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Artifacts found on ancient Muslim pilgrimage road were used for sorcery

The artifacts, found in the 1990s on the ancient Darb al-Hajj route from Cairo to Mecca, were likely employed in magic rituals to ward off the evil eye, heal diseases and more, according to a newly released study.

Clay female figurine. Photo: Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority.
Clay female figurine. Photo: Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority.

According to a recently published study, artifacts discovered at an archeological site near Eilat in the late 1990s indicate that belief in sorcery was still prevalent in the Early Ottoman Period.

The study, published in the Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World, was led by Itamar Taxel of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Uzi Avner of the Dead Sea-Arava Science Center and Nitzan Amitai-Preiss of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The collection of items, uncovered along the ancient Darb al-Hajj route in the Eilat mountains of southern Israel in the late 1990s by Moti Shemtov, includes fragments of clay rattles, resembling table tennis balls, which contained small stones that produced sound when shaken. Two artifacts resembling miniature votive incense altars were found, along with several figurines, including one of a naked woman or goddess with raised hands.

According to the study, these artifacts were employed in magical rituals to ward off the evil eye, heal disease and more.

An analysis of the ceramic artifacts indicated that they originated from Egypt. According to the IAA their discovery marked the first time such a substantial assembly of ritual objects of this nature had ever been found, especially at a temporary site rather than a permanent settlement.

The Darb al-Hajj began in Cairo, crossed the Sinai Peninsula, continued through the Eilat region, and eventually reached the town of Aqaba before continuing into the Arabian Peninsula. The route was in use from the early days of Islam, starting in the 7th century C.E., and remained in use until the 19th century C.E.

A network of wells, rest areas, and oases was developed along the route to support pilgrimage and trade traffic. Many of these historic rest stops and wells can still be found along the route.

In the vicinity of the Eilat mountains, several camping sites and structures for pilgrims have been discovered. It appears that these structures primarily served during the Mamluk and Ottoman periods, beginning in the 13th or 14th centuries C.E.

Taxel noted that many of the artifacts were discovered in a broken state, suggesting they may have been intentionally damaged during ceremonies. It appears that these rituals were conducted on-site by one or more individuals specializing in popular magical practices.

Literary sources indicate that magical rituals were in high demand across various strata of society, even alongside formal religious observances, and it is likely that pilgrims en route to Mecca and Medina sought such services.

Omry Barzilai, the IAA’s southern regional archaeologist, noted that the Darb al-Hajj road intersects the municipal boundaries of Eilat, positioning the city to become part of a unique regional archaeological and tourist area.

The IAA plans to oversee the road’s development and accessibility while organizing educational activities to emphasize its cultural heritage role.

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