Abstract: Aila: A Roman Port on the Red Sea


Various ancient sources mention a city called Aila that was one of the great international ports of the Roman empire. Founded by the Nabataean Arabs in the first century B.C., Aila flourished as a major emporium between the Roman empire and its eastern neighbors. Luxury products such as frankincense, myrrh, and spices were transferred between ships and camel caravans for transport into the Empire. Direct Roman rule began in A.D. 106, when Aila became the southern terminus of the via nova Traiana, a major road connecting Syria with the Red Sea. About A.D. 300 the famous X Fretensis Legion was transferred from Jerusalem to Aila, suggesting the strategic importance of the city. Aila continued to flourish through the Byzantine period (4th-6th centuries), then surrendered to Muslim forces in 630. Although various sources located Aila near the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea, its exact location remained a mystery.

In 1994 an archaeological project directed by the speaker rediscovered ancient Aila, now within the modern city of Aqaba in southern Jordan. Above all, the project aims to reconstruct the economy of Aila through both excavation of the city and a regional survey of its hinterland. Excavations between 1994 and 2003 revealed major portions of the ancient city, including domestic complexes, cemeteries, the city wall, and an apparently early Christian church. This putative church, erected ca. A.D. 300, could be the oldest purpose-built church in the world. A wide array of artifacts recovered by the project is suggestive of the international trade that passed through the port and of several local industries. Faunal and botanical remains also reveal much about the ancient urban economy. Finally, the surface survey recorded other archaeological sites that place the city in a broader regional context.


Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic (for lay reader):

S. Thomas Parker, “Beyond Frankincense and Myrrh: Reconstructing the Economy of Roman Aqaba”. Pp. 359-366 in T. E. Levy, P.M. M. Daviau, and M. Shaer, eds. Crossing Jordan: North American Contributions to the Archaeology of Jordan. London and Oakville, CT: Equinox, 2007.

Parker, "The Roman Aqaba Project", in S. H. Savage et al., eds., "Archaeology in Jordan", American Journal of Archaeology 107 (2003) 473-475.

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