The proud iconic figures of the ancient kingdoms of Dedan
During antiquity the northwest of the Arabian Peninsula was at the crossroads of the caravan trade between Yemen and the empires of Egypt, the Levant, Greece, Rome, Mesopotamia, and Persia. Although the rich oases were coveted by these empires, this area enjoyed a certain autonomy until the Roman conquest in 106 CE. Thanks to control of the wealth brought by the trade of frankincense and spices in the land that corresponds roughly to the modern Provinces of Tabuk, Madinah, and Al-Jawf, some oases grew to the point of becoming independent kingdoms. The most famous oases of the 1st millennium BCE are Tayma, Dumat Al-Jandal, and Dedan, where excavations on extensive archeological sites have revealed the existence of large fortified cities.
These kingdoms developed their own culture including a specific language and alphabet, that resulted in a mix of Arabian traditions and strong influences from the surrounding empires.
In the ancient oasis Dedan, close to today's city of Al-Ula in Madinah Province, a kingdom flourished from at least the 6th century until the 2nd century BCE. There, the kings of Dedan and later Lihyan reigned over a territory that spread at its apogee from the city of Iathrib (today's Madinah) to the Levant.
In their capital Dedan some remains of these brilliant kingdoms have been excavated, including an impressive necropolis whose tombs were dug into the side of Jebel Dedan that overlooks the city on the east.
These tombs are square-shaped holes, cut at different heights out of the side of the mountain, their cavities being about two meters deep.
They are approximately dated to 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 of Dedan are two exceptional tombs located some 50 meters above the wadi where the ancient oasis was centred. Those are the only tombs that are decorated with two carved lions each, showing the importance of their owners, being governors or influential people.
These sculptures of lions that are an outstanding example of the Mesopotamian influence, and are the proud iconic figures 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 that originated from Ma'in in today's Yemen. The Minaic were the most important trade partners for Dedan and even had a small colony living in the ancient oasis. The other lion tomb dates back to the late Lihyanite period.
How to visit the Lion Tombs of Dedan
The Lion Tombs are accessible from the archeological site of Dedan that 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. The location of the Lion Tombs is also available on Google Maps.
Entrance is free, but there is a Tourism Authorities building the at the gate where visitors have to present their ID for registration. It is advisable to check with your hotel or your tour guide if permission is required. As the site is quite large cars are allowed and a path through the archeological site has been marked.
Reaching the Lion Tombs involves climbing stairs up fifty meters where the tombs were cut in the cliffs. The reward is twofold: the close view of the lion sculptures and the sight over the oasis.
The proud iconic figures of an ancient Arabian kingdom (author: Florent Egal)