]The site of the Islamic Umayyad Caliphate Ribat was discovered in the late 19th century by Forestry Engineer Mr. Francisco Mira Botella, director of the Guardamar Dunes Reforestation Project. During reforestation stone structures appeared, containing a stone written in classical Arabic. However, it was not until 1984 when the remains that can be seen today were surfaced. Shortly after this the site was declared a BIC, a Site of Cultural Interest, as an Archaeological Zone, by the Valencian Government: the Generalitat Valenciana. This is a unique and exceptional site not only of the Al-Andalus period but for the entire Western Islamic world.
The very name of this archaeological site describes this finding. On the one hand, the word Rabita in Spanish comes from the Arabic ribât. It makes reference to buildings that not only hosted pilgrims and travellers but which also spread Islam. Moreover, the word caliphate refers to the historical period in which it was built, that is, in the 9th c. AD during the Umayyad Caliphate, a period of great expansion of Islam in the Iberian Peninsula, whose capital was Cordoba.
THE FOUNDATION HEADSTONE
The finding of Engineer Francisco Mira Botella was a red sandstone headstone commemorating the founding of a mosque in AD 944, under the mandate of the Caliph Abd Ar-Harman III. The translation of the original Arabic reads as follows:
“In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate, there is no god but Allah. Muhammad is the messenger of God. This mosque was finished in the month of the year Moharra thirty-three and three hundred. Ahmad b Bululú van Zar ordered it was (re)built. He who trusts God and seeks divine retribution through Muhammad Abu Salama van. It is the work of van Marian van Al Baña.”
The original headstone is now in the Archaeological Museum of Murcia. However, there is now a replica in its original place.
Ribats in the Muslim world have a complex purpose and different uses, but they are all subject to the most important one: the community spiritual retreat and the transmission of religious ideas of mystical order. Sufism pervades these constructions in which, on the one hand, Mohammedan hermits are dedicated to the contemplative life in one part of the building, meanwhile, elsewhere, pilgrims and travellers are welcome. In this way they can share prayers and Koranic knowledge, from different currents, with the hermits who live here. Moreover, in the sacred area of the congregation, the patron family could carry out their spiritual retreat in a secluded place. Nevertheless, all the inhabitants of this ribat shared the Friday community prayer in the largest mosque. The ribat’s neighbours from nearby towns were also welcome.
Other Ribat uses would be trade and the control of the coast due to its strategic location on an elevated position, in close proximity to the mouth of the River Segura. That implied the creation of a shipping scale between the sea and inland trade routes across the river. In addition, ribats were available to the Islamic Jihad and were used as lookouts of the dangerous Mediterranean coast. Therefore, the capital city of the Cora of Tudmir (Orihuela) was guarded against a possible enemy attack since the River Segura was navigable upstream.
The structure of this religious site, still visible today, is linked to the headstone found by Engineer Francisco Mira; but in turn it hides the remains of an older more chaotically organised space. The phase we see now comprises 23 praying cells attached one to the other, two complementary rooms and a mosque. All these rooms face to two streets made up of three different areas: the sacred area, an area of reception of pilgrims and the area of the monastery where the stable population, made up of monks, lived. This religious site has two entrances: one for visitors, very near the single praying cell, which has an access door looking towards the exterior. It could have been the cell of the congregation’s holy man, where the faithful had easy access without interfering in the quiet ribat’s monastic life inside. The other door looks east with access through a previous room.
However, a part of the site is still buried under the sands and the future holds further knowledge on this site.
INTERNAL STRUCTURE Both the praying cells and the mosque have a similar structure, although the purpose and capacity of the different rooms vary. The praying cells have a rectangular structure no more than 8 metres long and 3 metres wide, with a gateway and the wall with the Qiblah and the Mihrab. The Quiblah serves to make the faithful pray in the correct direction. The Mihrab is a small vaulted projected chapel from where the Imam leads the rite. Further to its powerful spiritual meaning for Muslims, it has traditionally served to expand the officiant’s voice. The mosque also has a rectangular structure, also with a Qiblah wall and a Mihrab, but of much greater dimensions. It comprises two perpendicular naves to the Qiblah, a small adjoining room and 5 access doors. All the rooms had small windows that dimly lighted the space. Although we can now see the stone of the praying cells they were originally plastered with mud and whitewashed. The exception was, however, the most important ones, which are still plastered today, with lime mortar, of much greater resistance. Small examples of painted decoration are found on some of the cells. These are bands with geometrical or vegetable patterns; that cross the rooms delimiting the lower base thereof, framing the Mihrab and giving greater prominence to this space. Therefore, the decoration of these rooms was very simple, thus reinforcing the idea of religion and mysticism. In the sacred area the praying cells are of much better quality and larger than the rest. Here lived the monastery’s donors and spiritual guides explaining the reason why they were built in a higher style. There is one cell in this area standing out above the rest, known as cell MIII. This room stands out for its size, its condition, its design and the building materials used. This proves the importance of the person or persons who lived here. Furthermore, it has two distinguishing features; one this is the Mihrab where Engineer Mira discovered the foundation headstone on the outer wall; and second, it is the only one with a second small door, for ritual purposes.
OBJECTS FOUND The finding of this ribat was remarkable for its uniqueness. It is the first example of this type of religious buildings in the Iberian Peninsula. In the excavations, led by R. Azuar, many different objects were found scattered around the site. Many of these objects were complete and in good condition. This is quite rare in excavations since archeology generally investigates on sites that were abandoned in a gradual organised fashion. In all these cases archaeologists only discover objects that were left unconsciously or hidden (quite rare cases) or waste that people who lived there had no taken away with them. Therefore, all this proves that the site was abandoned abruptly, probably due to an earthquake in the early 11th c. AD. This fact is documented archaeologically not only in the ribat’s excavations but also in the Arabic chronicles of Al-Uldri, who mentions the devastating effects of an earthquake after the year 404 of the Hegira (July 13, 1013 to July 2, 1014). This sudden abandonment is what has allowed for many objects to be found complete and some still placed on their usage situation. The objects found are typical ceramic dinnerware and utensils used for everyday use such as: oil lamps, jars, kettles, crocks, aqueducts, portable stoves, ataifor plates and glass vials, etc. There are other religious objects, such as the remains of rosary beads made up of clay pellets or fish bones. THE INSCRIPTIONS Many examples of ancient Arabic writing are found inside the Guardamar ribat. The most important one is its foundation headstone, as well as an older and less well known headstone In addition pious Muslims who lived in this ribat and visiting pilgrims left a reminder of their stay will simple inscriptions on the walls. The presence of marabouts is mentioned with the following formula: “he entered this ribat”. The meaning of these words has to do with the sense of having fulfilled the Ribat’s religious duty and the pious exercise of defence of Islam.