The masterpiece of Arabian Prehistory
Shuwaymis is a fascinating place. This worldwide famous site contains some of the oldest and most outstanding carvings of the Arabian Peninsula. It was recognized in 2015 along with Jubbah as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO that stated: "The outstanding universal values embodied in the rock art of Jabal al-Manjor/Raat are the high quality of the petroglyphs (engravings) that display distinctively different rock art traditions over the last 10 000 years and reflect major economic and cultural changes, and the adjustments that people made to climate change in a region that has always been a bridge between Africa and the continents beyond."
This rock art site is located 190 km north of Medina, to the north of the massive lava fields of the Harrat Khaybar. It is named after the closest village, Shuwaymis (in Arabic: الشويمس), but the carvings are in fact 30 kilometers to the west, at the southern end of a valley that runs in a broad north–south direction and contains a number of ancient wadis where water used to run when the Arabian climate was more humid.
The range of fauna represented in the rock art of Shuwaymis provides compelling evidence that humans and animals once thrived in landscapes that are extremely arid today.
Climate simulations show that during the 7th millennium BCE Shuwaymis was at the northern edge of the African Summer Monsoon rainfall regime.
Thanks to the monsoon, from the 10th millennium till at least the 7th millennium BCE, the landscapes of Arabia comprised a dramatically different environment, featuring lakes, wetlands and the expansion of vegetation. In the northwest of the Arabian Peninsula, lake sediments have been reported from the oasis towns of Tayma and Jubbah, indicating that lake formation occurred as early as 10 000 BCE.
Human occupation of northwestern Arabia
In the absence of direct dates for the rock art of Shuwaymis, as well as for other similar period sites in the region, the beginning of the engraving tradition cannot be dated. However, some elements found on-site - like content, patina and stratigraphic relationships of carvings - and the existing knowledge of prehistory of the Levant, provide an overview on the main stages of the human occupation of Shuwaymis.
The sequence that emerges from an analysis of the hunting scenes divides the rock art into an exclusive hunting period, where equids/horses are frequently depicted, then a herding period during and after which hunting scenes of ibex are still engraved, and a later period of camel depictions that has no connection to earlier rock art.
Regarding the transition from hunting to herding there is much debate about the origin of early domestic animals and the nature of their introduction in northern Arabia. With the onset of moist conditions, Levantine herders are thought to have penetrated the Arabian Peninsula to exploit the newly established pastures. Sparsely dated faunal remains from sites along the eastern and southern fringes of the peninsula suggest that cattle, sheep and goat were probably introduced as a package between 6800 and 6200 cal BCE.
However, others have argued that the inclusion of domestic animals in the subsistence economy may have begun as a pioneering strategy where local hunter–gatherers began to herd introduced domestic livestock. A combination of both models is an additional possibility, as evolution of life styles may have followed different patterns in different parts of the Arabian Peninsula.
Despite the large sample size and high rate of confident animal identifications, only less than 20 animal species were represented in the rock art of Shuwaymis.
The early engraving period contains a wide range of wild animals (onager/African wild ass, cheetah, leopard, hyena, Arabian wolf, gazelle, lion and ibex) as well as domestic hunting dogs and cattle.
With the exception of lion, ibex and oryx, which are present throughout the creation of rock art in Shuwaymis, the depiction of wild animals ceases in the later phase and the rock art becomes dominated by depictions of desert-adapted domesticates (camel, horse and donkey) and ostrich. Depictions of cattle are completely absent in the later engraving period, which indicates that the shift to aridity may have made cattle herding impossible in this region.
A typical style
The majority of the human depictions in both hunter and herder scenes are of a type that has been described as very typical for the rock art at Jubbah and Shuwaymis.
These have been grouped into two different styles; naturalistic and detailed depictions have been associated with the Neolithic (from 10 000 BCE), and those with less detail have been tentatively linked to the Chalcolithic period (from 5 000 to 3 000 BCE)
Many human figures have a very slim and elongated body. Both arms and legs are clearly depicted and usually very thin, the legs sometimes bent at the knee, with small feet.
Although Shuwaymis is not famous for ancient inscriptions it still hosts a few that attest the long human occupation of the area until more recent times.
So far only Thamudic and Nabatean scripts have been identified on the rocks of Rata and Al-Manjoor, the second one indicating that travelers were passing by Shuwaymis.
The absence of Arabic writing tends to show that Shuwaymis was no longer a frequented place during the Islamic era.
More evidence of the long term population of Shuwaymis is stone structures than were built on the top of the plateaus of Rata and Al-Manjoor and in the surrounding valleys. Some have the easily recognizable keyhole shape that is typical of tombs from Bronze Age (3 100 to 1 000 BCE).
How to visit Shuwaymis
The location of the town of Shuwaymis is available on Google Maps but until now the rock art sites are not indicated. There is a new road on the west of Shuwaymis that leads to the gate of the rock art site and panels along the way indicate that the roads indeed goes to Rata and Al-Manjoor
The main carving sites of Rata and Al-Manjoor are fenced and permanently guarded. It is mandatory to obtain a permission from the SCTH prior to visiting Shuwaymis. The permissions are nominative, for fixed dates, and all visitors must present their ID's at the gate.
Tour operators organizing trips to Shuwaymis
The masterpiece of Arabian prehistory (author: Florent Egal)