Four thousand years ago, Arabia Felix was the source of the world’s supply of great riches in the form of spices and incense. The road from Yemen to the Mediterranean was the first great trade route, passing through terrible deserts, lush forests, dangerous bandits and exotic oases with palaces of kings that guarded the way. The Incense Route served as a channel for trading of goods such as South Arabian frankincense and myrrh; Indian spices, precious stones, pearls, ebony, silk and fine textiles, and East African rare woods, feathers, animal skins, and gold.
The road began in present day Yemen, going north on two basic routes. The eastern road supplied Mesopotamia while the western, more mountainous route went to Egypt and the Mediterranean. They split around the oasis of Najran in modern day southern Saudi Arabia.
Najran was an important stopping place on the Incense Road because it is the place the north and south routes diverged. It is located in the southern part of Saudi Arabia. The oasis of Najran has been inhabited for about 4,000 years. Najran’s most prosperous trading time was during the first and second centuries BC. The first urban settlement in this area was called Al-Ukhdood, and thrived for some 1,500 years from 500 BC through the 10th century AD. The name of Najran means “the piece of wood in which the hinge of the door goes around”. The word “Najran” also means thirsty.
Traditional adobe and brick architectural styles in Najran are called midmakh buildings. They are very distinctive and reflect the influence of Yemeni design in the Province. The buildings are made up of several stories. The lowest level is given over to livestock . The next level is for human habitation, and have small windows to keep out intruders and heat. As you go up the building, the windows get larger to let in more light and air. Often the houses are clustered together around a central courtyard, so that members of the same family can live together.
Al-Ukhdood was surrounded by a circular wall, 220 by 230 meters, built of square stone with defensive balconies. The stonework is pretty exceptional. It contained several unique buildings. There is also a cemetery south of the external wall. Excavations of this site have uncovered glass, metals, pottery, and bronze artifacts. Square and rectangular buildings have also been found. There used to be a Jewish community at Najran, known for the garments they manufactured. Later many people in Najran converted to Christianity. They later yielded to Islam in AD 630/631.
As Sulayil is a town in the southern Riyadh region. Along with the nearby village of Wadi Addawasir they are the main towns of the area which is considered one of richest farming areas in the kingdom although it is very close to the largest sand desert in the world, the Rub’ al Khali, towards the east of the region. Sulayyil is mostly inhabited by the people of the Dawasir tribe. It is about 250 miles from Najran to As Sulayil.
Qaryat al-F?w also known as Qaryat al-fau is located in a corridor through the Tuwaiq Mountains, where it intersects with Wadi-al–Dawasir, overlooking the northwestern edge of the Empty Quarter. It is about 700 km southwest of Riyadh where this incense road went next, skirting the desert. Finally the route went to the eastern coast of Arabia to the mysterious Gerrah, up the coast, through Thaj to Mesopotamia. Qaryat al-fau is classified as one of the most important ancient cities of the pre-Islam in Saudi Arabia. It was the capital of the Kingdom of Kinda of the 1st century BC to the 4th century AD, one of the very ancient Arab kingdoms in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula. It also intersects the ancient trade route Najran–Jerhae at a strategic point.
The discovery of Qaryat al-F?w is one of the most important archaeological finds both at the local and international levels, as it embodies the example of Arab cities that existed before Islam with all its components – houses, wells, roads, market places, temples, graves, still intact.
In the Zahrani dialect, “qasaba” refers to a single stone tower or tower house found frequently in the Asir and al-Bahah provinces of Saudi Arabia and in Yemen. Archeologists have found images of similar towers in the ruins of Qaryat al-F?w, in the Rub’ al-Khali or the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, that date from between the third century BCE to the 4th century or our era. Homes rose two stories, supported by stone walls nearly two meters (6′) thick and boasting such amenities as water-supply systems and second-floor latrines.
One eye-catching mural faintly depicts a multi-story tower house with figures in the windows: Its design resembles similar dwellings today in Yemen and southern Saudi Arabia.
Gerrah was an East Arabian trading town in the kingdom of Dilmun that is known only from textual sources and has not been definitively associated with any archaeological sites. It is thought to have been founded around 690 BCE. No one is exactly sure where Gerrha was located, because it wasn’t directly located in the sea, but had an oasis. Strabo described the city as having “fancy tools made out of gold and silver, such as the family gold, right [Qawa’im] triangles, and their drinking glass, let alone their large homes which have their doors, walls, roofs filled with colors, gold, silver, and holy stones”. The researcher Abdulkhaliq Al Janbi argued in his book that Gerrha was most likely the ancient city of Hajar, located in modern-day Al Ahsa, Saudi Arabia. Al Janbi’s theory is widely accepted by modern scholars, although there are some difficulties with this argument given that Al Ahsa is 60 km inland and thus less likely to be the starting point for a trader’s route. Al-Ahsa county is rich in water and in classic Arabic, Ahsa means the sound of water underground. The Al-Ahsa region has over 10 million palm trees, and is the largest oasis in the kingdom.
Gerrah has been associated with the archaeological site of Thaj, situated beside a dry lakebed generally known as “Sabkah”. It is possible that Thaj was established during the Greek Sullucid period, possibly around early third-century BC. It is also pretty far inland for a maritime power. Gerrha was involved in international trade, connected first with Mesopotamia (through maritime trade) and later with the eastern Mediterranean (through the overland caravan routes). It traded in goods coming in from India and elsewhere, and was also involved in the incense trade, making the location within the archipelago of islands comprising the modern Kingdom of Bahrain, particularly the main island of Bahrain itself, another possibility. Despite its history of more than 600 years, from roughly 700 BC to 300 CE, Gerrha then disappeared without a trace, becoming a kind of Atlantis of the sands whose location has tantalized and frustrated archeologists for years.
Frustrated, that is, perhaps until the gold mask, the gem-studded gold necklaces with rubies, pearls and turquoises and the gold foil stamped with Hellenistic images of Zeus and Artemis were discovered in Thaj in 1998, says Al-Zahrani. Since then, palaces, houses and public buildings have been unearthed alongside an impressive wall 335 meters (1100′) long and nearly five meters (16′) thick. Based on the substantial mounds of ash and debris that have been detected, archeologists have concluded that Thaj was a major center for pottery-making—and ceramic figurines, incense burners and coins point to the likely existence of temples not yet located, Al-Zahrani adds. The evidence is leading scholars, including Al-Zahrani and Al-Ghabban, to believe the site is Gerrha’s capital.
Yet another possibility is Tarut Island, with the associated oasis of Qatif, just north of Bahrain. Archaeological finds indicate that the island has been inhabited since 5000 BC, and it was later home to people from the civilization of Dilmun, Akkadians, Assyrians and Persians. Later it was occupied by the Persian Empire, the Islamic Empire; it was colonized by the Portuguese and later made part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1959 a man cleaning a street discovered rocks with Sabaean inscriptions on them. The most famous artifacts found on T?r?t were unearthed by Danish archaeologists in 1968; they excavated shards of pottery dating back to 4,500 BC, and others from 3000 BC. When the municipality of Qat?f wanted to build a causeway to T?r?t in 1962 they took sand from the hill known as Tell Raf?’ah, and found Stone Age artifacts, including pottery, and a statue. The last discovery was in 1993 on Tell Raf?’ah. “The people of Gerrha were masters of overland and sea transport due to their skill in shipbuilding and their knowledge of the seasonal winds,” notes ‘Awad bin Ali Al-Sibali Al-Zahrani, Saudi Arabia’s director of museums. “They also reaped the benefits of the rich pearl harvests in this region of the Arabian Gulf and levied customs duties on goods transiting through their country,” he observes in his catalog essay about the kingdom. Perhaps Tarut island was the port for Thaj.
In a very real analogy, these caravans were the ” long haul truckers” of their day. What tricks did they use to survive in the desert? One trick was to build rock shelters like the one above, where they could seek shelter and pre-position supplies. Buildings like this dot the entire route from north to south, as well as other routes across the desert to the east and west. Another trick was that they did not go directly across the sand, which would have been a slow grind. Instead, they skirted the edge of the desert with another trick to find water.
This looks deceptively like a simple grouping of rocky hills in the desert.
But on top of the rocks were hidden water collection systems. On the lower levels of the rock pictured above left, small channels led rainwater to a small hole in the ground. This opened to a large bell shaped chamber under the ground that could hold thousands of gallons of water. Along the edge of the rock, seen above right, small channels were cut. On the downhill side they led to a dam, hidden from prying eyes below. This technique was particularly utilized by the northern Nabatean people.
The northern route went through the mountains to Medina, the second holiest city in Islam. The Arabic word madinah simply means “city.” Before the advent of Islam, the city was known as Yathrib but was personally renamed by Muhammad. The first mention of the city, under its old Arabic name Yathrib, dates to the 6th century BC. It appears in Assyrian texts (namely, the Nabonidus Chronicle) as Latribu. In the time of Ptolemy the oasis was known as Lathrippa. Post-Muhammad, of course, the city was renamed Madinat al-Nabi, or “City of the Prophet,” shortened to Medina. Medina is home to the three oldest mosques in Islam, namely Al-Masjid an-Nabawi (The Prophet’s Mosque), Quba Mosque (the first mosque in Islam’s history), and Masjid al-Qiblatain (The Mosque of the Two Qiblahs – the mosque where the direction of Muslim prayer, or qiblah, was switched from Jerusalem to Mecca).
Khaybar (Arabic,????) is the name of an oasis about 153 km to the north of Medina. Before the rise of Islam, this fortress town was inhabited by Jewish tribes. It fell to Muslim forces in 629 C.E. For many centuries, the oasis at Khaybar was an important caravan stopping place. The center developed around a series of ancient dams that were built to hold run-off water from the rain. Around the water catchments date palms grew, and soon Khaybar became an important date producing center. In the 7th century, Khaybar was inhabited by Jews, who pioneered the cultivation of the oasis and made their living growing date palm trees, as well as through commerce and craftsmanship, accumulating considerable wealth. Jews continued to live in the oasis for several more years afterwards until they were finally expelled by Caliph Umar. The place is surprisingly deserted today. There are many stories to feed the imagination, tales of plague, witches, and treasure at Khaybar, which is why all the roofs have been removed, people believed that the villages hid their treasure under their roofs.
The Black and White volcanoes of Saudi Arabia near Khaybar deserve a high place on the list of the world’s most spectacular natural wonders, but few people have ever heard of them and very, very few indeed have ever laid eyes upon them. They are composed of a rare, beige lava or ash known as comendite.
Al `Ula (Dedan), some 110 km southwest of Tayma (380 km north of Medina) in northwestern Saudi Arabia was located in a strategic position on the incense route. Al Ula had a biblical name, “Dedan,” as mentioned in the Old Testament and in the Assyrian and Arabic writings. It lies between a chain of mountains on its eastern and western sides. It was the capital of the ancient Lihyanites (Dedanites). It is well known for archaeological remnants, some over 2000 years old.
Ancient Dedan is known as Al Ula today.
In the ruins of the old city there are inscriptions that indicate the Dedanites might have been preceded by a Minean settlement (from Yemen, see my post) established to protect the incense trade. It was one of the largest and most important centers of civilization in ancient Arabia and it played an important role as a link between the civilizations of South Arabian and the civilizations in the north. It remained an important center from ancient times until the 1st century BC. Its importance declined when the Nabataeans adopted Meda’in Saleh as their second capital, the first was Petra in modern Jordan. Near Dedan there are magnificent carved tombs in the mountains which are decorated with beautiful geometrical motifs.
This site also contains many important inscriptions in Dedanit, Minaen, Lihyanite, Thamudic, and Nabataean script. This site also has ancient wells, springs, forts, and dams.
Madain Salih, also known as al-Hij, is an ancient city located in northern Hejaz (now Saudi Arabia), about 25 km from the northern town of Al-‘Ula. In the 1st millennium BC, Nabatean people created graves by cutting rock faces. Some of the inscriptions found in the area date back to the 2nd millennium BC. However, all the remaining architectural elements are dated to the period of the Thamudi and Nabatean civilizations, between the 1st millennium BC and the second century AD. “It has 131 tombs spread out over 13.4 kilometers than take several hours to visit with a guide. The city proper has a siq, walls, towers, water conduits, and cisterns.”
Since ancient times, Hail has been a magnet attracting people from all points of the compass. Rock carvings and petroglyphs provide evidence of human habitation here stretching back more than 18,000 years. What has brought so many people to Hail is water. Situated at the southern fringes of the great Nafud Desert, another one of the most inhospitable places on earth, the Hail valley is surrounded by the Jabal Shammar mountain range. Water from the massif collects on the granite floor of the valley under a layer of soil with the result that trees, particularly those that run deep roots, can collect the moisture.
These aquifers also made agriculture possible. Artifacts indicate the presence of permanent settlements of farmers in the Hail valley more than three thousand years ago. The first- century AD Roman geographer Ptolomy refers to Hail, by its pre-Islamic names of Arre Kome or Aine. Over the centuries, the inhabitants dug a network of wells to provide drinking water, as well as to feed vast irrigation canals that sustain extensive date palms and grain fields.
Tayma is a desert oasis in Saudi Arabia. In the center of the oasis is a large well, thought to be around 2,500 years old. (Bir Haddaj). It is mentioned in the Bible: “The inhabitants of the land of Tema brought water to him that was thirsty, they prevented with their bread him that fled.” (Isa 21:14.7) Tayma has long been a stopping place for caravans crossing the deserts of Arabia.
This stele, known as the Tayma stone, was found in the oasis of that name in western Arabia, in the late nineteenth century. The front of the stele is carved with a lengthy inscription describing the arrival of a religion worshipping a new god in the town. One side of the stele is carved with a representation of the god and below this, his priest. The inscription and decoration are valuable sources of information about the links between Arabia and Mesopotamia in the fifth century BC.
In 2010 archaeologists excavating the ancient oasis town of Tayma in northwestern Saudi Arabia uncovered the first pharaonic inscription in the country, the cartouche of Pharaoh Ramses III, on a mountain face.
The Palaeolithic and the Neolithic periods in Saudi Arabia and its neighbors are represented by the flint lithics. These should be understood in the context of Arabia in a time when more clement climatic periods were interspersed by Ice Ages. These climate changes of the distant past entailed extreme sea level changes around the Arabian coasts, some very recent in archaeological terms. Indeed, the whole Arabian Gulf did not fill until the end of the last Ice Age, ca 13,000 years ago when melting Polar ice raised the water level of the Indian Ocean until it broke through the Straits of Hormuz.
Route of Kings is a passage along 335 kilometers which connects Amman to Aqaba It is bordered on both sides of a rich chain of archaeological sites with prehistoric settlements of the Stone Age, biblical towns of the kingdoms of Ammon, Moab and Edom, Crusader castles, some of the finest early Christian Byzantine mosaics from the Middle east, a Roman fortress Herodian, several Nabatean temples, two major Roman fortresses, ancient Islamic cities and the Nabatean capital carved into the rock, Petra. Mentioned in the bible, kings of the road was the one that Moses wanted to borrow to take his people north through the region of Edom In Genesis 14, an alliance of “four kings of the North” led his troops on the road to do battle against the five kings of the cities of the plain, including the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. These statements prove the antiquity of this road of kings, a small section of the Incense Route. A great source for information on this section, generally controlled by the Nabataeans with their capital in Petra, Jordan is http://nabataea.net/.
I am going to wrap this up here. The spice roads were, by their nature, constantly changing, to supply new customers, avoid thieves and to avoid taxes. Especially toward the northern end, the routes fan out with many places I have not discussed. I began this post as a companion piece to my post on the exhibition, “Roads of Arabia” and if you have read this, I would suggest reading that as well. I must say, I have been pleasantly surprised by the geographic variety of Saudi Arabia and the stunningly beautiful landscapes to be found there. I was also hooked on the vast amount of history in this pivotal mideast country. I hope you, the reader, enjoyed it as well.
Looking for Dilmun: http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/197001/looking.for.dilmun.htm
Ancient Cultures: http://www.ancientcultures.net/IncenseRoad.htm
Incense Road: http://nabataea.net/najran.html
Black Marble Earth: http://www.ouramazingplanet.com/3866-black-marble-zoomable-image.html
Antiquity Sites Saudi Arabia: http://www.scta.gov.sa/en/Antiquities-Museums/SitesList/Pages/AntiquitySites.aspx
My Trip, Silvija: http://www.silvija.net/2002SaudiMay/trip.html
Comparative Arabian Scripts: http://ancient-cultures.info/attachments/File/KSA_ancient_scripts.pdf