The ancient cities of the Arabs are dramatic, the classical facades of Petra in Jordan, the medieval towers of Sanna in war-torn Yemen, Little Petra in Saudi Arabia, and on the borders of the great waste of the Empty Quarter Qaryat Al-Faw, once known as the ’City of Gardens’. Roger Harrison, who will be leading our Saudi Arabian trip in 2021 describes an encounter with this once great trading city.
Discover Saudi Arabia with expert guide lecturer, Roger Harrison
5 May 2020
Wadi ad-Dawasir is a small desert town astride the main east-west route across the forbidding Rub’ Al Khali desert. Its location was decided by the ancient town of Qaryat Al-Faw a few miles south. This ancient settlement was once a vibrant trading hub of the trans-desert route. They share a common bonus; water.
Millennia ago, it was surface water, but now the water exists as an aquifer under modern Wadi ad-Dawasir.
Located in deep desert in the south western Najd area of Saudi Arabia, Wadi ad-Dawasir is the homeland of the Al Dawasir tribe. The town itself is divided into three main neighbourhoods, Alnowaima and Alkhamaseen and Allidam.
Although now located in the arid Rub’ Al Khali - the Empty Quarter in English - there was a time when the area was not bleak desert but fertile and well serviced with water. Petroglyphs (rock art) in many locations in the Kingdom attest to the wetter climate tens of millennia ago as they show gazelle, ostrich and Ibis among the many camels and humans in a savannah environment.
The many well irrigated crop circles supplied from the aquifer below the sands are evidence of the water that was once on the surface and supported the area.
The Rub' al Khali is the largest continuous sand desert in the world and covers 225,000 square miles (583,000 square kilometres) throughout portions of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates.
Given that these humid savannah conditions existed for some time, it is not difficult to imagine human society flourishing – and it did, according to the record of the petroglyphs.
However, as the conditions gradually altered and became closer to what we see today, survival came to rely increasingly on the ability to source and conserve water. The ingenuity of the ancient desert dwellers however was up to the challenge, and ancient oases such as Tayma’, Madain Salîh, Dedan, and Najran developed over time by optimising the use of limited water resources and relying on trade and geographical proximity to each other.
A few miles south of Wadi Ad Dawasir lie the remains of the settlement of Qaryat Al-Faw. It is a seminal example of the peninsula dwellers’ genius for optimising limited resources. It is one of the most remote places in Saudi Arabia and the near total absence of vegetation makes this place so inhospitable that there is no village within a 100 kilometre radius.
Rewind two millennia.
Some 2,000 years ago, however, Qaryat Al-Faw was thriving thanks to efficient use of underground water resources and supplemented by income from trade. This remote yet flourishing city holds a unique place in the history of Arabia for two reasons. Firstly, it was there that the first written mention of 'Allah' (God) was found and it secondly its role as the capital of the first kingdom of central Arabia.
Now almost invisible until you are literally on top of it, Qaryat Al-Faw is a perfect example of many sites in Saudi Arabia that were seminal in its pre-Islamic history. It takes a considerable effort by the visitor to imagine the area as green, with rustling waves of grassland, roaming antelope and busy markets dealing in the through-flow of goods from the east.
The ancient site has yielded a treasure trove of artefacts that have helped define rich the culture of the day.
The flow of trade still exists. Over 600 kilometres from Riyadh and 1,024 from the port of Dhahran on the Arabian Gulf, Wadi Ad Dawasir is the first town modern trans-Arabian truckers encounter after leaving Riyadh. The desert road between is dotted with tiny modern style oases, truck stops that serve the passing trade and in a carefully balanced commercial symbiosis rely on it to deliver the food and water they rely in to exist.
Yet Qaryat Al-Faw was once the hub; now it is a bleak and almost invisible site but to visit it gives the viewer pause for thought, because you are standing in one of the cradles of early eastern civilisation.