Seminar: Uncovering the Islamic City

Today, the University of St Andrews School of History inaugurated a new seminar series on Middle Eastern and Iranian History with a talk from Dr. Alison Gascoigne from the University of Southampton entitled ‘Tell Tiniss: Trade, Manufacture, and Defence in the north Nile Delta, 4th-13th centuries.’

Her talk centred upon the archaeology of Tinnis, a trading city and seaport in the Nile Delta which is one of the few cities to reach its peak in the Islamic Middle East which is entirely accessible to the archaeologists’ gaze, not only in terms of traditional excavation, but also arial photography and magnetic imaging.

Tinnis itself is a rather strange city. Located on an island in a lagoon between one of the branches of the Nile and the Mediterranean, the city had no agricultural hinterland, and very few other natural resources. Written sources, for example, say that they even had to carry soil in by boat to have land to build their houses on!

The city of Tinnis sat on a small island in the large lagoon in the top right of the map, just east of Damietta. (

Although evidence for Tinnis begins in the late antique period, in the 4th century, the city reached its peak of prosperity during the 9th and 10th centuries, when Egypt had already been under Islamic rule for several hundred years. Because it is so rare as a site, Tinnis can provide valuable evidence to test the assumptions of both archaeologists and historians about what characterised a mediaeval Islamic city, and some of the results are surprising.

Many scholars have assumed, for example, that harbour cities at this time had little port infrastructure and that there was little investment, public or private, in trading facilities. In Tinnis, however, the location of large defensive walls and an urban citadel, not to mention several canals requiring skilled planning, speak to the sophistication of the built environment.

In part, however, some of the city’s infrastructure may have been a matter of necessity. The same shortage of resources that made building so difficult also meant that fresh water was very scarce. Tinnis’ solution to the shortage was both ingenious and onerous. Because of the seasonal flooding of the Nile, the salty lagoon surrounding the city would, for a brief two or three months only, become sufficiently diluted with river water to drink. The Tinnisians took this annual opportunity to gather water using water-wheels, channelling it into an extensive system of cisterns beneath the city, the remains of which have been partially excavated and are still navigable with a good pair of waders. Literary sources testify to the steep price of water in the city, and to the other discomforts of living so close to the lake.

Although Tinnis’ lifeblood was trade, it also had an extensive manufacturing base, concentrating mainly in metalwork and linen textiles. Previously, most scholars have assumed that these activities always took place outside a city’s walls, where they would be less disruptive. The distribution of smelting by-products, and magnetic imaging of structures underground, however, argue that a large manufacturing centre sat right in the middle of the city, conveniently located near the terminus of a canal. The textiles of Tinnis, known as tiraz scarves, sometimes incorporated silk and were considered a high-value luxury product.

Thus, although only a tiny fraction of the 93 hectares of Tinnis has been excavated, or even imaged, these findings have already posed a challenge to the general understanding of the ‘Islamic city’ found both in historical and archaeological writing. With so much still underground, and many intriguing finds from pottery to gold coins to anchors sitting on the surface, therefore, Tinnis may yet have more to tell us about life in a mediaeval seaport fully integrated with the Mediterranean–and the world beyond.

P.S. If you want to learn more about Dr. Gascoigne’s research, you can find a list of her publications here.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s