Wadi Feynan’s Copper Mines: Part I (History)

Wadi Feynan was one of the first places in the world where copper was mined and smelted by humans, which when
paired with one of the first Neolithic settlements in the world, makes Feynan an extremely important area in terms of prehistoric human development. Few places in the world can boast this sort of historical wealth – and visitors to Feynan can journey into the past with or without a guide. From the first bit of ore extracted to the collapse of the Roman Empire to the 20th century, copper mining has been a major aspect of human settlement in these valleys. Innumerable shafts have been opened, collapsed, reopened, and abandoned using a wide range of methods and technologies. Today, guests at Feynan Ecolodge have the chance to venture into the past by walking or biking to these historic sites nestled in the rocky foothills of the Dana Biosphere Reserve – and learn about their historical significance.

Feynan Ecolodge’s goals aren’t limited to saving energy and providing economic support to the surrounding community – one of its purposes is to demonstrate that sustainable development is a feasible alternative to environmentally damaging practices – such as copper mining today. In fact, it is widely accepted that Wadi Feynan, today a dry, rocky, almost treeless environment, was once widely forested and capable of sustaining water-intensive agriculture. So what changed? As is only so common throughout human history and unfortunately more so today than ever before, the inhabitants of the area developed their industry recklessly and continued to do so until they were forced to move away or die due to their inability to survive the unforgiving conditions of Arabah – the part of the Jordan Rift Valley where Feynan is located.

Here’s what happened: mines opened and operated by the Roman Empire (or their slaves, anyway) allowed for the
extraction of enormous amounts of copper ore – backbreaking labor in deep, dark mine shafts throughout the area’s valleys. The copper ore these slave laborers extracted was impure – merely pieces of rock which contained traces of copper, detectable due to the characteristic blue-green oxidation of the metal.

The ore would need to be smelted – a process which chemically purifies the mineral via extraordinarily high temperatures – around 1000° C (close to 2000° F for those of you unfamiliar with the metric system) – essentially melting the rock away from the pure metal. Today, these temperatures are easily attained by various means, and modern copper mines use a multitude of chemical processes to purify the metal, but how did the Romans reach these seemingly impossible temperatures thousands of years ago?

Remember, in this epoch there were as many trees throughout the valleys and mountains as there would be in any Mediterranean environ. The Romans (and later on the Byzantines) had large amounts of copper ore they needed to melt. The valley is formed in such a way that it produces a wind-tunnel effect. A brilliant (pyromaniacal) industrialist of the Roman Empire must have put two and two together, and combined the steady supply of timber with the strong winds in the valley to stoke huge firepits into hellishly burning furnaces for tons of raw material at a time. Over time, the slag (the byproduct of smelting) – containing high amounts of silicates and toxic heavy metals – began featuring more and more prominently in the landscape, which when paired with heavy deforestation culminated in the barren earth within and around the valley.

Today, the few trees that dot the landscape are sheltered and usually are on dried-out riverbanks. However, as an avid biophile, I can honestly say that despite its lack of vegetation, Feynan is as beautiful as any forest I’ve ever seen.

3 thoughts on “Wadi Feynan’s Copper Mines: Part I (History)

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