 27, 1998 the second underwater survey in the north bay of Qana started. The team from the Italian Institute for Africa consisted of Barbara Davidde and Robert Petriaggi (archaeologists), Massimiliano Ena (architect), Renato Donati (underwater technician) and Marco Nicola Fossati (cameraman).
In the first phase, a survey has been taken to check the situation of the 1996 archaeological field. Because of the marine current, new ceramic fragments have appeared on the bottom of the sea. The new main finds consist of the necks and bottoms of amphora, 2/4 Dressel type from Egypt, Italy, Spain, a jug, a jar and several pieces of the body of Roman amphora dating from the 1st century AD to the middle 3rd century AD. The big stone anchors, found during 1996, were still in their place.
In the second phase, a new area measuring 560 sq.m has been defined. The site is very rich in archaeological finds. Besides the usual Roman amphora 2/4 Dressel type, Pelichet 47 type similis were found. Big jars used for the storage of olive oil, a fragment of a dish of terra sigillata type (fine pottery used in the first half of 1st century AD), a Nubian oil lamp (4th century AD), jars and vessels probably from India were all discovered. An uncommon neck of amphora, probably dating back to the late period of Qana (5th-6th century AD) has also been collected.
Just in front of the beach of the north bay, a fragment of a stone anchor bearing a hole for the rope, made by the same volcanic black stone used for the houses and storehouses of ancient Qana, has been discovered.
Moreover, outside of the archaeological field, several ceramic fragments and rectangular stone blocks with a long groove in the middle to fasten rope have also been located. The other stone blocks, found in 1996, can be defined as dead weights used as mooring stones placed on the bottom of the bay to give cargo ships a better mooring.
During dives, the team recorded, plotted, photographed, filmed and collected 94 significant ceramic finds and two stone anchors. The results of the surveys constitute as important contributions to the reconstruction of the maritime trades of ancient Qana.
Dr. Barbara Davidde
Dr. Roberto Petriaggi
Directors of Underwater Mission