The rich past carved into rock
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 countries hosting major pieces of ancient rock art. What is still to be acknowledged is that 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 Makkah Highway, just an hour's drive from Riyadh, close to the settlement of Musayqirah that gave it a local name. There is even a third name, as it is sometimes mentioned under the Arabic Qaryat Al-Asba.
The site is a sandstone rock standing just 200 meters from the main escarpment called Khasm Musayqirah. This escarpment spreads along a north-south axis, creates a natural dam that blocks the flow of water coming from the west and probably contributed to the formation of a lake when the climate of the Arabian Peninsula was more humid. Thus, Musayqirah invites visitors to use their imagination to figure out how this arid place once looked when populated with several species that today are extinct.
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). But it appears quite clearly that Graffiti Rock 1 saw people carving on its walls through a wide span of time, probably from the Neolithic era (10 000 to 3 000 BCE) until recent times.
The rock of Musayqirah is one of the very rare known places in Riyadh Province where carvings of water-buffaloes (also called aurochs) can be found, attesting to the previous humid climate of the Arabian Peninsula. They are on the eastern side of the main rock.
They are typically represented with lyre-shaped horns, sometimes of disproportionate size. Such representations are much more common in Ha'il Province, especially at the sites of Jubbah and Shuwaymis.
If 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 like ostriches or gazelles were still found in the Arabian Peninsula at the beginning of the 20th century CE. Lions and ibexes were also present in Saudi Arabia until the Islamic era.
It is interesting to notice that even among the earliest carvings found at Musayqirah humans are represented often in interacting with animals, especially cattle.
Writing is also found in Musayqirah with some Thamudic inscriptions on the southern wall, testifying to human presence at the time of the caravan trade through the Arabian Peninsula that reached its highest intensity during the second part of the 1st millennium BCE.
Battle scenes that are also represented on the site are probably among the most recent ones as they involve domestication of horse and include metallic weapons.
A large panel on the western side of Musayqirah is particularly famous because of the great amount of carvings and variety of representations it carries. There are found ostriches, ibexes, dogs, lions, camels, but also hunters, warriors, a human skeleton, horsemen, and even Thamudic inscriptions, just to mention the most identifiable ones.
How to visit Musayqirah?
The location of Musayqirah (in Arabic: مصيقرة) is indicated on Google Maps, and the location of the carvings, on the southeast of the settlement, appear under the name "Rock Art". There is an exit from the Makkah highway that allows visitors to get close by hardtop, but the last 700 meters have to be done on tracks that can be covered by sand, and for this reason it is still advisable to drive there with a proper 4X4.
The main rock is fenced off but the gate is open most of the time.
Mussigrah – Graffiti Rock 1: the rich past of Riyadh’s region carved in the rock (author: Florent Egal)