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Considerations on the Economic Development of Wadi Araba

A Report Submitted to the Department of Antiquities of Jordan and the World Bank

c/o Nathan Associates Inc.

July, 1995

Andrew M. Smith II

Table of Contents


General Character of Wadi Araba

Previous Explorations of Wadi Araba

Issues Concerning the Economic Development of Wadi Araba




With peaceful relations currently established between Israel and Jordan, there is now a progressive movement leading toward the economic development of both nations. Wadi Araba, that portion of the Jordan Rift Valley situated between the Red Sea and Dead Sea, has become an important focal point in this movement. However, before any significant modifications occur within the valley, some cautionary notes must be considered. This is particularly true when modern development threatens to alter or destroy the cultural environment. The government of Jordan is fully aware of one of the richest and most secure economic assets available to the Hashemite Kingdom, the cultural landscape. Jordan's climate is favorable to the preservation of ancient sites belonging to all periods of human activity in the region. Comparable to other regions, however, Jordan lacks any complete or thorough documentation of its cultural landscape. Systematic and intensive archaeological surveys within Jordan, particularly in the south, are few and fragmentary, which has left a significant void in general knowledge of the antiquities of the region. This lack of knowledge occasionally spawns false impressions of specific regions being desolate or empty of any significant antiquities, which in turn places these regions as prime candidates for economic development. This has been particularly true for Wadi Araba, Jordan, which until recently was a militarized zone where any extensive survey for antiquities was impossible. To the extent that the cultural landscape is concerned in the now de-militarized portions of Wadi Araba, this report highlights some issues that must be considered before any economic development within the valley commences.

General Character of Wadi Araba

Wadi Araba extends ca. 165 km north from the Red Sea to the escarpment overlooking the Southern Ghor of the Dead Sea, and the width of the valley ranges from ca. 10 km to 30 km. Along the length of the center of Wadi Araba runs the boundary between the modern states of Israel and Jordan. The Araba is bounded by the steep ridges of esh-Shera and el-Jibal to the southeast and northeast respectively, which rise to heights of about 1,000 m to 1,500 m above sea level. The dissected mountains and hills of the Negev desert comprise the western boundary of Wadi Araba, with an average height not exceeding 600 m above sea level. One geomorphological classification of Wadi Araba subdivides it into three regions: 1) the southern Araba, or Aqaba Valley, 2) the central Araba, and 3) the Southern Ghor of the Dead Sea (Zohary 1944: 204-205). The Aqaba Valley extends from sea level at Aqaba for ca. 80 km to a point just north of Gharandal (elevation ca. 200 m), which is the local drainage divide. The central Araba descends gradually from this point for about 75 km to the escarpment overlooking the Southern Ghor (elevation ca. -230 m). The Southern Ghor may be referred to as the northern extension of Wadi Araba, less than 14 km in length, that makes a rapid descent from the escarpment to the southern shore of the Dead Sea (a drop in elevation of about 160 m). The present climate is characterized by hot summers and relatively mild winters. During the summer months (June-September), the mean daily temperature can often exceed 40o C, whereas the mean daily temperature averages between 20-28o C during the winter months (November-March). Rainfall in the region is sparse, averaging between 50-100 mm annually, and occurs only during the winter months, while there is a high potential evaporation of up to 5000 mm annually (Rosenthal et al. 1990: 340). The extremes of daily temperatures combined with the infrequent winter rainfall supports the Araba's qualification as a typical desert environment.

Previous Explorations of Wadi Araba

Three pioneering explorations of Wadi Araba were conducted early in this century (Musil 1907-08; Frank 1935; Glueck 1935). These explorations, however, were cursory and only a handful of archaeological sites were documented. Although Glueck returned to Wadi Araba in 1938-40 to excavate the Iron Age site of Tell el-Kheleifeh near Aqaba (Glueck 1965), it was not until recently that his work was reexamined and properly published (Pratico 1993). In short, information that can be gleaned from the works of these early explorers, although important, remains nonetheless minimal.

More recently, investigations of Wadi Araba have increased. Israeli archaeologists have already significantly enhanced general knowledge of antiquities along the western Araba (Cohen 1993a; 1993b; 1994; Meshel 1993). Although the majority of this work remains to be published, it does show that the valley is rich in archaeological materials. On the Jordanian side to the north, Burton MacDonald surveyed Wadi Araba from the Southern Ghor to Feinan in the south. Investigations of Feinan have been more intensive. German archaeologists have concluded their exhaustive study of ancient copper production in the region while British archaeologists are now in the preliminary stages of a ten-year project of excavation and survey at Feinan. South of Feinan, however, Wadi Araba still remains terra incognita. The few investigations conducted in the southeastern Araba (none of which are published) have made only a limited contribution to present knowledge of the archaeological history of the region. Brief surveys by Thomas Raikes, David McCreery, and David Graf recorded few archaeological sites in the area. Only in 1993-94 was there significant growth in present knowledge of the archaeological history of the southern Araba.

A reconnaissance of Wadi Araba between Aqaba and Gharandal was conducted in June 1993 to 1) learn more concerning the natural environment, especially the geomorphology, hydrology, climate, flora, and fauna; 2) assess the known evidence for past human activity in the area by visiting previously reported archaeological sites; 3) search for new archaeological sites in the study area; and 4) assess prospects for a formal survey. Subsequent results suggested that a formal survey of Wadi Araba was in fact warranted and long overdue (Smith and Niemi 1994).

The first season of the Southeast Araba Archaeological Survey (SAAS) was between May and June 1994. Assisting the Roman Aqaba Project, a primary goal of the survey is to explore both the hinterland of Roman Aila and one of the principal land routes that claimed this settlement as its southern nexus. Reconstruction of the cultural landscape by the discovery and documentation of ancient sites in the region and investigations of the natural environment will place the city of Aila in a broader regional context. It will also assist with the identification and analysis of possible commercial and industrial developments within the ancient city.

The Southeast Araba Archaeological Survey recorded 162 archaeological sites during six weeks in 1994. Diagnostic artifacts were collected at 109 of these sites. Preliminary analysis of this evidence shows that the sites recorded by the SAAS range in date from the Chalcolithic to the Modern period. The periods best represented are the Chalcolithic/Early Bronze Age, Early Roman/Nabataean, and later Roman and Byzantine periods. This evidence shows that Wadi Araba possesses a rich cultural heritage that has been only partly explored. The documentation of this heritage requires more extensive and intensive studies.

Issues Concerning the Economic Development of Wadi Araba

Three key issues relate to the economic development of Wadi Araba in particular, and of Jordan in general. These are outlined below:

1) Any funds derived from the American government require an archaeological assessment study of the area to be developed. The general lack of explorations of Wadi Araba makes it imperative that these assessment studies begin immediately and be as comprehensive as possible. Once documented, it is essential that these archaeological assessments be published to increase popular and scholarly knowledge of the antiquities of Jordan.

2) It is also important to be aware of Jordan's concern for its environment and the extent to which Jordan values its cultural heritage. In fact, few of the neighboring countries can compete with Jordan's awareness and concern over environmental issues. In order to prevent any disrespect directed to Jordan or its people, similar concerns should also be expressed by foreign developers who intend to make significant modifications to the landscape. Developers should show their awareness and concern by incorporating archaeological assessments within their proposals in order to pinpoint sectors within a given region that may be targeted for development.

3) It is false to assume that any area within Jordan is void of antiquities when it can be shown that the area has never been targeted for any intensive or systematic archaeological survey. This is particularly true for Wadi Araba in Jordan, which until recently was a militarized zone where any comprehensive archaeological survey was impossible. Although Wadi Araba is now a prime candidate for economic development, any development within the valley that involves significant modification of the landscape should not be allowed without efforts to conduct archaeological assessments. These assessments will broaden general awareness of the antiquities of the region. In turn, these antiquities may themselves be targeted for economic development to promote tourism and public awareness of Jordan's rich cultural heritage.


Now that peaceful relations exist between Jordan and Israel, there is the instinctive desire to benefit from this relationship by joint considerations of economic development. Wadi Araba offers a unique setting upon which to initiate joint projects to increase each country's economic resources. What must be stressed, however, is the importance of the cultural landscape as a viable economic asset, particularly for the promotion of tourism. Unfortunately, Wadi Araba remains largely void of any systematic investigation, which would be required to document the archaeological sites that comprise the cultural landscape. Although the few investigations that have been conducted thus far suggest that Wadi Araba has a rich cultural heritage, these have only scratched the surface in terms of documenting ancient sites in the region. The intent of this report is not to discourage the economic development of Wadi Araba, but rather to encourage and stress the need to initiate archaeological assessments in order to evaluate and regulate the impact this development will have on the region's cultural environment.


Cohen, R.

1993a Haeva, Mead. Pp. 593-94 in The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavation in the Holy Land, vol. 2, ed. E. Stern. Israel Exploration Society: Jerusalem.

1993b Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine Sites in the Negev Hills. Pp. 1135-45 in The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavation in the Holy Land, vol. 3, ed. E. Stern. Israel Exploration Society: Jerusalem.

1994 The Fortresses at `En aeva. Biblical Archaeologist 57: 203-14.

Frank, F.

1934 Aus der Araba I: Reiseberichte. Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins 57: 191-280.

Glueck, N.

1935 Explorations in Eastern Palestine. vol. 2. Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 15. New Haven, CT: American Schools of Oriental Research.

1965 Ezion-Geber. Biblical Archaeologist 28: 70-87.

Meshel, Z.

1993 Yotvata. Pp. 1517-20 in The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavation in the Holy Land, vol. 4, ed. E. Stern. Israel Exploration Society: Jerusalem.

Musil, A.

1907 Arabia Petraea. 3 vols. Vienna: Holder.

Pratico, Gary D.

1993 Nelson Glueck's 1938-1940 Excavations at Tell el-Kheleifeh: A Reappraisal, American Schools of Oriental Research Archaeological Reports, no. 3, edited by Larry G. Herr. Atlanta: Scholars Press.

Rosenthal et al.

1990 Definition of Groundwater Flow Patterns by Environmental Tracers in the Multiple Aquifer System of Southern Arava Valley, Israel. Journal of Hydrology 117: 339-368.

Smith, Andrew M. II, and Tina Niemi.

1994 Results of the Southeast Araba Archaeological Reconnaissance. Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 38: 469-83.

Zohary, M.

1944 Outline of the Vegetation in Wadi Araba. Journal of Ecology 32: 204-213.

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©1995, Andrew M. Smith II