ANCIENT ARABIA - Part.3 : Qaryat Al-Faw and Hellenistic Arabia


Ancient Arabia re-interpreted   Part. 3

Dr. Geoffrey King

Newly charted territories : Qaryat Al-Faw and Hellenistic Arabia

Part.1       Part.2

Source : 

Head of a man, 1st C. BCE-2nd C. CE, and a gold funerary mask, 1st C. CE. (Copyright: Musée du Louvre, Paris 2010 and Somogy Art Publishers, Paris 2010).


A silver chalice with gilding, a bell-shaped gold earrings, and a silver strainer. (Copyright: Musée du Louvre, Paris 2010 and Somogy Art Publishers, Paris 2010).

The great Saudi Arabian archaeological sites of Hegra, Dedan and Tayma have been known to scholars for over a century but Qaryat Al-Faw is an entirely unexpected discovery of the later 20th Century. Professor Abd Al-Rahman Al-Ansary initiated excavations there in 1971, sponsored by the University of Al-Riyad (now King Saud University) and first brought Qaryat Al-Faw to general public attention. The archaeological results year after year were a succession of surprises. Professor Al-Ansary’s discussion of the site in the catalog of the exhibition is an extremely important new study of the textual and archaeological sources on Qaryat Al-Faw.

The site of Qaryat Al-Faw lies on the western edge of the Rub Al-Khali sands, northeast of Najran, in one of the most remote and arid places in the Kingdom. Yet when it flourished between ca 3rd C. BCE and 3rd-4th C. CE it was an important oasis city on the incense trade route between the kingdoms of South Arabia and Al-Iraq, ancient Mesopotamia. Among its names in ancient times was Qaryat Dhat Kahl. Kahl was a pagan deity with strong South Arabian connections.

The finds from Qaryat Al-Faw force a reassessment of the arts of pre-Islamic Arabia. For the public beyond the Kingdom this is new territory and the Louvre exhibition marked the first time that so many finds from this rich  site had been displayed abroad. They are now on display at Barcelona at La Caixa Foundation.

Occasionally, the South Arabian kingdom of Saba and Dhu Raydan ruled Qaryat Al-Faw which also had close relations with the kingdom of Ma‘in and with Lihyanite Dedan. In the 2nd C. CE Qaryat Al-Faw was ruled by Muawiya B. Rabia, king of the tribes of Qahtan and Mudhhij, whose tomb at Qaryat Al-Faw has Nabatean and Palmyrene elements.

Its trading network extended far into the Mediterranean hinterland and to Al-Iraq via eastern Arabia. The discovery of Parthian glazed vessels, fine Nabatean pottery from Petra, and Roman glass, probably imported through Egypt, all testify to the trading connections of Qaryat Al-Faw.

A corpus of wall paintings from Qaryat Al-Faw transforms our understanding of painting in pre-Islamic Arabia and the Middle East. The very Hellenistic painting of a male figure with a servant dated to the 1st-2nd C. CE, is by far the most accomplished work excavated at Qaryat Al-Faw in terms of its execution. The subject of the ZKY painting is interpreted as a formal banqueting scene, a cultural tradition shared with the aristocratic social practices of the Nabateans at Hegra and Petra. A banqueting scene in a different style but of the same date is the subject of another painting from Qaryat Al-Faw. It is hard to ignore the fact that the formal hospitality of banquets remains a part of Arabian social culture to the present day.

Other paintings at Qaryat Al-Faw reflect indigenous Arabian subjects. These include a painting of a tower house. The tower house is very specifically Arabian and the one at Al-Faw is rendered accurately in architectural terms. Just as in tower houses of much later times in southwest Arabia, the lower floor of the Qaryat Al-Faw tower house is built of stone blocks and it has a single ground floor entrance. The upper floors, with women at the windows, seem to be faced with a fretwork of wooden windows and screens in the manner that we see in various forms in the traditional houses of Yemen, the Holy Haramain and Jeddah in very much later times.

The culminating story of the Qaryat Al-Faw tower house corresponds to the mafraj, the men’s room for receptions that is still found in the old tower houses of Saudi Arabia and the Yemen highlands. The roofing crenelations and the elaborate ibex horns on the summit of this Qaryat Al-Faw house are also from this ancient culture, recorded in the famed tower-palace of Ghumdan at Sanaa, a contemporary of Qaryat Al-Faw.

In a quite different context, the form of a tower house is suggested in the exhibition by an elegant incense burner from Qaryat Al-Faw, a quite exceptional find at the site.

Another important Qaryat Al-Faw painting exhibited in the exhibition showed animals in a Zodiac motif which is also entirely Arabian in subject-matter. The animals gather at a fountain and include a spotted feline that could be the nearly extinct Arabian leopard. There is also a lion: Lions were still roaming in north Arabia as late as the 3rd C. H./9th C. CE and were found in Syria still later. The large black scorpion shown is ubiquitous in the desert today. All these animals would have been familiar to the people of Qaryat Al-Faw.

The Musnad inscription that could explain this remarkable painting has defied any conclusive reading but the subject is interpreted in the exhibition catalog as a reference to the Zodiac motif that was apparently introduced to south Arabia through contact with Roman-Hellenistic culture.

The Hellenistic aspects of some of the paintings from Qaryat Al-Faw are equally strongly reflected in the silver, gold and bronze objects and sculptures excavated at the site. These objects show the wealth and the sophisticated taste of the inhabitants of the site and include fine silver work, gold ear-rings and gemstones.

One of the most remarkable finds at Qaryat Al-Faw is a magnificent Hellenistic-style  bronze and wood funerary bed dated to the 1st C. CE and found in the  burial chamber of one Sa’d Malik. Dr. Françoise Demange in her catalog essay argues that parts of this bed were imported from a specialized workshop in the Mediterranean.

A hollow cast bronze sculpture, made by the lost wax process, attributed to the 1st C. BCE/2nd C. CE, is the product of the south Arabian school of highly skilled metal casters working in styles adapted into local terms from Romano-Hellenistic art. Qaryat Al-Faw also had strong links to Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt, reflected in elegant and extremely competent bronze sculptures of Harpocrates, the Horus Child and Herakles, all excavated at Al-Faw.

A massive bronze fist from a broken hollow cast sculpture belonged to a lost work of great size and it is hard to imagine it being conveyed in one piece to Qaryat Al-Faw from south Arabia on camel back. Professor Abd Al-Rahman Al-Ansary long ago suggested that there were bronze casters working at Qaryat Al-Faw and this idea is endorsed by Dr. Françoise Demange in the catalog of the exhibition.

Other exhibits included bronze oil lamps with clearly Hellenistic connotations, part of this south Arabian industry of metalworking that seems to have been well established at Qaryat Al-Faw. Several finely worked bronze lions’ heads were found at the site, again rendered in Hellenistic character. However, these repeated references to lions were not necessarily merely a subject imported from outside Arabia. Rather, they may well reflect the presence of lions among the indigenous Arabian fauna in all of the peninsula in this period.

This raises interesting questions — what was the source of metal used at Qaryat Al-Faw and where was there sufficient fuel for the furnaces required? The raw copper was easily enough transported as ingots from sources in southwest and central Arabia where copper and gold are both found.

However, smelting metal at Qaryat Al-Faw in the ancient manner would be virtually impossible today for lack of fuel but if Arabia was wetter in the past the Qaryat Al-Faw landscape would have had more wood for fueling furnaces. As Professor Abd Al-Rahman Al-Ansary points out, one of the epithets of Qaryat Al-Faw was Dhat Al-Jnan — the City of Paradise, a very precise reference to its vanished palm gardens, whose wood might have sustained metal smelting with the help of bellows. Evidence of this technology is also known from Al-Rabadha, a major site on the Abbasid Darb Zubayda in western central Saudi Arabia.

Throughout south Arabia, alabaster is a material used in roofing, for windows as well as in art in ancient times. The figure of a man found at Qaryat Al-Faw and dated to the 1st-3rd C. CE shows the male dress that prevailed in south Arabia in this period. The straight sword is typical of all of Arabia in early periods and marks a local style that endured into the Islamic period.

To appreciate the setting in which the Qaryat Al-Faw finds exhibited in Paris and now in Barcelona were made and used, the site must be seen in context of its great structures that still remain and which can only be indicated in exhibition terms in photographs. The large tell of Qaryat Al-Faw, the eroded clay brick towers and the deep rock-cut tombs of the kings and aristocrats of the town are all that survive to summon up the scale of the buildings of this rich trading city on the edge of the deep sands.

A stone-built temple is the most complete surviving structure at Qaryat Al-Faw, preserved when wind-blown sands from the Empty Quarter overwhelmed it and hid it from view until the Saudi archaeologists exposed it once more. It was so well protected by the sands that the original bronze inscriptions were still intact on either side of the steps to the temple.

The most spectacular find from Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province exhibited in Paris and Barcelona was discovered at Thaj in 1998 by Saudi archaeologists from the Dammam Regional Museum. Investigating a tell, they found a 1st C. CE burial chamber containing the remains of a small girl of the highest social status. She was laid on a funerary bed with metal legs in the form of human figures who all wore Hellenistic dress. The funerary bed recalls its contemporary excavated at Qaryat Al-Faw.

The girl wore a face mask, long gloves, buttons, and a belt all in gold. Her gold necklace was inlaid with pearls, and her earrings included emeralds, rubies and pearls. The pearls were the product of the oyster beds of the Arabian Gulf while the emeralds and the rubies were probably brought via the Indian Ocean sea-route to the Far East.

Qaryat Al-Faw, the Thaj burial and many other sites across the peninsula underline the point that this Arabian world was not by any means isolated but was deeply affected by Hellenistic styles of art and organization. This Hellenizing effect permeated the Middle East as a whole in the centuries after the death of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE and his memory persisted for centuries in the Middle East. His long-surviving dynastic successors, the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Seleucids of Syria and others in the east, like the Bactrians, continued to develop this Hellenistic cultural inheritance that is a major part of the Middle East’s legacy. The finds from Qaryat Al-Faw and Thaj show how much that legacy penetrated deep into the Arabian Peninsula and blended with older indigenous Arabian concepts. It is an aspect of Arabia’s past that is only now beginning to be understood.

(To be continued)