Jubah: an open-air museum where millennia are carved in rock
In a remote area north of Hayil, history comes alive in artwork left behind by civilizations ancient and otherwise.
In January 1879, Lady Anne Blunt, the granddaughter of English poet Lord Byron, arrived with her husband Wilfrid at the Jubah oasis, more than two-thirds of the way across the Great Nafud Desert.
En route to the city of Hayil, they stopped at a way station for a rest. Lady Anne was interested in purchasing Arabian horses, while Wilfrid was searching for examples of ancient inscriptions carved on stone outcrops.
They were among the very first Westerners to view the now famous rock art at Jubah. Lady Anne captured the setting and its rich array of ancient art in her comment, “Jubah is one of the most curious places in the world, and to my mind one of the most beautiful.”
We can only agree with Lady Blunt. This open-air museum is a place where millennia are carved in rock. Our eyes are captivated at every step by new images, new writings, and new symbols. This immense representational wealth of art takes us back to a distant time in an overlapping of eras and civilizations, which have left their marks.
A No. 1 site
Today, Jubah is a small, quiet oasis town, located 90 km north of the city of Hayil, and is the most famous rock art site in Saudi Arabia. The oasis of Jubah is the remnant of an ancient lake, which was once rich in flora, wildlife, and people. The sand sea of the Nafud Desert is a windswept plain surrounding Jubah. At the foot of the mountains, Jabal Umm Sinman, an array of rock art and inscriptions spanning millennia (with some carvings dating back 10,000 years) has been fenced off as an archaeological site by the Department of Antiquities.
Unlike other Neolithic paintings and etchings in other parts of the world, Jubah’s rock art features deep incisions that display images in sharp relief and are in remarkably pristine condition. Images depict men and women, giving viewers a glimpse into the clothing and hairstyle of the past. The art also features animals, hunting scenes and weaponry, such as bows, arrows, sticks, and spears.
Aspects of the scenes show similarities with rock art in North Africa, including Algeria, Libya, and Egypt. Archaeologist Juris Zarins, who worked in the Jubah area for 20 years is quoted in Saudi Aramco World (Harrington 2002) as saying, “Pound for pound and piece for piece, in terms of rock art concentration and importance, Jubah is the number one or number two site in the whole of the Middle East. It rivals anything in North Africa.”
In this remote, solitary, silent area, dominated by a red desert in which rocky outcrops rise, the visitor is struck by the charm of the large number of petroglyphs created by a range of techniques with simple stone hammers. They are visually stunning expressions of human creative genius.
A king dispensing justice
Jubah is host to two of the most emblematic carvings in Saudi Arabia. The man in a hieratic pose wearing noble clothes and accessories in a dominant position over his subordinate allows himself to be interpreted as an ancient king handing out justice. The second one is a chariot pulled by two horses.
Jubah’s rock art does not belong to a single era or a single civilization. Based on archaeological studies, three different eras have been identified: Recent, Thamudic, and Late Prehistoric.
The recent petroglyphs are made of opaque engravings of Arabic scripts that were often carved with a metal object. The script often details a person’s name with a date in the 1400s of the Hijri calendar, and the words were inscribed in the past 30 years. Some of the Arabic inscriptions are not dated and were pecked out using another stone, suggesting greater antiquity. Representations of mounted camels or battle scenes with people using lances to fight on horses can also be seen.
Ostriches, dogs, and ibex
Thamudic rock art is composed mainly of pecked out engravings and is dominated by inscriptions and representations of camels. The inscriptions are written vertically, although a few longer ones are written horizontally. The majority of engraved camels are associated with inscriptions specifying the owner of the animal. Other images are depictions of ostriches, dogs, ibex, and date palms. The palms may suggest cultivation.
Based on some archaeological studies, it has been suggested that the Thamudic society was transhumance, a regular movement of animals between areas of pasture. The association of the images with inscriptions suggests that such people were literate, most probably because of contact with merchant traders.
During the Late Prehistoric era, the style of the petroglyphs were limited by the skills of the engravers and difficult rock surfaces, making it difficult to identify the species of animals depicted.
Most animals identified are ibex with huge sweptback horns, beards, and striped coats. Numerous cattle are depicted with their heads tilted to one side, so that both their horns and ears are visible. Wild asses are represented with what look like two short, forward-facing ears. The Late Prehistoric human figures found tend to be tall and elongated. They are male and appear to be wearing grass skirts and some kind of headdress. Two appear to be wielding hooked implements, while another has a bow and arrow.
A UNESCO World Heritage site
In the largest rock shelter, which has a small cave at the back, there is a fourth type of rock art painted in red ochre. It is composed of three bovids, one possibly an aurochs — extinct large cattle. The ochre is in two different shades: a brownish red with which the animals are painted, and a purplish red with which squares and dots are painted.
The archaeological site of Jubah has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its importance lies in its testimony of a society long vanished, leaving behind an exceptionally detailed record of their existence.