People unfamiliar with the geological and climate history of the Arabian Peninsula are often surprised to learn that lakes and streams and verdant flora once graced areas where today one finds only arid desertscapes comprised mostly of rock and sand; areas where dry, barren depressions in the desert floor have taken the place of long-ago lakes; areas where the closest approximations to flowing streams are dry wadis that run with water only when heavy rainfalls visit, which they do on average once or twice a year, if that.
Take, for example, the Jabel Umm Sinman hill range at Jubbah in the southern part of the Great Narfoud Desert, 90 kilometers northwest of the city of Ha'il, and Jabal al-Manjor and Jabal Raat, 320 kilometers southwest of Ha'il and 35 kilometers west of the village of Al Shuwayumis. Ten thousand years ago a lake sat at the foot of the Jabel Umm Sinman hills, providing water to quench the thirst of animals and humans while enabling lush vegetation to flourish. Today, in stark contrast, one finds in its stead a dry basin hemmed in by sand dunes. That ancient lake and the distant, vaguely-hinted-at, prehistoric way of life it once helped sustain have long since vanished. Much the same can be said of the water sources, attendant environment, and early inhabitants of the region adjoining the rocky sandstone escarpments seen at Jabal al-Manjor and Jabal Raat at the base of which, in our current age, drifting sand fills a wadi where a life-giving stream once washed their feet.1
The ancestral Arab peoples populating the areas surrounding Jabel Umm Sinman and jabals al-Manjor and Raat all those millennia ago may be long gone, but left behind by them on the imposing rock faces, remaining still as their enduring legacy for us to marvel at, is an astonishing assortment of petroglyphs and inscriptions. The archaeological remains present at these complexes speak of the vital role played by water sources—by lakes and wadis and oases—in the long history of the Arab people, while at the same time dramatically portraying identifiable stages in the evolution of life and society in the Ha'il region.
In 2015, UNESCO recognized their unique historical value by inscribing Jabel Umm Sinman and jabals al-Manjor and Raat together as a single World Heritage Site despite their considerable geographic distance from one another, acknowledging them as the highest concentration of rock art to be found anywhere in the Kingdom. Jabel Umm Sinman and jabals al-Manjor and Raat collectively were the fourth site in Saudi Arabia to be granted WHS status, following after the inscriptions of Madâin Sâlih in 2008, of the At-Turaif District in ad-Dir'iyah in 2010, and of Historic Jeddah—“the Gate to Makkah”—in 2014. (Readers may recall, AramcoExPats featured these sites in three previous articles in our Seven Wonders of Arabia series.)
When commenting on the sites’ Outstanding Universal Value—a key element in UNESCO’s decision to grant them World Heritage Site status—the evaluation team referred to how thousands of years of “desertification” had transformed the environments and “patterns of human settlement” of the two areas and to how the stages of those transformations are graphically depicted in the massive petroglyph panels and inscriptions found there as they’ve shifted in theme and character over time.
They cited two formal criteria as justification for making their decision:
- Criterion (i): The rock art of Jabal Umm Sinman at Jubbah and Jabal Al-Major and Jabal Raat near Shuwaymis contain an exceptionally large number of petroglyphs, created by using a range of techniques with simple stone hammers, against a background of gradual environmental deterioration, and are visually stunning expressions of the human creative genius.
- Criterion (iii): The rock art at Jabal Umm Sinman at Jubbah and Jabal Al-Major and Jabal Raat at Shuwaymis provide an exceptional testimony to the challenges of past societies in response to environmental catastrophes. In addition, the petroglyphs at Shuwaymis provide an exceptional testimony of a society that vanished, leaving behind an exceptionally detailed record of its existence.
Recognizing the importance of the two sites, the Saudi government has provided for their preservation within the terms of the new antiquities, museums, and urban heritage law implemented in June 2015. In accordance with its guidelines and directives, the Regional government of the Ha'il Region and the Regional Antiquities & Museums office in Ha'il are tasked with overseeing a joint conservation effort. A diverse alliance of parties has come together to help accomplish the initiative’s goals. The Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, the Ministry of Interior, members of settled communities in the two areas, nomadic Bedouin tribes, and local police are cooperatively working together, each doing their part, to protect the sites. From top to bottom then, at all levels, the Saudi government, Saudi institutions, and the Saudi people have united in a common effort focused on the preservation of these priceless treasures.
Amplifying and enriching that effort, in recent years an increased number of trained staff has been assisting visitors and providing security. Meanwhile, continued ongoing improvements to visitor facilities and on-site interpretive services are essential elements of long-term plans articulated in conjunction with the World Heritage Site application process. The presence of such comprehensive long-term planning is a sine qua non part of what UNESCO looks for when considering a new site for WHS inscription. As a result, the welcome given today to visitors to Jubbah contrasts sharply with conditions that obtained at the site in the years immediately following the discovery of its rock art by the modern world.
"I first set foot in Jubbah 30 years ago this March,” Middle East travel guru Brid Beeler, owner of Brid Beeler Travel, told AXP recently. “The rock art was fenced off and the guard with the key was nowhere to be found. It was another 10 years before I finally got access to the site with a group of my clients in tow. It was worth the wait. The rock art is fascinating, dating back 7,000 to 8,000 years and depicting ostriches, camels, women with wild exotic hair, and men hunting with bows and spears. Nearby is what is referred to as Lady Anne Blunt’s house, where she visited in 1879 en route to Ha’il looking for Arabian horses. Last time I visited, I was thrilled to see a photo of myself on the wall with a representative of the Al Shammar tribe.”
Despite their ancient origins and the occasional references made to them over the centuries by sundry travelers and adventurers like Lady Anne Blunt, the rock art sites at Jabel Umm Sinman and jabals al-Manjor and Raat are considered to have been officially “discovered” by modern archaeologists relatively recently—the former in 1986, the latter pair in March 2001. As a result, only a modest amount of research related to them has been conducted and published to date compared with the large body of literature associated with the Kingdom’s other inscribed World Heritage Sites.
Courtesy of Arab News
Thus, for many of the ExPat old-timers subscribing to the AXP newsletter and/or visiting our website, knowledge of the Ha’il rock art’s existence likely post-dates the dates of their departure from Saudi. If this describes you, and you like to sightsee, and you have a curious mind when it comes to history—especially to Arabia’s history—you now have another solid argument to justify a return to KSA.
Virtually all petroglyphs in Saudi Arabia uncovered and studied thus far date from the present geological epoch known as the Holocene, which began roughly 12,000 years ago. A precise timeline for their history remains tentative pending additional research, but a general outline has taken shape in recent years.
The earliest specimens were carved during the prehistoric “Pre-Pottery Neolithic” era circa 10,000 to 8,000 BCE. Successive iterations continued to appear up through the early centuries of the Common Era. The oldest Saudi rock art in Ha'il consists of remnants from an ancient, unknown civilization that has long since disappeared and about which we know little save for whatever evidence one can draw from the surviving rock art and from a miscellany of artifacts unearthed nearby by archaeologists in the past few decades.
Arabia is a land of endless mysteries, many of which may never be solved. The importance of the rock art of Ha'il is best appreciated when those carvings and inscriptions are viewed as keys to unlocking some of the Peninsula’s most deeply hidden secrets.
The rock art found at jabals al-Manjor and Raat was executed by amazingly skilled artists using primitive hand tools to chip away at the rock faces, carving out detailed, accurate images of ibexes, cows with long horns, and other animals. The rock drawings at the site have been judged to emanate from three different periods. The first, dating from the late Neolithic at the dawn of the Holocene, is notable for the density of its patinas and for the life-size dimensions of its renderings which, like those at Jabel Umm Sinman, are unmatched anywhere else in the Middle East.
The second period, dating from roughly 5,000 years ago, is distinguished by detailed depictions of donkeys and buffaloes, portrayed individually and in groups. The patinas seen in these drawings are less dense, however, than those seen in art dating from the first period.
The third period sometimes referred to as the Thamoudic period, is characterized by full-size graphics of ostriches and camels and by Thamoudic inscriptions of the names of persons, gods, and commemorative events.
Within the past few years, scientists studying climate change have seized upon the evidence provided by Arabia’s rock art to map the progress of climate change as they see it on the Peninsula. Viewed within a short-term historical context, their arguments are compelling. How they might fit into any general long-term theory of climate change extending beyond that is the subject of fierce debate. What cannot be debated is the fact that a lush, green, wet climate once prevailed in parts of what are currently the desert lands of Arabia.
As stated on her website, bridbeelertravel.com, Brid Beeler “has worked with diplomats, royalty, government officials, foreign delegations, celebrities, the media, and business leaders, in addition to university travel alumni programs and adventure travel companies. A self-professed globe-trotter, she is equally at home in both world capital board rooms and remote desert regions.”
For our concluding words on the wonders of the rock art of Ha’il, relying on her expertise, we turn to Brid:
“I’m a huge fan of Saudi rock art,“ she remarked to AXP. “The incredible age of the images is palpable, particularly when you consider some of them are older than many of the better-known cave paintings in Europe. To stand before these images and imagine them sitting there baking in the scorching Arabian sun for thousands of years is a truly amazing feeling. Their earth-tone colors, dark browns, and reds serve to evoke a very natural, primal atmosphere. Of course, the artistry itself is captivating as well. Individual drawings are usually simplistic, but where many images are combined into a large mural display, the resulting patchwork is fascinating. No trip to Saudi Arabia is truly complete without seeing for yourself the rock art of Ha’il.”
“Civilizations in the Middle East are extremely rich,” Brid declared, “and with the discovery of Nabatean and Thamoudic sites, of inscriptions and rock art, the Kingdom is poised to become a leading destination for scholars, amateurs, and individuals who want to experience these treasures for themselves.”
In the future, if any of you readers take Brid’s words to heart and have the good fortune of traveling to Ha’il and viewing its rock art, AXP would like to hear from you when you do. We’d be delighted to help you share your observations and images and memories with others.
1 The transcribing of Arabic words into English using Latin characters follows no single, universally recognized convention. As a result, one finds a mish-mash of spellings in literature and on the web of the place names of the several locations featured in this story. In deference to wiser parties at UNESCO, we opted to use their most commonly chosen spellings whenever a question of choice arose, although, surprisingly, their own spellings of the same place names occasionally vary. Such is the case, for instance, with the spelling of “Raat,” where “Rata” is also employed, though less often, by the scribblers at UNESCO. Notably, on its own website, scth.gov.sa/en, the Saudi Commission for Tourism & National Heritage spells it “Rata,” not “Raat.” So, who’s right? Which one of these two imposing authorities are we to believe? In the mixed-up world of comparative languages, perhaps both are right, and that’s the position we’ve chosen to embrace. Occasionally, reflecting the contrasting mixture of conventions at work in the grab bag of source materials consulted for this story, you may notice different spellings for the same place names as you forge your way through this article. So be it.