Milestones: Donald Whitcomb (1944–2024)

Pioneer in the field of Islamic archaeology

Donald Whitcomb

Donald Whitcomb. Photo by David Silverman, courtesy Katia Cytryn.

On February 8, 2024, Donald (Don) Whitcomb, a cherished colleague, mentor, and inspiration to numerous scholars and students, passed away at the age of 79. An Associate Professor at the Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures (formerly the Oriental Institute) at the University of Chicago, Whitcomb epitomized “Islamic Archaeology,” a field he significantly shaped and advanced to stand alongside its sister disciplines in biblical and Near Eastern archaeology.

Whitcomb’s journey began in anthropology, culminating in a master’s degree from the University of Georgia in 1971 and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1979. Over the years, he directed archaeological works in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Egypt, and Iran, countries that reflected Whitcomb’s long adherence to the geographical description of Islamic regions as known to the tenth-century geographer Al-Muqaddasi.i He was also involved in several collaborative projects, including at Khirbet al-Mafjar with the Palestinian Department of Antiquities (2011–2015) and at Sinnabra (south of Tiberias) with Tel Aviv University. In addition, Whitcomb served as a consultant for various projects and exhibitions, including the rehabilitation of the Ayn al-Duk (Na‘aran) synagogue in Jericho, and a 2015 Oriental Institute exhibit entitled “A Cosmopolitan City: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Old Cairo.” This exhibit epitomized Whitcomb’s role as a cultural bridge that allowed him to forge partnerships across geographic borders and political divisions.ii

Among his extensive publications was his landmark article “Khirbet al-Mafjar Reconsidered: The Ceramic Evidence” (Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 271 [1988], pp. 51–67), which revolutionized scholarly understandings of pottery typologies in southern Greater Syria and became a standard reference for any scholar or student in early Islamic archaeology. He also wrote “The Islamic Period as Seen from Selected Sites” in the publication of Burton MacDonald’s Southern Ghors and Northeast Arabah Archaeological Survey (Sheffield, 1992, pp. 113–118), where he established a periodization for Islamic archaeology that was independent of political periods. He also contributed important publications on his excavations at the Egyptian site of Qusayr al-Qadim (1978–1984), which are now primary references for the archaeology of the Red Sea coast during the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods.

His work on the Red Sea continued with his excavation at Aqaba in Jordan (1986–1997), where he identified the early Islamic port city of Ayla. Excavating amid Aqaba’s rapidly expanding beaches and resorts, Whitcomb explored the development of early Islamic urbanism as well as the medieval trade routes that connected Egypt, Arabia, and Greater Syria. Indeed, Ayla’s role as a trading hub features prominently in several of his publications on the site, including Ayla: Art and Industry in the Islamic Port of Aqaba (Oriental Institute, 1994) and Port of Palestine on the China Sea (Economic Press, 1988).

Throughout his career, Whitcomb received numerous awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Middle East Medievalists association in 2018. He was a regular at academic conferences and professional meetings, including the annual meetings of the American Society of Overseas Research (ASOR), but also the International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East (ICAANE), where he and other leading scholars spearheaded the inclusion of Islamic archaeology in the conference’s sessions.

Open minded with a big smile and a warm heart, Don helped shape a field through conversation and exchange rather than criticism and attack, even in times of disagreement. May Don’s legacy endure, not only through his research and the many scholars he mentored, but also through his approach and acceptance of others.

Don is survived by his wife, Egyptologist Janet Johnson, along with his daughter Felicia and son John. I wish them a long life, illuminated by fond memories of a beloved husband and father.

Katia Cytryn is Chair of the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and senior lecturer at the Institute of Archaeology. She is a specialist in Islamic archaeology and material culture and currently directs excavations at the ancient city center of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee.


[i] In the entry on “Islamic Archaeology” in the Encyclopedia of Archaeology, Second Edition (Academic, 2024, pp. 370–382), I celebrated Whitcomb’s contribution in this regard, writing, “It is thus redundant to repeat what Whitcomb has done so skillfully [describing the main archaeological works and topics in the various Islamic regions], especially as this archaeologist himself can be considered a ‘Muqaddasī’ of our times, as he has excavated sites in many of the very regions discussed by this geographer.”

[ii] The forthcoming publication of the conference “Recent Advances in Islamic Archaeology,” jointly organized in 2013 by the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem and the École biblique et archéologique française de Jérusalem, stands as a testament to research beyond borders, which was undoubtedly facilitated by Don’s presence and contribution

Tags: Milestones

Related Posts

Jun 7
Milestones: Edward Lipiński (1930–2024)

By: K. Lawson Younger

Dec 5
Milestones: Jonathan N. Tubb (1951–2023)

By: Konstantinos Politis

Sep 7
Milestones: Amnon Ben-Tor (1935–2023)

By: Igor Kreimerman

Sep 1
Milestones: Diane Harris Cline (1961–2023)

By: Alexandra Ratzlaff

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Send this to a friend