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178, February 2013 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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The Palestinian archaeologist Dimitri Baramki.
The Palestinian archaeologist Dimitri Baramki.
The Palestinian archaeologist Dimitri Baramki.
The Palestinian archaeologist Dimitri Baramki.

Dimitri C. Baramki 1909–1984
TWIP Collective
The ancient land of Palestine began to attract Western archaeologists almost since the birth of archaeology as a scholarly discipline; yet it was not until the 1920s that the country produced its first tiny crop of Palestinian archaeologists. Among those, Dimitri Baramki - frequently called the first Palestinian archaeologist - was the most productive and the only one who pursued a lifelong career in the field. He began as a student inspector of antiquities during the British Mandate two months short of his eighteenth birthday and achieved an internationally acknowledged standing as a UNESCO expert, professor of archaeology and curator of the Archaeological Museum at the American University of Beirut, and lecturer at the Lebanese University and the University of Balamand.

Baramki’s career consists of two phases: the Palestinian, during which he conducted most of his field work, excavating at numerous sites across Palestine; and the Lebanese, which centred more on training young archaeologists and building up a university archaeological museum, unique in the Middle East. The first phase began when his older brother Jalil, who eventually left the field to pursue legal studies, drew him into archaeology and the Mandate Department of Antiquities, where he remained until the Nakba of 1948. After a brief stay in Amman he returned to Jerusalem to work first as acting curator of the Palestine Archaeological Museum (1948-1949), now called the Rockefeller Museum, then with the American School of Oriental Research, currently the Albright Institute, until 1951. In that year he was recruited by the American University of Beirut, thus launching the second, more academic, phase of his career.

Just over a year out of St. George’s School in Jerusalem, where he had studied on a choirboy scholarship, the young Dimitri Baramki was promoted to inspector of antiquities at the start of 1929. He began working on sites and writing reports that were published in the Palestine Quarterly of the Department of Antiquities from 1931 into the late 1940s (also managing to earn a BA (honours) external degree from the University of London in 1934). These early publications covered a variety of remains, from an Iron Age tomb to Early Christian and Byzantine churches spread across the length and breadth of Palestine. But he seems to have been especially drawn to Jericho. His publication of the church at Tell Hassan in 1934 was the first archaeological record of the town of Jericho in the Byzantine and early Islamic periods. While he was there, he inspected the three mounds of ruins known as Khirbet al-Mafjar, and reported on the potential importance of these architectural monuments.

These ruins, located just north of Jericho, had been reported in 1894, and even at that early date were being looted for fine building stone. Although the site was long thought to have been a monastery, Dimitri Baramki’s excavations of 1935 indicated a palace that dated to “no earlier than the eighth century.” During the next six years he would continue to uncover this and other buildings filled with the most beautiful sculptures, frescoes, and mosaic decorations. He published these discoveries as one of the first of the “desert castles,” foundations of the Umayyad dynasty, the earliest examples of Islamic art and architecture. His discovery of an inscription that mentions the Caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik (724-743) gives the popular name of this most important Palestinian site, Qasr Hisham. Excavation work continued until the troubled year of 1947-1948.

While excavating at Jericho, Dimitri Baramki met his wife-to-be, Violet Khamis, who was at the winter resort convalescing after a bout of bronchitis. She was first enamoured of his black cocker spaniel, then was recruited to help with the delicate brushing away of dirt from the now famous mosaic of the orange tree with gazelles and lion. Their first son, Constantine Hisham, born in 1946, owes his second name to that palace, though some now believe that the palace belonged to Hisham’s dissolute nephew Walid ibn Yazid (later Caliph Walid II).

After the Nakba Baramki returned to Jericho with the American School to excavate Khirbet al-Nitla and Tulul Abu al-‘Alayiq. These two tells along Wadi Qelt, east and west of Jericho, gave, as Baramki notes, “a cross-section of Palestinian pottery from the close of the Hellenistic period through the Roman and Byzantine and into the Early Arabic.” His attention to pottery sherds at Mafjar is seen in an article from 1944. Nearly seventy years later this information led Donald Whitcomb, the current excavator, along with Director of Antiquities Hamdan Taha, of Khirbet al-Mafjar, to a reanalysis showing the archaeological phases of the site, based on Baramki’s careful attention to stratigraphy in the use of the palace. More recent excavations often do not reach the quality of his early work. His doctoral dissertation on Umayyad architecture and Qasr Hisham, written for the University of London in 1953, is full of important information and observations on this remarkable monument.

Lebanon did not grant Dimitri Baramki much opportunity to excavate beyond the significant Tell el-Ghassil in the Bekaa Valley, but the American University of Beirut entrusted him with what he regarded as two priceless treasures: a handful of eager students and two dark rooms lined with old-fashioned wall cases full of antiques and many crates of ancient artefacts. He thus devoted his energies to developing the first into a full-fledged master’s degree programme in archaeology and ancient history, training his students at Tell el-Ghassil, and the second into one of the most significant archaeological museums in the Middle East, and certainly the most important university museum in the region. For more than two generations, officials in the Jordanian and Lebanese departments of antiquities were his students; and the current professor of archaeology at AUB and the curator of its Archaeological Museum can also be counted among his former students.

Despite his busy work in Lebanon, and his later excavations in Libya, Dubai, and Iraq, Dimitri Baramki never forgot Palestine, which he visited frequently with students and colleagues until 1967. Among his many publications, scholarly and popular, is The Art and Architecture of Ancient Palestine (1969). After surveying millennia of Palestinian history he concludes with these words:

Throughout the history of the country, there was a Palestinian entity. Circumstances have forced the Palestinians time and again to change their nationality and creed but basically they remained the same. No solution to the country’s problem can be based on justice if these facts are completely ignored. The entity of Palestine must be preserved. Palestine must belong to the Palestinians be they Christians, Jews, or Moslems. A state based on the tenets of one faith is inconceivable in the Twentieth Century. (p. 242)

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