Wadi Massal

Wadi Massal, inscriptions of ancient kings of Arabia

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The Wadi Massal is an 8 kilometer long valley running across the Jibal Al-Jimh, a massif located 200 kilometers west of Riyadh.

Rock side of Wadi Massal where the major inscriptions were carved (photo: Florent Egal)

Rock side of Wadi Massal where the major inscriptions were carved (photo: Florent Egal)

It is famous among archeologists and epigraphists since its rocks carry ancient carvings, including the most important historical inscriptions in the Riyadh Province that relate the conquests of ancient Yemeni kings through the Arabian Peninsula.

It is not well-known that ancient Yemen hosted a rich and brilliant civilization from at least the beginning of the 1st millennium BCE. Ancient large cities like Ma’rib experienced an early and broad economic and cultural development thanks to five assets that the southwest of the Arabian Peninsula benefited from:

  • Cooler climate thanks to the Sarawat mountain range that peaks at over 3 000 meters high
  • The monsoon rains during the summer that brought much more water than in any other place on the Arabian Peninsula
  • The cultivation of frankincense that was so coveted during antiquity that the price of this commodity was higher than that of gold
  • Its location on the trade sailing routes from India: as navigation in the Red Sea was quite difficult and perilous, the boats coming from India used to stop at Yemen that then took care of transporting the spices and other exotic goods along the inland trade roads until the emergence of the ancient empires of Greece, Rome, Mesopotamia, etc…
  • Its isolation from the ancient empires: its location beyond the immense desert of Central Arabia remained a mystery for centuries. Although this land had been coveted since the 1st millennium BCE, it was conquered by the Sassanid Empire only at the end of the 6th century CE, and the only prior attempt by a major empire to conquer this land was by the Romans in 25-24 BCE and it ended in failure. Only the Abyssinians, originating from the kingdom of Aksum, succeeded to temporarily take control of Yemen before the Sassanids.

As a result of these assets, kingdoms such as Saba (of the famous queen of Sheeba), Hadramawut, Qataban, and Himyar experienced a great economic and cultural development from the beginning of the 1st millennium BCE.

For a long period these ancient kingdoms fought against each other but at the end of the 3rd century CE the king of Himyar took over all other states and unified ancient Yemen under his control.

Map of ancient kingdoms of Yemen and Aksum around 230 CE

Map of ancient kingdoms of Yemen and Aksum around 230 CE

The next step of the Himyari conquest was to control the trade roads running through the Arabian Peninsula, and this was the reason why they started to organize military expeditions that led them up as far as today’s Iraq, during which they submitted the tribes of Central Arabia.

Inscription of Ma’dikarib Ya’fur (photo: Florent Egal)

Inscription of Ma’dikarib Ya’fur (photo: Florent Egal)

The inscriptions that can be seen at Wadi Massal were carved to commemorate some of the most important military campaigns that took place during the 5th and 6th centuries CE by the Himyari kings Abikarib Asa’d, Hassan Yuha’min, and Ma’dikarib Ya’fur. Other inscriptions relating the conquests of Himyari kings are found in Bir Hima in Najran Province.

All these texts are written in the Ancient South Arabian script (also known as Sabaic) which was used in Yemen from at least the 10th century BCE to the 7th century CE, and is still in use today in some parts of Ethiopia to write the Ge'ez language.

These inscriptions also mention the alliance between Himyar and the Arab tribe of Kinda that was chosen by the Himyari kings to govern Central Arabia and that remained famous in the Arab tradition for two reasons:

  • The chief of Kinda at the time of Abikarib Asa’d, Hujr Bin ‘Amr (also known as “Akil Al-Murar”), became the first suzerain of Central Arabia and was based in the famous trade city of Qaryat Al-Faw, on the south of today’s area of Wadi Ad-Dawasir.
  • The grandson of Hujr was Imru Al-Qays, one of the most celebrated classic Arab poets.

Discovered in 1948, these texts were registered in 1952 by the Belgian-Saudi Archaeological Mission of Philby-Ryckmans-Lippens and re-explored by the Saudi-French team in 2008 who discovered another major inscription.

On top of the most northern inscription was carved an Islamic text in ancient Arabic that attests the importance of that place for a long period of time.

Inscription of Abikarib Asa’d (photo: Florent Egal)

Inscription of Abikarib Asa’d (photo: Florent Egal)

Carving of lion (photo: Florent Egal)

Carving of lion (photo: Florent Egal)

Deeper into the Wadi Massal are found several Thamudic inscriptions that are probably older than the Himyari ones, and also numerous ancient carvings of animals such as ibexes, camels, horses, lions, and human figures.

Thamudic inscriptions (photo: Florent Egal)

Thamudic inscriptions (photo: Florent Egal)

Wadi Massal (photo: Florent Egal)

Wadi Massal (photo: Florent Egal)

Once at the historical sites that are at the northern entrance of the wadi, it is worth traveling south along the valley of the Wadi Massal to enjoy its scenery. There are numerous large trees offering shade, and also an old well, a traditional mud-brick village, and the massive sides of the Jibal Al-Jumh where the valley runs across.



Wadi Massal, inscriptions of ancient kings of Arabia (author: Florent Egal)

About the Author

My name is Florent Egal, I am a French national living in Riyadh since January 2010. After six years of exploration of Saudi Arabia I have decided to show with this website that KSA has much more to offer than the stereotype landscape of empty extends of sand dunes. I hope that after reading through these pages people will feel the same willingness and amazement than I have to discover this fascinating country

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