Ancient Roads of Arabia

As the Smithsonian Institution's Sackler Gallery shows, archaeologists are rediscovering the central role of the Arabian Peninsula in human history.

Speaking before his audience, he summed it up well in just four words. “The gift of location”, he said, was the secret to Saudi Arabia’s true historical wealth.

Not oil. 

The speaker was Ali al-Ghabban, Vice President of Antiquities and Museums at the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities. Like most Saudi businessmen and officials visiting the U.S., he was dressed indistinquishably from any other official or businessman one would see at any meeting or on the street. In his own country, he would be wearing the traditional thobe, tagiyah and ghutra common to most men in Saudi Arabia. But now, he was addressing an eagerly attentive mostly American public audience in a well-filled auditorium of the Smithsonian Institution’s Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. The event was the symposium in honor of the opening of “Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”, a special exhibit of priceless antiquities that, until now, has never been shown to an audience in the Americas. He brought with him a distinguished personal history of involvement in the discovery of antiquities that have recently redirected scholarly thinking about the central and critical role that the Arabian Peninsula has played in human history.   

For many scholars and historians who have adjusted their view of Arabia as a player in history, Ali’s statement was on the mark. Before oil, and even before Islam, there was another Arabia – an Arabia that, as now revealed by archaeology, starkly contrasts with the stereotype image of a land that was isolated from the rest of the great ancient civilizations recorded in historical writings.  

It begins with eye-opening discoveries bearing on the appearance of the first humans to populate the Eurasian continent………. 


African Exodus

One of the first things a visitor sees when walking through the artfully arranged spaces of the special exhibition (hereafter referred to as “Roads“) is a centrally placed vertical glass case containing an assortment of stones. The casual visitor can plainly see, however, that these are not natural stones that can routinely be picked up from any surface. They are worked. They show clear signs of having been chipped and flaked and shaped into purposeful objects. Totaling 9 distinct objects, they represent human tool industries dated as far back as 1.3 million years. Some of them, found at a site called al-Shwayhitiyyah in northwestern Saudi Arabia, are what scientists have classified as belonging to the Paleolithic period, the oldest toolmaking period of human prehistory. The assemblage consists of choppers diagnostic of the Oldowan industry, the earliest known technology, first revealed at Olduvai Gorge in East Africa by famed scientists Louis and Mary Leakey decades before; and more choppers, bifaces, and scrapers of the Acheulean industry, a technology closely associated with Homo erectus, a human ancestor considered by many scientists to be the first human species to exit Africa and spread across Eurasia.

For modern scholarship, the implications of the finds have been momentous in terms of what they say about the early migration of humans from their original African homelands. “What we’re really talking about”, says James L. Phillips of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, “is movement of populations out of Africa into Asia” through the Arabian Peninsula. Phillips has spent decades conducting archaeological research in the Sinai, Israel, and adjacent regions.   

Phillips is not alone in his suggestion, nor is the theory new. A growing number of scientists in recent years have supported the scenario of very early migrations of human ancestors, beginning with Homo erectus or some other antecedent as long ago as 1.3 million years ago, taking at least two routes out of Africa into Eurasia through Arabia — one southerly route through the Horn of Africa and across the southern fringes of the Arabian Peninsula and northward; the other up the Nile valley and across into the Sinai and further north and eastward into Asia and southern Europe. 

What, one might ask, possessed these early migrants to travel through and settle this vast and intensely desolate and inhospitable region? The answer, researchers have determined, lies in the cyclical patterns of climate change. 

“Arabia at the time was not a desert”, says al-Ghabban. In fact, he maintains, “it was one of the best places on the planet to live” in the world that existed over 10,000 years ago. At the time that early archaic humans crossed into Arabia, suggest scientists today, the land was replete with flowing rivers, lakes, and lush vegetation. It was an entirely different world.  


Al-Maqar and the First Artisans of Stone

Well-lit in stage-like fashion, three large rectangular stones inscribed in relief with anthropomorphic images fill the center of an entire section of the Roads exhibition. To the modern eye, they could be abstract sculptures created by a modern artist. But they are interpreted by archaeologists as stone stele, and they are at least 6,000 years old. They are among the earliest known sculptured objects found in the Arabian Peninsula, discovered near Ha’il in the north of Saudi Arabia. They belong to a larger group of several dozen other steles found in a region that extends from southern Jordan all the way to Yemen in the south. Scholars have suggested that the mysterious stele may have had some religious significance or that they were associated with burial practices, or both.


Anthropomorphic stele, 4th millenium BCE.  Courtesy Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.


In a nearby gallery are stone artifacts that date even deeper into prehistory. About 9,000 years old, the assemblage consists of a large stone pan with two handles; heads of a hunting dog, horse, eagle, sheep, ostrich and goat; a small soapstone pot; a dagger made of sedimentary stone; and scrapers and arrowheads. The objects were first stumbled upon by a camel herder digging for water at a site called al-Maqar, a site located in a very remote region of central Saudi Arabia. According to the archaeologists who have excavated and studied the site and its finds, the evidence supports the suggestion that a Neolithic people lived at the location when it was well-watered, before desertification took place in succeeding centuries, and that they practiced agriculture and animal husbandry. The most startling find is that of a portion of a stone horse, with fine markings around the muzzle and a ridge down its shoulder, interpreted by archaeologists to be a bridle and other indications that the horse was domesticated.

The stone horse, if the dating and interpretation holds, up-ends previously-held thought about when the horse was first domesticated.

“We believe that the first domestication of the horse was in (present-day) Saudi Arabia”, says al-Ghabban. Until now, most scholars have proposed that the horse was domesticated around 3,500 B.C.E. in Central Asia.

And at al-Thumamah, north of Riyadh, arrowheads and other tools have been found that combine function with art, a clear step beyond the pure functionality that predominates among the typical artifacts found most often from Paleolithic and Mesolithic sites.  

But the significance of al-Maqar and similar sites in Saudi Arabia is this:  That along the way and through time, descendents of the early archaic human migrants or other groups left settlements that formed the foundations for succeeding phases, technology and culture that defined the basis for human communities and society before the advent of urbanism and the great civilizations that followed. These later settlements left a Neolithic and Mesolithic legacy of stone in the Arabian Peninsula and northward in the Near East into Anatolia.  


Arabian Cities and the Incense Roads

Tārūt Island is a large island in the Persian Gulf  belonging to the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Archaeologists have found evidence there that the island has been inhabited since 5,000 BC. In one section of the exhibition visitors can see ceramic vessels and a large-scale standing figure dated to 2900 BC, objects the nature of which suggest trade relations between Tarut and Mesopotamia. Other objects, such as finely carved chlorite vessels, point to connections with southeastern Iran. 

The ancient settlement at Tarut was built on trade, and it was trade that was the engine of growth and prosperity for the people of this corner of Arabia. Archaeologists who have conducted research at Tarut believe that this, among the first early urban centers, represented a vanguard to a new era – the beginnings of the mercantile networks that would catapult Arabia into a central player in the rise and development of the great civilizations of the Near East, Indus Valley and the Mediterranean. Indeed, archaeologists hypothesize that Tarut may be identified with ancient Dilmun, providing a tangible example of Dilmun’s earliest phase and functioning as a port of Dilmun’s renowned shipping industry. Dilmun was a land mentioned in Mesopotamian texts as a trade partner, especially as a source of copper, and an entrepôt of the Mesopotamia-to-Indus Valley Civilization trade routes.

Thus, as the world of the first millenium BCE unfolded, Arabia now found itself in the middle of the critical trade routes that helped to define the international relations, politically, militarily, and commercially, between the powers of Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Mediterranean, and the civilizations further to the east. New Arabian kingdoms emerged and thrived, growing rich as the “middlemen” for the flow of important and highly prized trade goods. These were cities like Thaj in the northeast of Arabia, Tayma in the northwest, al-Ula (or ancient Dedan or Hegra) also in the northwest, and Qaryat a–Faw far in the south of Arabia at the edge of the Ru’ al Khali desert.

Key to the afflorescence of these cities, particularly in the last few centuries BCE and the Hellenistic Age, was the gift of incense, produced in, among other places, present-day Yemen and Oman and highly prized by the great religious centers of Egypt, the ancient Near East and Mediterranean. Established at strategic locations along the desert caravan routes of frankincense and myrrh, these cities provided an oasis for water, food, and other supplies in exchange for taxation on these aromatic products. The wealth they brought provided the resources for affluence and a flourishing art market and monumental architecture that, in addition to local styles, borrowed from the classical Greeks and Romans. The great religous and political centers of the Near East and Mediterranean that craved the highly valued products certainly paid the price. Said Phillips of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, by the time the precious incense reached its destination from its origin in southern Arabia, “it was a thousand times more expensive”.  


An impressive cube-shaped stone pedestal sits, displayed about chest-high in the corner of another gallery. Its surface is carved in relief with finely crafted decorative images, featuring a bull with a solar disk between its horns. According to archaeologists, the bull image relates to the Egyptian bull deity, Apes. Featured on the same stone pedestal is a winged disk, inspired, say the interpreters, by similar motifs seen in the ancient Iranian and Mesopotamian cultures. Other objects in the gallery include fine ornaments such as necklaces and bracelets of shell, carnelian, stone, and mother-of-pearl; painted earthenware bowls and a cup; a possible incense burner; and a large painted earthenware bull figure dated to the 1st millenium BCE and found in the corner of a tomb. The star of the show, however, is a large, rectangular stone stele set against the wall just before visitors must descend a flight of stairs to move forward. Inscribed in relief on its face is a depiction, according to archaeological and historical interpretation, of King Nabonidus of Babylon. Dated to the mid-6th century BCE, the worn profile image is barely visible, but the subject is described as wearing a long robe and crown, facing a series of astral symbols – the moon in the form of a disk and crescent; a winged sun; a star that represents the Babylonian moon god Sin; and a symbol for the god Ishtar – deities common to the Babylonians of the 6th century.


Above: The stone pedestal found at Tayma, 5th – 4th century BCE.  Courtesy Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.


All of these objects were discovered at the site of Tayma in northwestern Saudi Arabia. As one of the major stops along the caravan route in this part of Arabia, it is considered to be the most ancient oasis of the caravan network. Its legendary wealth and reputation was so highly regarded that, according to the historical records, the Babylonian king Nabonidus sojourned there for ten years. Here he retired In 539 BCE to worship and seek prophecies while leaving the duties of kingship back in Babylon to his son. Tayma, then, was clearly more than a wealthy desert enclave of the caravan trade. It is mentioned several times in biblical accounts.  It continues to be a subject of research and excavation under the auspices of the German Archaeological Institute.


Situated southwest of Tayma in the same northwest region of Saudi Arabia lie the remains of another ancient wealthy oasis city. Al-Ula, or ancient Dedan, was the seat of the Liyhanite kings, who ruled the area surrounding their capital from the 6th century to the 3rd century BCE. Like Tayma, their kingdom grew rich on the caravan trade, leaving the legacy of a unique written language, monumental architecture, and a sophisticated sculptural tradition. 

Massive sculptures from al-Ula greet the visitor in one gallery. Not knowing anything about the Lihyanites, one would asume that they were Egyptian. They bear similar lines and features encountered when viewing the colossal statues of the Pharaohs in Egypt. The gallery includes large stone heads, large fragments of other statues, stone-carved inscriptions, an impressive relief with a lion, and fragments of an altar or incense burner. 


Statue of a Liyanite man, 4th – 3rd century BCE. Courtesy Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Instution, Washington, D.C.


Lihyanite power declined sharply after an earthquake at the end of the 1st century BCE, but al-Ula retained its role along the incense route and became part of the Nabatean kingdom.

Mada’in Saleh

Only a few miles northeast of al-Ula, a team of archaeologists under the direction of archaeologist Laila Nehme of the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris has been painstakingly excavating and investigating a site that, though less known to the general public, rivals the artistic and architectural grandeur of ancient Petra further north in Jordan. The site, known as Mada’in Saleh (ancient name Hegra), is best known as a major settlement of the Nabataeans, the Arabian kingdom established along the strategic caravan trade routes who allied themselves with the Romans and built their capital at Petra. The Nabataean kingdom flourished during the 1st century CE. 

Defining the southern flank of the Nabataen kindom, Hegra was a settlement occupying an area of approximately 1,450 ha, the core area surrounded by a 1st century AD mudbrick rampart with towers, the detectable portions of which comprise three sides of a trapezium. Outside the rampart, Nehme and her team have investigated several groups or types of necropolises, consisting of 94 elaborate rock-cut monumental tombs bearing decorated facades and containing rock-cut niches of varying sizes within; at least 1900 pit tombs (simple shaft-like tombs cut into the ground); and tumuli from an earlier period, 300 of which were recorded in the western and southwestern area of the site. Banquet halls, designed as rock-cut or brick-work triclinia, were excavated or explored. A city intra muros, which comprised the centrally-located residential or living area of the city inside the rampart, containing evidence of mudbrick structures, was identified and explored. And finally, Nehme’s team were able to further define the oasis area of the site, the agricultural lands north and northwest of the city center that featured the granary and hundreds of ancient wells, signs of a local irrigated agriculture that served the residents and the traveling merchants who stopped and traded and refreshed themselves along the camel caravan route.


Rock-cut tombs at Mada’in Saleh. Unlike Petra, the monumental tombs at Hegra bore inscriptions on their facades that identified the families interred at the tombs. Wikimedia Commons


But the great secret to Hegra’s rise and wealth was related to its most precious resource, a gift from the mountain slopes that surrounded it and the replenishing watertable that rested beneath it. 

Says Nehme, “Hegra was above anything else, an oasis, as it is today”.

Among the objects displayed at the exhibition is a well-preserved stone inscription found at Hegra. 


In 1998, a group of Saudi Arabian archaeologists discovered an impressive royal tomb near the town of Thaj, a town in northeastern Saudi Arabia. The tomb, dated to the first century CE, contained the remains of a young girl, whose body was adorned with gold, rubies, and pearls, including a magnificent gold funerary mask. The tomb also included an array of funerary objects with Hellenistic motifs.

Archaeologists suggest that the tomb discovery may be among other finds yet to be discovered that will confirm the location of legendary Gerrha, a lost city that was recorded anciently as among the wealthiest centers of the ancient world. 

Between 3300 and 1300 BCE, northeastern Arabia functioned as a critical stopping place for maritime trade from Oman, Mesopotamia, and as far away as southeast Asia. Mesopotamian myths referred to it as “paradise”, in part because of its great wealth acquired through trade. According to ancient records, the most important city in the region was Gerrha, but its location has yet to be identified. Little if any evidence has emerged to help scholars in the search. But near Thaj some tantalizing finds, such as the royal tomb mentioned above, are providing possible clues. 

One gallery space exhibits some of the finds from the tomb: The anthropomorphic leg of a bed; the gold funerary mask and a gold glove; and finely crafted personal ornaments decorated with Greek motifs – bracelets, necklaces, and foils.


The funerary mask found in the royal tomb at Thaj, 1st century CE. Courtesy Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.


Qaryat al-Faw

It straddled the southwestern edge of the hyper-arid Rub’ al Khali desert – the Empty Quarter, the largest sand desert in the world. As an oasis and the capital of the Arabian kingdom of Kindah, Qaryat al-Faw, like some of its northern counterparts, was an ideal stopping point and nexus for the caravans carrying incense from the production centers in southern Arabia to the northwest and to the northeastern coastal areas. And like Tayma, al-Ula, Mad’in Saleh and Thaj in the north, its unique and strategic position afforded the merchant inhabitants a lucrative business in the bustling trade network that eventually fed the great urban centers of the ancient Near East, Egypt, and the Mediterranean. From this wealth grew its town market, temples, tombs, and a rich residential quarter with large, spacious houses decorated with luxury goods and colorful frescoes, arranged along orderly streets and alleyways. Its inhabitants enjoyed imported luxury goods from the Mediterranean world, but also acquired locally produced goods, such as statuary, decor, and other “high-end” items that incorporated Roman motifs and techniques. It was a town, at least for some, that swam in affluence. Nestled among its palm groves, to the outside world it became known, like Gherra to the north, as the “City of Paradise”.   

Today, Qaryat al-Faw belongs to the ages, an archaeological site that continues to be a subject of serious research and excavation by Saudi archaeologists and historians. Select finds (examples pictured below) from excavations at the site now fill a large and spacious room of the exhibit with such objects as steles, incense burners, altars, funerary inscriptions and inscribed plaques, fragments of a funerary bed, blown and molded glassware, utensils, stone and bronze sculptures, body ornaments, and finally, fragments of meticulously painted frescoes one might typically see in Roman villas in Italy or other locations of the Mediterranean. 


Head of a man, 1st century BCE – 2nd century CE. This bronze head was originally part of a life-sized statue. Department of Archaeology Museum, King Saud University. Courtesy Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.


Fresco fragment from one of the residential structures of Qaryat al-Faw, 1st – 2nd century CE. Courtesy Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.



The Roads to Mecca

In 622 CE, a prophet made a journey that would prove to change the world for generations to come. Most of us know him as the Prophet Muhammad, and his journey began in a town called Makkah (Mecca) and ended in Medina. The journey is important to millions the world over as the hijra. A similar journey, known today as the Hajj, is made by countless followers of Islam to Mecca, the annual pilgrimage which is the sacred duty of all Muslims the world over. Makkah or Mecca is not only significant to Islam because of the Prophet Muhammad’s hijra. It is also, according to the Islamic faith, the place to which Abraham and his son Ismail journeyed and built the first ancient mosque around the late third or early second millenium BCE. About 100 years after the Prophet Muhammad’s hijra, the Islamic faith had spread from as far west as the Straits of Gibraltar to as far east as the deserts of Taklamakan. 

With Mecca (located in the Makkah province in the far western part of Saudi Arabia) and the Hajj, the Arabian roadmap of routes that once led outward as caravan trails of the spice and incense trade transformed Arabia with a new roadmap — that of roads leading inward toward Mecca.

Other artifacts of the exhibit exemplify this. For example, instead of the anthropomorphic sculpture and polytheistic representations prevalent during the pre-Islamic period, emphasis shifts to the written word and the revelations of the Koran. The sacred shrine or Ka’ba in Mecca is represented by two massive and skillfully decorated seventeenth-century silver doors donated by the Ottoman sultan Murad IV. It once graced its facade. Its size dwarfs every other object in the exhibit. A beautifully preserved Qur’anic 16th – 17th century manauscript and no less than 18 exquisitely inscribed epigraphic tombstones, among many other artifacts, fill a large hall-shaped gallery. The exhibition is capped by a final gallery that displays and tells the story of the beginning of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It includes clothing articles and other personal items that once belonged to King Abdulaziz Bin Abd al-Rahman Al Saud, the unifier and founding ruler of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as we know it today.


Epigraphic tombstone. Courtesy Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.


Photo, Third from Top, Right: Avishai Teicher, Wikimedia Commons


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