Of sand dunes and rock art...
When two petroglyph sites in Ha'il Province - Jubbah and Shuwaymis - were listed as UNESCO World Heritage in 2015, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was finally recognized among the countries hosting major pieces of ancient rock art. What is still to be acknowledged is that most of the country is home of hundreds of thousands of old carvings, including in the Province of Riyadh.
Two sites are particularly famous close to the capital that expatriates have simply named Graffiti Rock 1 and Graffiti Rock 2. The first one is visible from the highway, the second one is about 10 kilometers east of the Ar-Rayn/Bishah road.
Khasm Al-Asmar is a prominent sandstone hill which is part of the low escarpment bordered to the west by a long range of sand dunes called the Nafud Al-Qunayfidhah.
On the eastern side of the rock are numerous vast fenced farms areas.
While the range of sand dunes of the Nafud Al-Qunayfidhah is just about 1 kilometer wide from west to east, it spreads over 100 kilometers north to south, and its tallest dunes reach over 50 meters in height in some parts. It is relatively easy to drive to and it offers some stunning viewpoints over the surrounding plain to the west and the Khasm Al-Asmar to the east.
The study of Saudi Arabian rock art is quite recent therefore the date of the carvings is still debated and many questions are yet to be answered (the reason why I remain cautious with the information provided in this article). For example it is quite difficult to date a carving based just on the animal it depicts. Indeed, whilst some species such as the water buffalo that used to graze on the plain surrounding the ancient lake probably disappeared some 8 000 years ago, other animals survived much longer. Ostriches or gazelles that are carved in the Khasm Al-Asmar were still found in the Arabian Peninsula at the beginning of the 20th century CE, before being hunted to extinction locally.
Unlike Graffiti Rock 1 (Musayqirah), Khasm Al-Asmar doesn't host carvings of water-buffaloes which are the markers of the latest humid period of the Arabian Peninsula that probably ended some 8000 years ago.
Ibex are the most numerous and the very different colors of the patina of the stone prove a long human occupation of the area of Khasm Al-Asmar.
One of the famous features of the Khasm Al-Asmar are a couple of representations of human figures facing each other while holding in one hand a rounded-shaped object, and a stick-like one in the other hand.
It is often interpreted as fighters carrying shields and swords but I would rather see them as dancers playing tambourines as it is still practiced today in Saudi Arabia.
Writings are also found in Khasm Al-Asmar with some Thamudic inscriptions, testifying of the human presence until the time of the caravans trade through the Arabian Peninsula that reaches its highest intensity during the second part of the 1st millennium BCE.
Other type of signs were carved on the rocks of the Khasm Al-Asmar more recently and independent from each other. These are called wusum (singular: wasm) in Arabic and are tribal signs. The same shapes can be seen on camels and mark the possession of a specific tribe over both the land and the animals.
On one of the rocks a series depicting the wusum are deeply incised on top of clearly older enigmatic human figures.
While most of the carvings are found on the blocks at the bottom of the hill, the top has some nice specimens also. There are some of the oldest representations of ibex are accompanied by the most recent representations... of cars!
How to visit the Khasm Al-Asmar?
A hardtop crossing the Nafud Al-Qunayfidhah is being built from the Ar-Rayn road but, as it can be only be covered by sand at the moment, we advise you to get there with our tour guides.
Of sand dunes and rock art… (author: Florent Egal)