The history book of ancient Arabian Kingdoms

Just 20 kilometers south of the famous ancient city of Madain Saleh is the much lesser known site of Ekma (in Arabic عكمة). It hosts one of the jewels of the old Arabian tradition of rock inscriptions.

An ancient tradition in the Arabian Peninsula

Saudi Arabia is already famous for its two major UNESCO World Heritage rock art sites, Jubbah and Shuwaymis, which host carvings that are possibly more than 10 000 years old. What is less well-known is that when the alphabet spread from the Levant into the Arabian Peninsula people extended the tradition of carving to include writing.

Dedanitic inscriptions and human figures (photo: Florent Egal)

Dedanitic inscriptions and human figures (photo: Florent Egal)

Since the end of the 2nd millennium BCE, the people of the Arabian deserts carved their names and texts in the rock, especially while traveling through the arid land along the ancient trade routes.  Michael MacDonald of the University of Oxford states that in the southwest of the Arabian Peninsula these inscriptions may date from as early as the 13th century BCE up to the 7th century CE, while in central and north Arabia they seem to be concentrated in the period between the eighth century BCE and the fourth century CE.

Dedanitic, Thamudic, and Nabatean inscriptions, with carvings of horse and camels (photo: Florent Egal)

Dedanitic, Thamudic, and Nabatean inscriptions, with carvings of horse and camels (photo: Florent Egal)

The incredible amount of graffiti tends to show that literacy was extraordinarily widespread in the Arabian Peninsula as early as the 1st millennium BCE, not only among the settled populations but also among the nomads. Indeed, the scores of thousands of inscriptions on the rocks of the Syro-Arabian desert suggest that it must have been almost universal among the latter. By the Roman period it is probable that a higher proportion of the Arabian population was functionally literate than in any other area of the ancient world.​

Whilst most of the inscriptions are individual names there are very few known examples in Saudi Arabia of longer texts providing information about the history​ of the time they were carved, with the most famous being at Madain Saleh, Bir Hima, and Wadi Massal.

An exceptionally rich site

Ekma is an exception to that rule as it gathers a unique concentration of long texts written in an ancient script called Dedanitic that was used by the people of the ancient kingdoms of Dedan and Lihyan, who successively ruled the oasis during the 1st millennium BCE and whose capital was the nearby ancient city of Dedan.

At the bottom of the impressive cliffs of Jebel Ekma, some 196 texts relate to economic and religious life in the ancient kingdoms of Dedan and Lihyan and provide numerous indications about its geographic frontiers, as well as what is commonly called the yearly “tithe” owed by the faithful of dhu Ghabat. Moreover, these inscriptions prove the existence of rituals performed on the occasion of pilgrimages, with details relative to cultic practices.

Dedanitic inscription (photo: Florent Egal)

Dedanitic inscription (photo: Florent Egal)

Dedanitic inscription (photo: Florent Egal)

Dedanitic inscription (photo: Florent Egal)

The uniqueness of Ekma is in the carving technique as many inscriptions have been highlighted, meaning the texts were revealed on the rock by incising around the letters instead of carving the letters themselves.

These texts are mostly in the Dedanitic alphabet which consists of twenty-seven letters, all matching the letters of the present Arabic alphabet. This script is derived from South Arabic, several letters of which have been altered. The term Dedanitic defines the script as well as the language of the Dedanite people. This ancient language belongs to the group of languages from which Arabic emerged and the script is part of the group of Ancient North Arabian and presents its richest corpus of inscriptions.

There is no firm dating evidence for the inscriptions of Ekma, though dates ranging from the 6th century BCE through the 1st century CE have been suggested.

The translation of an inscription carved at Ekma some 2 500 years ago reads: "S¹gl daughter of S²mr priestess of Ḏġbt performed the ẓll ceremony for Ḏġbt at K–hl in accordance with what she vowed and so {favour} {her} And {help} Her and her {descendants} In the year five of {S²hr} {son of} Ḥnʾs¹"

How to visit Ekma

The location of Ekma is indicated on Google Maps under its Arabic name (عكمة). 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.​

A path leads to the archeological site which is at the bottom of Jebel Ekma. Along the way there are panels providing information about the site.

Jebel Ekma (photo: Florent Egal)

Jebel Ekma (photo: Florent Egal)



The history book of ancient Arabian Kingdoms (author: Florent Egal)

About the Author

My name is Florent Egal, I am a French national living in Riyadh since January 2010. After six years of exploration of Saudi Arabia I have decided to show with this website that KSA has much more to offer than the stereotype landscape of empty extends of sand dunes. I hope that after reading through these pages people will feel the same willingness and amazement than I have to discover this fascinating country

Leave a Reply 0 comments

Leave a Reply: