Roman and Byzantine Phaino

Faynan within the Roman Empire: AD 106 –668

In AD 106 the Nabataean state came under the control of the Roman Empire, becoming the province of Arabia with its capital at Bosra in the north and Petra as the major city in the south. The mines in Faynan are likely to have been immediately taken into state control because copper was a critical resource for maintaining imperial power. The scattered pattern of Iron Age copper working settlements was centralised under a single centre known as Phaino, which we now call Khirbat Faynan. After the apparent decline of mining in the Nabataean period, Roman control expanded mining and smelting activity to an even greater industrial scale than that seen in the Early Iron Age, with Faynan becoming one of the largest producers of copper in the eastern Roman empire, second only to Cyprus.

Imperial officials ran the mining operation, with soldiers either present at the mines themselves or close at hand. The work force would have been a mix of mining, quarrying and smelting specialists, free workers paid a wage, and slaves who had been condemned to the mines. We know about the latter from the writing of Eusebius in the 4th century AD. He describes slaves being blinded in one eye, castrated and having their hamstrings cut to prevent escape, although such treatment was probably exceptional and made during a period of revolt.

The scale of mining operations in Faynan required a high level of organisation, not only for the metallurgy itself, but also to supply food, secure draft animals and timber, and transport copper. The floodwater farming field system that had been gradually developing ever since the Early Bronze Age was expanded on a grand scale. The Iron Age road system was also expanded, connecting Phaino via a major road to Gaza on the Mediterranean coast, to the main north-south road along the Wadi Araba, and via the steep climb along Wadi Dana to the highland plateau. The area around Dana is thought to have been a major imperial agricultural estate, with the Roman cavalry fort at Dajaniya near the modern Desert Highway serving to protect the imperial farms and mines.

At least 55 separate mines were worked within Qalb Ratyah to the north of Phaino, with a further ten mines in Wadi al-Abyad and Wadi Khalid. Further mines were worked at Umm al Amad, 12km to the south of Faynan. Smelting from all the mines was centralised at the Khirbat Faynan. Roman mining was so efficient that it appears to have removed all the readily accessible copper from the region.

The industrial scale of copper production had a massive impact on the landscape. The demand for timber was considerable, far beyond what Faynan itself could provide and requiring import of timber from the plateau. Water was also in huge demand for industrial purposes, farming and domestic usage, requiring an aqueduct to bring water from the springs in Wadi Ghwayr to a reservoir close to the town. The landscape became heavily polluted from smelting activity, leading to reduced biodiversity and crop yields. This made the population susceptible to disease and reduced life expectancy, requiring a continuous replacement of people from outside, whether of waged-labour or more slaves.

As Christianity became the official religion, Phaino became a bishop’s seat. The bishops of Phaino are recorded as participating in early church councils. Several churches were built, and the settlement must have looked like a small hill village. With the mines worked out, it is possible Phaino continued as a centre of pilgrimage to the martyrdom of early Christian slaves in the mines. The end of industrial activity seems to have been rapid in the 5th century AD, with a major flood sealing its fate.