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Volume 49, Number 2March/April 1998

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Unsung Crossroads

Written and photographed by David W. Tschanz

Even among historians of the Arabian Peninsula, al-Jawf is not a name that comes tripping off the tongue. The oasis at the edge of the northern curve of Saudi Arabia's Great Nafud desert is hardly as well-known as other historical sites in the kingdom—the carved-rock tombs at Mada'in Salih, for example. But al-Jawf is where the trade routes met that once linked Mesopotamia, Persia and Syria with Arabia and Yemen, and enough has happened here to make good the claim of Al-Jawf Museum Director Hussein al-Khalifa, who tells visitors that al-Jawf's weather-beaten, mud-brick ruins are "the richest historical site in Saudi Arabia."

The name al-Jawf, which means "the hollow" or "the depression" in Arabic, is relatively modern. Strictly speaking, it applies to the entire southeastern portion of Wadi al-Sirhan, an elongated depression that extends northwest toward the border with Jordan. Today al-Jawf is also the name of the local province, or amirate. In practice, however, al-Jawf has become synonymous with one of Saudi Arabia's oldest inhabited towns and its environs, formerly known as Dawmat al-Jandal.

Dawmat al-Jandal means "Dawma of the stone," and the name comes from the local belief that the town was first settled by Dawma, son of Ishmael and grandson of the prophet Abraham. Yet archeologists have found abundant evidence that long before Ishmael's time—believed to be the early second millennium BC—al-Jawf's fresh water and fertile soil had proved attractive to settlers. In 1986 and 1997, Saudi-sponsored expeditions uncovered shaped pieces of flint and bone implements that confirmed that humans had inhabited this region as long as 750,000 years ago. With these finds, al-Jawf became one of the oldest known inhabited sites in modern Saudi Arabia, after the nearby village of Shuwayhitiyah. (See Aramco World, July/ August 1992.)

During the Chalcolithic, or Copper, Age, approximately 6000 years ago, the population of al-Jawf laboriously erected 54 groups of squared-off stone pillars, some of which measured up to three meters (9'6") in height. Called al-rajajil ("the men") today, the pillars appear to the casual observer to be randomly placed, although a bird's-eye view shows that they are placed in roughly parallel east-west lines.

Their significance is no more certain than that of the more famous megaliths at Stonehenge, or the dolmens of Jordan. Although Saudi archeologist Khaleel al-Muakiel believes it is likely al-rajajil were used not only for religious purposes but also as a "meeting place for people from the surrounding areas, probably a political center," he agrees this can be no more than speculation. A 1977 dig at the base of one set of pillars found neither votive offerings, grave goods nor bones of sacrificial animals, any one of which would have bolstered the hypothesis that the stones had had a religious function or meaning.

The construction of al-rajajil may also have been related to trade. Because of al-Jawf's natural resources and strategic location, major roads connecting the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Syria crossed at al-Jawf. One, the oldest land route in recorded history, ran north from Yemen along the Red Sea through Madi-nah, Al-'Ula and Mada'in Salih. It then turned northeast to al-Jawf, then north again toward Damascus and Turkey. The other major road linked Yemen with Mesopotamia. By traveling north and northeast to al-Jawf, then east, the road avoided the harsh sands of the Great Nafud to the south and the less passable terrain of Wadi al-Sirhan to the north.

By the early first millennium BC, al-Jawf was a well-established trading city. Assyrian records from Nineveh, covering the years 744 to 633 BC, tell of five powerful queens who ruled north Arabia from Adummatu, their name for al-Jawf. One queen, Te'elhunu, is mentioned as the high priestess of Ishtar, the Sumerian goddess of fertility, love and war, whose religion was among the most widespread of the ancient world. Al-Jawf was the site of an important temple of Ishtar, one commensurate with the city's regional status, and so great was her following in al-Jawf that the Assyrian records refer to the inhabitants simply as "followers of Atarsamain," Ishtar's local name. It is likely the other queens may have served dual roles as well, for in such a setting a priestess of Ishtar may have been well positioned to exert political power.

The main business of al-Jawf, however, was business. Centuries of merchants met, bought, sold and exchanged here in a steady flow of commerce. Pilgrim traffic drawn to Ishtar's temple was, of course, good for business. Fertile soils made al-Jawf a breadbasket surrounded by drier, harsher lands. In time, the city grew famous and wealthy.

But notoriety and riches also attracted the gaze of more powerful neighbors to the north. Assyrian records, some dating back to the 11th century BC, provide detailed descriptions of al-Jawf—another testament to its significance. Another document, dating from 845 BC, contains the first known use of the word Arab.

The Assyrians viewed al-Jawf as a prize, and they made it a tribute-paying vassal state. Its wealth can be inferred from the payments the eighth-century BC Assyrian kings Tiglath-Pileser III and Sargon II demanded: no less than the amounts exacted from Egypt's pharaoh or the Yemeni king of Saba.

Al-Jawf's inhabitants chafed under the Assyrian yoke and rebelled several times, but each time the Assyrians crushed them. On one occasion the Assyrians then carried al-Jawf's idols off to Mesopotamia. In a society that made no distinction between the statue and the god itself, this was a devastating act of psychological warfare, as it left al-Jawf's population believing they were bereft of divine protection.

During another rebellion in the seventh century BC, the Assyrian king Esarhaddon had the ringleaders brought to his capital. His punishment was typical of those the Assyrians recorded, partly in order to inspire fear in their opponents: "I put dog collars on them and bound them to the left side of the Metalworker's Gate in Nineveh."

The cycle of rebellion and suppression must have severely damaged al-Jawf economically, as well as in other ways. The last Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, boasted that in one campaign in the late seventh century BC, he hauled so much booty off to Nineveh from al-Jawf that camels "filled up completely the entire extent of [Assyria]. I formed flocks and distributed camels as if they were sheep. Camels were bought ... for less than one shekel of silver in the market place. The tavern-keeper received camels, even slaves, as a gift; the brewer for a hapu of beer, the gardener for a basket of fresh dates."

The respite that came to al-Jawf with Ashurbanipal's death in 627 BC and the collapse of the Assyrian empire was shortlived. In the first years of the sixth century BC, the Chaldean armies of Nebuchadrezzar n sacked al-Jawf, at the same time that, as the Biblical book of Jeremiah records, he "smote Qedar and the kingdoms of Hasor." A later Neo-Babylonian ruler, Nabonidus, did the same in 552 BC.

Severe as these blows were, al-Jawf I remained a natural market city and, though frequently belea guered, it continued to flourish. When the Persians, under Cyrus,, supplanted the Chaldeans in 539 BC, they did not occupy al-Jawf. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, they simply demanded a heavy tribute of 1000 talents—on the order of 26 metric tons—of frankincense.

In the first century of our era, al-Jawf enjoyed a significant period of prosperity as part of the Nabataean commercial empire. (See Aramco World, September/ October 1991.) The Nabataeans, based in Petra, expanded al-Jawf's farms and date-palm groves. Nabataean hydraulic engineers—perhaps the best the ancient world ever produced—harnessed the area's water supply through a network of ditches, channels and wells, some of which are still in use today. For example, at Bi'r Saysarah, engineers carved a conical well into a low-lying hillock, and today a staircase, hewn into the sheer-rock side, descends to where a small square tunnel connects the well to the irrigation system that still serves the surrounding area.

The Nabataeans were also apparently the first to begin construction of Qasr Marid, today al-Jawf's most visually impressive archeological site. The circular, walled fortress, with four conical towers, is perched on a rocky hill overlooking Daw-mat al-Jandal. Though it has been rebuilt several times, its foundation stones bear Nabataean inscriptions.

In the third century, Qasr Marid was put to its severest test. By then, the Romans had eclipsed the Nabataeans, and Palmyra, in today's Syria, was a Roman colony. At a moment when Emperor Claudius Gothicus was distracted by invading Goths and internal problems, Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, revolted and marched on the critical crossroads in 269. Though the Palmyran blow fell heavily, Qasr Marid proved impregnable, and Zenobia's ambition was thwarted.

For the next 500 years al-Jawf moved off history's main stage. Throughout the early seventh-century conflict between the Byzantines and the Sassanid Persians, al-Jawf remained a regional trade center under Byzantine rule, but it ceased to be a strategic prize. Although the Byzantines finally defeated Persia in 629, the Byzantine empire was nearly exhausted. Emperor Heraclius, rather than attempting expansion into Arabia through the gate of al-Jawf, chose to appoint a local official, Ukaidir al-Kindi, to oversee the frontier city and collect its taxes on the emperor's behalf. Heraclius did not realize that al-Jawf's gate could swing both ways.

In the seventh century, the rise of Islam again changed the city's fortunes. In 626 the Prophet Muhammad led his first expedition against Byzantine territory through Dawmat al-Jandal. It was not a campaign of conquest but rather an attempt to stop Byzantine harassment of caravans bound for Madinah. Four years later a second expedition, led by Khalid ibn al-Walid, forced al-Kindi to switch allegiances, and al-Jawf became part of the new Islamic state.

In the aftermath of the Prophet's death in 632, several local tribes around al-Jawf joined the riddah, or apostasy rebellion. Al-Kindi was among them, and Khalid ibn al-Walid returned in 633 to put down the insurrections.

According to local tradition, the second caliph, 'Umar ibn al-Khattab, passed through al-Jawf in 638 on his way from Madinah to Jerusalem. During his brief stay in the city, he authorized the construction of a mud-brick mosque that today is among al-Jawf's most prized sites. The exact date of the mosque—said to be 638— is not beyond dispute, but it is one of the oldest intact mosques in the Islamic world. The minaret is unique: Its square shape, tapered sides and windows at each story, and the arch that allows a street to pass through its base, do not conform to any known style.

Islam brought yet another period of economic revival to al-Jawf as pilgrims from greater Syria and other regions began to pass through on their way to and from Makkah. Al-Jawf's position between Damascus and Makkah also led to its selection as the site for an initial meeting, in February of 658, between representatives of rival claimants to the caliphate of Islam, 'Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet's son-in-law, and Mu'awiya ibn Abi Sufyan, the governor of Syria who later became the founder of the Umayyad dynasty. Known as "The Arbitration," the event is one of the most significant in Islamic history, for it presaged the shift in power from Makkah to Damascus.

The ninth century brought decline again when Zubaida bint Ja'far, wife of the Abbasid ruler Harun al-Rashid, constructed a road designed to speed pilgrims' and traders' travel between Baghdad, the Abbasid capital, and Makkah. The new road, called Darb Zubaida, rerouted trade and pilgrim traffic far south of al-Jawf. The city that had been a commercial crossroads found itself suddenly reduced to being a regional agricultural center, a status it has held now for just more than a millennium.

Al-Jawf makes cameo appearances , in several chronicles written in the late 19th century. Its location on what was then the border between Ottoman Syria and the Arabian Peninsula made it a preferred entry point for southbound European explorers, including Ulrich Jasper Seetzen, Charles Doughty, Lady Anne Blunt, Alois Musil and Captain William Shakespear. But by this time, alJawf and the mud-brick ruins of Dawmat al-Jandal had been overshadowed by neighboring Sakakah, some 40 kilometers (25 mi) to the northeast.

Early in that century, rulers in Sakakah, in an effort to signal the rising prominence of their town, constructed Qasr Za'bal, a mud-brick fortress crowning a rock outcrop approachable only by way of a spiral trail that wound several times around the hill. H. St. John Philby, an early 20th-century visitor, wrote that it "reminds one of the medieval fortresses along the Rhine."

Today, al-Jawf and Sakakah together form an important agricultural hub. Though the forbidding sterility of the Great Nafud lies just a few kilometers away, al-Jawf is one of the few places in Saudi Arabia that grow Mediterranean crops, such as olives and oranges, in addition to grapes, pomegranates, pumpkins and an abundance of wheat, the area's major cereal crop. The oasis also supports more than half a million date palms, and some 300,000 more are approaching productive maturity.

Al-Jawf's role in the historical development of Saudi Arabia is only slowly beginning to be appreciated. There are decades of study and digging yet to be done. Yet over the millennia, if the history of this small oasis teaches one lesson, it is confirmation of the ancient wisdom that both quiescence and glory are fleeting, and that the future comes ever as a surprise. Even if another "golden age" never comes for al-Jawf, this unsung crossroads has seen enough history to rank high among the jewels of Saudi Arabia's historical treasure.

A free-lance writer and historian, David W. Tschanz is also an epidemiologist in Saudi Aramco's medical organization. He has led more than half a dozen trips to al-Jawf for the Arabian Natural History Association of Dhahran.

This article appeared on pages 24-31 of the March/April 1998 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1998 images.