The oldest human settlement of Saudi Arabia
Tayma is a city located on the western edge of the great sand dune desert, the Nafoud Al-Kebir. It lays in a natural depression where a lake formed when the climate of the Arabian Peninsula was more humid. Today, after nearly 8 000 years of desertification process, Tayma still benefits from natural wells that have been maintained for millennia.
Another asset adds to the historical significance of Tayma: its location in a natural corridor between the Nafoud Al-Kebir on the east and the Sarawat mountains on the west that designated this oasis a major stopover for caravans trading frankincense and other valuable commodities from Yemen.
History of the oasis of Tayma
Tayma is one of the oldest settlements in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and even the whole Arabian Peninsula. In 2016 the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTNH) announced that a joint research team comprising Saudi archaeologists and experts from Oxford University discovered the oldest human bone during an excavation at Tayma. The bone found is the middle part of the middle finger of a human being who lived 90 000 years ago, the oldest human trace found to date in the Arabian Peninsula.
This joint project has led to many other significant discoveries of animal and mammal fossils in the Saudi deserts, including a giant 300 000 year old elephant tusk belonging to an extinct species of elephant from the Nafud Desert, suggesting a greener, wetter Arabian desert in the past. An elephant’s carpal bone, located five meters from the pieces of tusk, was also discovered from the same sand layer at the excavation site.
The importance of Tayma is attested to in many ancient texts where it is mentioned more often than any other place in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Tayma is one of the few places in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (along with Dumat Al-Jandal) that are mentioned in Mesopotamian texts. The oldest mention of the oasis city appears as "Tiamat" in Assyrian inscriptions dating as far back as the 8th century BCE, when the oasis developed into a prosperous city, rich in water wells. The text in question relates that the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III, received tribute from Tayma, and Sennacherib named one of Nineveh's gates as the Desert Gate, recording that "the gifts of the Sumu'anite and the Teymeite enter through it."
On the stela of Harran (in today's Turkey) a Babylonian text relates that Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon, conquered in 552 BCE six oases in the north west of Arabia, among them Tayma.
In a slightly later text, the Nabonidus Chronicle, an ancient Babylonian text in cuneiform script, it is stated that Nabonidus delegated the administration of Babylon to his son Bel-shar-usur and settled in Tayma for ten years without giving any explanation for such a long stay.
The ancient oasis of Tayma was protected by a 4 kilometer long compound wall which is believed to have been built by Nabonidus and is still visible, although it can't currently be visited.
Tayma is also famous for a stela, known as the Tayma stone, that was found in the oasis in the late 19th century CE and is today in Le Louvre Museum. It is carved from local stone and is in the form of a flat slab rounded at the top, as is usual with Syro-Mesopotamian stelae.
This important source is often considered in relation to neo-Babylonian expansion and the visit of Nabonidus to Tayma, when Aramaic, the official language of the Babylonian empire, was adopted for writing in Arabia. The stela most likely dates from the end of the neo-Babylonian period or the start of the Achaemenid Persian period.
The inscription and decoration are valuable sources of information about the links between Arabia and Mesopotamia in the 5th century BC.
Tayma and the other ancient oasis of Dedan (in Madinah Province) appear in numerous books of Prophets of Muslim exegesis recalling its importance as a caravan trade city. Tayma is quoted in these texts as Tema:
- Irmiya (Jeremiah): "[...] and all the kings of Tyre, all the kings of Sidon and the kings of the coastlands which are beyond the sea; and Dedan, Tema, Buz, and all who cut the corner of their hair; and all the kings of Arabia [...]
- Yaqub (Job): "The caravans of Tema looked, The travelers of Sheba hoped for them"
- Asha'ya (Ishaiah): "Bring water for the thirsty, O inhabitants of the land of Tema, Meet the fugitive with bread"
Later in the 12th century CE Tayma was visited twice by Europeans: first around 1170 by the Spanish voyager Benjamin de Tuleda, and then by the French Raynald de Châtillon, by then Lord of Oultrejordain (today's Jordan), who attacked a caravan near the city.
In the 19th century CE another two Europeans made their way to the legendary oasis. The English traveler Charles M. Doughty investigated and mapped Tayma in 1877. And in 1883 the French explorer Charles Huber was sent by Ernest Renan to Tayma to bring back the famous stela to Paris, the reason why it is at Le Louvre Museum today.
With the conquest of Hail in 1921 and of Hejaz in 1924, Tayma was smoothly incorporated in the actual Saudi Kingdom and is now part of the Province of Tabuk.
As one of the richest historical oasis of Saudi Arabia, Tayma has its own museum which covers the millennia of human activity that took place there.
The Tayma Museum offers comprehensive explanations about the geological context and the historical importance of the oasis along with its role in the overall history of the Arabian Peninsula.
It covers all periods of human occupation from prehistory to the birth of the Saudi Kingdom, including Neolithic, Bronze Age, Babylonian times, Arab conquests, and of course the advent of Islam.
A visit to the Museum before the archeological sites of Tayma provides an instructive introduction to the historical treasures than can be found in the ancient oasis.
Haddah well is the iconic landmark of Tayma. It also summarizes two of its most famous assets with the water being present here for millennia and the Babylonian conquest of Nabonidus who is believed to have built the well in the 6th century. In 1973 HRH King Faisal Al-Saud visited Tayma and and ordered the installation of four new water pumps.
This was with the intention of alleviating the suffering of the locals by increasing the amount of water and the size of their farms so that each farmer has his own running well inside his farm, with higher productivity and better facilities. Later, with the use of modern pumping equipment, the farmers of Tayma no longer needed traditional methods, therefore the architectural elements of wellheads and old water withdrawal techniques disappeared. Here HRH Faisal Al-Saud directed the initiative to restore the well at his own expense so that today's visitors still can see it in its original form.
Just 200 meters east of Haddaj Well is Tayma's Governor's Palace, a mud-brick fort typical of the Nejdi style, although its stone-made foundations could be older as it is not rare to see ruins of ancient buildings being used for later constructions.
It is located next to a lush palm tree farm which is still maintained today. The palace is under restoration but it is possible to go around its impressive walls and fortifications.
Al-Hamra Palace is located on the north west of the city of Tayma. It is a stone-made building erected on a the end of a low rocky ridge overlooking the site of an ancient lake. The pottery found on the site indicates that this palace probably dates back to the 6th century BCE when Nabonidus, last king of Babylon, conquered the oasis city.
It is divided into three sections, one of which was used for worship, and the other two to serve the residents of the palace, the second one having a square shape, and the third one being a series of walls that placed orthogonally.
During the excavations of the Al-Hamra Palace several archaeological discoveries of importance were made. The most prominent are a broken stela with with a carved religious scene and part of an Aramaic inscription, relating to a relating to a religious dedication of an Arabian tribe, and a cube-shape stone was found and a replica is today displayed at the Museum.
The religious symbols on the cube are comparable to those on the Tayma stone, and represent the Moon-god (the bull), the Sun-god (the winged disc), and the planet Venus or Ishtar (star enclosed in a circle)
The oldest human settlement of Saudi Arabia (author: Florent Egal)