One of the oldest kingdoms of Arabia
While Madain Saleh is finally meeting the fame it deserves, a nearby archeological site located 25 kilometers to the south, Dedan, is also of great interest, not only for the extent of the remains of this ancient oasis city that once thrived there, but also because its history is much older than the neighboring Madain Saleh.
Dedan is an ancient oasis city that was once the capital of one the oldest kingdoms of Arabia, along with Tayma. It is located in today’s town of Khuraybah which is at the bottom of the cliffs of Jebel Ath-Thumayd (also called Jebel Dedan), a sandstone massif that stands on the eastern side of the valley where lays the modern city of Al-Ula, in Madinah Province.
The ancient city of Dedan benefited from both its strategic location along the ancient frankincense trade road between ancient Yemen and the Levant and the abundant underground water resources. The quality of the remains in this ancient site is a vibrant testimony of the richness, the extent, and the intensity of the caravan trade of the early 1st millennium BCE as influences were found from all great empires of the ancient Middle-East.
History of the ancient oasis of Dedan
An oasis populated in ancient times
Some ancient carvings found on the cliffs on both east and west sides of the nearby modern city of Al-Ula shows that this area was inhabited from at least the Bronze Age (3rd and 2nd millennia BCE).
It is believed that the historical importance of Dedan as an active kingdom playing a vital cultural and commercial role in the north-west region of the Arabian Peninsula goes back to the early 2nd millennium BC and probably continued during the second part of the second millennium BCE when northwest Arabia was dominated by the Madianites (whose capital may have been Bada’ 25 kilometers east of the Gulf of Aqaba).
A major trade city
The oldest written reference to Dedan is in inscriptions discovered in another ancient oasis called Tayma, dated to the 7th and early 6th centuries BCE, at least five centuries before the rise of the Nabatean Madain Saleh. These inscriptions evoke a war that broke out between Dedan and Tayma at that time. The frankincense trade originating from Yemen was already very active and Dedan was building its wealth from taxes and rights of way that were levied on each caravan in exchange for protection and supplies.
The second indication is provided by the inscription of the Harran stela, from the mid-6th century BCE, on which Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon, relates its conquest and control of Dedan (and Tayma), probably between 552 and 539 BCE.
The role of Dedan as a vital link between the south of the Arabian Peninsula and ancient empires of Persia, Mesopotamia, the Levant, and Egypt, is also attested to in some South Arabian inscriptions incised on the stone stelae erected in the square of the temple of Rasafem, at Ma’in (ancient Qarna in today’s Yemen) that mentions Dedan, the country and its people.
These inscriptions record marriages between a group of individuals belonging to the tribes of Ma’in and Dedanite women which proves that Dedan was an independent entity bound by marriages into tribes and kingdoms of the southern Arabian Peninsula. More than 60 Minaic inscriptions (South Arabian script) carved in Dedan and its surroundings prove there was even a trading Minaic colony established in Dedan.
It is believed that the ancient script used by the people of Dedan – called Dedanitic – was derived from the Minaic script.
The rise of Lihyan
Inscriptions found at the archeological site show that between the mid-5th century BCE and the mid-4th century BCE (dates are still being debated by scholars) the expression ‘king of Dedan’ is replaced by ‘kings of Lihyan’, showing the growing importance of the Lihyanite tribes that contributed to the decline of the historical role of the kingdom of Dedan, and of its population’s submission to the new power.
The oldest mention of Lihyan comes from a Sabaic text in Yemen which records the travels of a Sabean merchant during a trading expedition to Cyprus, which gives an idea of the extend of the trade network Dedan was part of. The text has been dated from the first half of the first millennium BCE, when the ‘kings of Dedan’ still ruled the oasis, which suggests that the name Lihyan stood for a tribe that pre-existed the kingdom of Lihyan which had not yet conquered the oasis.
Although the Lihyanite kingdom took over the power in northwestern Arabia they continued using the Dadanic script and language. The inscriptions allow us to estimate the minimal duration of the Lihyanite kingdom by adding the regnal years of all the ‘kings of Lihyan’ they mention. Currently at least twelve kings are known with a total of 199 known regnal years.
The Lihyanites were farmers as well, thanks to the plentiful water and fertile soil, agricultural produce actually being the main source of the kingdom’s wealth. The Greek geographer from the 2nd century BCE, Eratosthenes, when referring to the north-east of the Arabian Peninsula, described the country as a region growing palms, prickly bushes and tamarisk.
The fall of Lihyan
It is still debated when the people of Lihyan controlled the northwest of Arabia up to, but a stone stela found in Tayma bearing the name of a Lihyanite king (Talmi) testifies that in the 3rd century BC their power extended all the way to Tayma. Later the Roman geographer Pliny the Elder, who lived in the 1st century BCE, reports that the Gulf of Aqaba was called “Gulf of Lihyan”, proof of the Lihyanites’ influence that extended south to the antique Yathrib (today's Madinah).
The process that led to the takeover of the area by the Nabateans (based in Madain Saleh) and its dating remain uncertain. A violent earthquake causing the collapse of buildings at the beginning of the first century BCE is plausible but not proven. It is unclear whether the Nabateans caused the fall of the Lihyanite kingdom, if they filled a power vacuum after the kingdom collapsed, or if these two powers co-existed for some time. The timing of this possible takeover is also debated with estimates ranging from the mid-second century BCE until the first century CE.
The later Arabian sources merely name the place of Dedan. One of the rare examples was provided by the famous biographer and geographer of the 13th century CE (7th century AH) Yaqut Al-Hamawi who wrote: “Dedan, on the road of Balqa, near Hijaz, was a beautiful city in ruins”.
But the history of the Lihyanites was not over. After they lost Dedan they took over other areas of Hejaz, such as Rajih, located between the holy city of Mecca and Medinah. With the advent of Islam they were overthrown by the Prophet Mohammed during a campaign known as the “conquest of Banu Lihyan”. The name of the tribe of Lihyan still exists and today there are still some Lihyanites living south-east of Makkah.
Dedan in holy scriptures
Dedan and the other ancient oasis of Tayma appear in numerous books religious scripts showing its importance as a caravan trade city:
- In several books of Pentateuch, we find a third mention of Dedan (the place and the tribe)
- In Genesis there are indications of the origin of the Dedanites: sometimes they are Semites descendants of Abraham and sometimes Hams descendants of Cush, but they are always designated as belonging to a well-organized state which played a role in the political and economic life of the Arabian Peninsula.
- The Book of Ezekiel mentions that they were active in transporting and selling merchandise in the Mediterranean regions. In the same book they are associated with the Sabaeans who, according to the sources, in the first half of the 1st millennium BC transported wares from their territories in the southern Arabian Peninsula towards different regions of the ancient world.
The ancient city of Dedan
The archeological site of the ancient city of Dedan is in today’s Khuraybah, at the bottom of the cliffs of Jebel Ath-Thumayd, also known as Jebel Dedan.
To the north of the archeological site is a square, fortified palace with four towers that dates back to the 1st millennium BCE. An Arabic Kufic inscription shows it was reused during the early Islamic era.
To the south is the main excavation area that corresponds to the residential area of the ancient city where dwellings built more than 2 000 years are now visible.
This area was also a place for rituals and ceremonies, as attested to by a large courtyard connected with a temple, and includes stone terraces. The large rectangular temple is 16 meters long and 13,2 meters wide. On its north side, a terrace supported by four rectangular stone pillars leads into the center of the sanctuary.
A wide basin cut into the rock forms a perfect circle, 3,75 meters in diameter and almost 2,15 meters deep, with a capacity of almost 27 000 liters.
Inside, three steps carved in the rock make it easier to descend. This basin was quite certainly used for ritual ablutions linked to the principal temple of Dedan, probably consecrated to the Lihyanite deity dhu Ghabat.
An exceptional series of monumental statues, as tall as 4 meters, with their stone pedestals, originally placed under porticoes once stood there. They are amongst the most impressive remain of Dedan.
All stood full-face, arms hanging down, fists closed, legs aligned and steadied by a dorsal pillar to below the waist. Several of these statues are of the sovereigns of Liyhan, as the inscription on the base of one of them shows, but others represent local deities – the principal one being dhu Ghabat – enabling the monarchs and deities to be symbolically part of the religious ceremonies and ritual offerings.
The importance given by the people of Lihyan to their kings is also expressed in the fact that all events were dated according to the years of the different reigns. The inscriptions have also revealed that those kings sometimes had a nickname, like Dhi Aslan, king of the mountains, or Dhi Manen, the robust king.
Interestingly, archeologists have identified some characterisations of Ptolemaic Egypt, showing the ties between Dedan and ancient Egypt.
The remains of four of these statues were discovered by the French travelers Jaussen and Savignac during their first mission in Arabia in 1909. Since then, excavations carried out by King Saud University Archaeology Department teams led to the discovery of over ten of these sculptures.
The French scholars Jaussen and Savignac also discovered in the vestiges of the religious center of Dedan the sculpture of a lion on a stone base whose stylization and detailing of its jaws and fangs show the influence of two Mesopotamian styles of sculpture, Hittite and Assyrian.
Further excavations in the temple itself and the adjoining constructions led to the discovery of many artefacts relating to daily life and religious rites. Examples are stone perfume burners in various forms; sacrificial tables; remains of basins; kitchen utensils; cooking pots; scales; lamps. There is also a collection of bronze articles for various uses, tools for crushing, precious items including a collection of beads - some made of stone, others of amber, glass paste or shells - and finally clay figurines of camels.
But the ancient city of Dedan was probably much more vast than the archeological site reveals and possibly spread through the whole valley where the modern city of Al-Ula was built. The fortified rock known as Musa Ibn Nusayr Fort standing in the middle of the Heritage Village of Al-Ula was probably a fortified Lihyanite place as some Lihyanite coins were found there.
When entering the archeological site there are some squared holes clearly visible on the sides of Jebel Ath-Thumayid, also known as Jebel Dedan. They are tombs, cut at different heights out of the side of the mountain, with cavities about 2 meters deep. They are dated to approximately the 5th century BCE, the probable period of the Lihyanite takeover of the region.
Some of these tombs featured interior installations: hollows were carved in the walls or the ground. There are also ordinary individual graves, cut in the base of the Jebel Ath-Thumayid, whereas others bear inscriptions giving their owners’ identities. On the slope of the Jebel, some areas were marked out to prepare for future tombs. Remains of bones, shrouds and pieces of wood from the coffins have been found in these graves.
About 1 kilometer south of the main excavation site are two exceptional tombs decorated with carved lions, showing the importance of their owners, being governors or other influential people. These sculptures of lions are another example of the Mesopotamian influence that became icons of this ancient oasis.
An inscription on one of these two tombs indicates that it belonged to a member of the Minaic community of Dedan. The other dates back to the late Lihyanite period.
The people of Dedan spoke a specific dialect and developed their own script called Dedanitic that was used from at least the 6th century BCE until the 1st century CE and was derived from a South Arabian script, Minaic, brought by the merchants from Ma'in who settled in Dedan.
The King Saud University excavation on the site of Dedan identified many inscriptions dating to between the 6th and the 2nd centuries BCE. They reveal different aspects of the cultural history of the last period of the Dedanite kingdom and the rule of the Lihyanite kingdom.
Some constitute an important ensemble of royal inscriptions in the name of the Dedanite sovereign (Asi) dated to the 6th century BCE, as well as votive inscriptions dedicated to the deities of the temple of Dedan. Other texts record local laws.
The most impressive site of Dedanitic inscriptions is Ekma, 3 kilometres north-west of al-Ula, where the Lihyanite inscriptions are the most plentiful, with 196 texts.
How to visit Dedan
The location of Dedan is indicated on Google Maps under the name of the modern location, Khuraybah. The entrance is from the Ha'il road (75) east of the junction with the 375 that goes through the city of Al-Ula.
Entrance is free, but there is a Tourism Authorities building at the gate where visitors just have to present their ID for registration.
It is advisable to check with your hotel or your tour guide if a permission is required.
As the site is quite large cars are allowed and there is a path through the archeological site.
One of the oldest kingdoms of Arabia (author: Florent Egal)