Cache of Ottoman period ritual objects discovered in Eilat
A cache of objects found along the route from Cairo to Mecca may have been used for magic rituals by 17th-century pilgrims on the Hajj. Publishing in the Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World, a group of archaeologists examined an intriguing set of artifacts discovered at the site of Netafim 2, near Eilat in southern Israel, which included dozens of clay rattles, votive incense altars, small figurines, and colored quartz pebbles. According to the team, these objects were likely used in magic rituals to ward off the evil eye or to protect the pilgrims on the dangerous route to Mecca.
Dig into more than 9,000 articles in the Biblical Archaeology Society’s vast library plus much more with an All-Access pass.
Netafim 2 was one of many small campsites in the vicinity of modern Eilat that served as waystations for pilgrims on the Darb al-Hajj (“Way of the Pilgrimage”), an important route connecting Cairo to Mecca. Discovered on the outskirts of the site, however, was a collection of intriguing artifacts that seems to reflect the non-orthodox practices of some pilgrims. Dated to the 17th century, these objects all served various purposes in the practice of magic in the pre-modern Near East. According to the team, the owner may have been a “professional sorcerer” who plied his or her trade on the Hajj route between Cairo and Mecca.
“This discovery reveals that people in the early Ottoman period—just as today—consulted popular sorcerers, alongside the formal belief in the official religion,” said the authors of the publication. “From the literary sources, we know that there was a demand for magical rituals among people from different strands of society. Such rituals were carried out daily alongside the formal religious rituals—including in the Muslim world—and it is probable that the pilgrims making their way to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina were no exception.”
Most notable among the discovered objects was a small, 6-inch-tall figurine of a naked woman with raised hands. Nearly a dozen other figurine fragments were also found. Despite the prohibition against images within Islam, such depictions were quite common throughout the pre-modern Islamic world. Such depictions of humans with raised hands could be used as representations of deities, demons, and even priests, and have been found in archaeological contexts worldwide dating back around 15,000 years. During the Ottoman period (c. 1516–1917 CE), depictions of these figurines were very frequently incorporated into various magical practices within Islamic, Christian, and Jewish folk religions throughout the Islamic world.
Analysis of the clay objects revealed they likely originated in Egypt and were brought to Netafim 2 by travelers. The small quartz balls, however, may have been crafted locally and used in geomancy, a type of divination. The rattles and incense burners, meanwhile, were possibly used to ward off evil spirits, such as jinn.
Nearly all the objects discovered in the cache were intentionally broken. According to the team, it is possible that they were broken as part of the rituals themselves, or they could have been broken by more orthodox believers among the pilgrims. Both scenarios could also explain why they were found on the outskirts of the site, either discarded after the ritual or kept out of the camp so as to be out of sight.
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.