Saudi Arabia: New secrets from the sands

Zahi Hawass , Monday 12 Apr 2021

New research casts light on the early civilisations of the Arabian Peninsula, writes Zahi Hawass

A gold mask dating to the first century uncovered in Thag

Interest in the antiquities of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has not been in the antiquities of the pre-Islamic era or the era of early Islam, but has also been the result of many foreign and Saudi missions to the country’s prehistoric antiquities.

This period is very important because it can provide evidence of the steps of the first man on the Arabian Peninsula, helping us to find out more about a period not studied before.

Numerous recent archaeological discoveries have indicated that the first man’s steps were thousands of years ago, and that the Arabian Peninsula was once full of greenery and water during prehistoric times. Scientists are currently studying many of the objects that have been discovered from this period, especially a middle finger bone, which indicate that they date back to an era not known before, namely the Holocene.

It has been proven that this was the period in which man began to shift from nomadism to settlement.

Likewise, the fossilised bones of a mammoth that subsequently became extinct have been found, indicating that the Arabian Peninsula was once a region with a humid climate and climatic conditions allowing mammoths to live there in prehistoric times. We also know of another area in the Wadi Al-Dawasir governorate, especially the archaeological site of Al-Maqar, in which animal species dating back to the Neolithic period have been found, with scholars estimated them to be some 9,000 years old.

In addition to this site, antiquities dating back to the Middle Stone Age have been found, and finally other antiquities have been found at the Safaqa archaeological site in the Dawadmi governorate in the Riyadh region of today’s Saudi Arabia.

Archaeological surveys have been carried out by many expeditions, and there are indications of human groups living on the peninsula tens of thousands of years ago. The results of the archaeological surveys and the research carried out at them have revealed the diversity of human behaviour in the ancient world, as man’s ancestors tried to resist nature’s obstacles during his migration from Africa and his spread outwards from it.

It is worth noting that some recent studies that have resulted from archaeological discoveries are due to the fact that the beginning of mankind was in Southwest Asia, but what is new now has been the establishment of a community in the Arabian Peninsula through a joint scientific cooperation project between the Heritage Authority of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the German Max Planck Institute that has conducted research and studies on site.

These studies highlight some seven archaeological layers at the Safaga site, some of which contain Acholi stone tools made of andesite and rhyolite. These constitute scientific evidence that the first steps of man in Arabia date back to thousands of years BCE.

TAYMA: Unfortunately, not enough light has been shed on these discoveries, and there is a need for the Arab world to know more about what the kingdom’s sands have begun to reveal.

These secrets, especially those related to the pre-Islamic period, should appear on international television channels because then they can enter homes all over the world. There is great interest in the secrets of the ancient kingdoms that once existed in Saudi Arabia, whose traces are important evidence of the impact of these civilisations.

 Among the most important such discoveries are those found in the Tabuk region of the Tayma governorate, where the middle finger mentioned was found by a team from the Green Arabian Island Project.

Archaeological and anthropological studies have proven the importance of this discovery, as it turns out to be the first human fossil ever found in the Arab Peninsula, dating back to before the Holocene. Archaeologists believe that this bone fossil is one of the oldest of Homo sapiens found outside Africa and the Levant. It proves beyond doubt that man made his first steps in the Arabian Peninsula, and not, as has been said, that he started in Africa and the Levant.

These steps indicate life on the Arabian Peninsula at the time, as has been indicated by another discovery in the Tabuk region of a mammoth tusk, with this being made by the same Green Island Project team at a site known as Tal Al-Ghaddah located about 130km northeast of the Tayma governorate.

The tusk is the fossilised bone of an extinct mammoth, and the discovery is very important because it gives strong indications of the environmental situation and the climatic changes that the Arabian Peninsula has experienced and the humid climate and climatic conditions that this region enjoyed in prehistoric times.

RECENT DISCOVERIES: There are great archaeological discoveries happening now in Saudi Arabia that show the great care being given to this subject by the Saudi Antiquities Authority.

Prince Badreddin Al-Saoud, the Saudi minister of culture, is very keen to make available all the facilities needed to restore the country’s monuments and to encourage foreign and Saudi archaeologists to excavate in Saudi Arabia.

It is sometimes thought that the Saudi authorities only care about Islamic monuments. But this is not true, as care for the country’s pre-Islamic monuments and sites is being exercised. Jasir Al-Herbish, CEO of the Saudi Heritage Commission, has a great team working to make the antiquities of Saudi Arabia recognised all over the world.

There is the “lost city” known among all archaeologists of Saudi Arabia, for example, its rediscovery being the dream of all. This city, once the most famous city in the eastern part of the Arabian Peninsula, was called Gerrha by the ancient Greeks and Romans, while the Arabs named it Garra. But the name “lost city” is the most well-known, and in the third century BCE it was famous as a trading centre, with merchants stopping there with their goods before they continued their travels to what is now Iraq and other areas.

Strabo, the famous Roman writer, wrote that the city was located on the shores of the Arab Gulf about 80km west of the Island of Delmon in Bahrain. It has been said that the population of Gerrha was very rich because of trade with other kingdoms. Many archaeologists believe that the remains of the city are still hidden under the sands of the desert, but others believe that it was completely destroyed and no evidence of its existence will be found.

Others still believe that the reason for the city’s disappearance was that other cities were built above this ancient one. Pliny, the Roman historian, said that the city was around five miles in length and that it had towers built from salt. It is also thought that the people who lived in the city lived in houses with pillars and walls made of salt, and they used to pour water on the walls to make them more stable.

The city was famous for its dates and incense, and it was also described by the ancient authors and travellers as the richest city in the Arabian Peninsula, with some of its houses made of gold, silver and ivory. These descriptions have made many foreign archaeologists dream about the city, thinking that if it is rediscovered it would be the most important discovery of the 21st century.

Many archaeologists have started to study what Pliny and Strabo say about it in order to know more about its location. It is said that it was located to the south of the Island of Filika about 250 miles along the western shore of the Arab Gulf. One Greek author said that the Garraians used to transport their goods on wooden boats to Babel in ancient Mesopotamia, where they used to sail along the Euphrates and transport goods by land to the Arabian Peninsula.               

THAJ: Meanwhile, a Saudi-Danish expedition discovered the remains of another city called Thaj under archaeologist Jeffery Peipi.

An archaeological survey and tests and trench investigations in the eastern area of Saudi Arabia were carried out in 1972. In 1977, Saudi archaeologists carried out further surveys and excavations. The result was the discovery of the city of Thaj, with excavation reports and surveys showing that the city was surrounded by a huge stone wall, one side of which was about 900m long.

New research has been carried out in this area by a French-Saudi project with French archaeologists from the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). These found a settlement located on the southern side of the site dating to the fourth century CE, and they also found a great number of ovens and the walls of the south gate of the ancient city.

The study of the pottery found meant that the site could be dated, and it indicated foreign cooperation with Mesopotamia and the Aegean. Unique glazed pottery from India was also found. Many inscriptions were recorded at the site in the Musnad script.

Thaj flourished in the third century BCE, when the city was located on an old trade route. There were many caravans overland, and also trade through the ports. Other cities once existed in this area as way-stations and markets for the caravans connecting the Arabian Peninsula with Egypt, Greece, and Persia.

Many believe that Thaj was once one of the great trade centres in the area because all the research indicates its importance from 1000 BCE. It was later an important Hellenistic site and then an important archaeological site. Some archaeologists say that Thaj could be the lost city known to the Arabs as Garra.   

*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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