The Works of Old Men: Geoglyphs of the Middle East
Stretching from Syria to Saudi Arabia, thousands of ancient geoglyphs built from stone stretch across the desert plains. Known as the “works of old men”, some display a kite-like structure while others have wheel-like designs. Similar to the Nazca Lines of Peru, they come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, with much diversity between structures. A stunning sight from the air, these ancient artworks raise many questions. What do they represent? When were they built? Who built them? What purpose do they serve?
The geoglyphs are virtually invisible to those on the ground, but can be easily discerned by those flying overhead. The local Bedouins refer to them as the “works of old men” but have been unable to provide further insights into their creators. They cover far more area than the Nazca Lines of Peru, and are believed to be much older. (The Nazca Lines are believed to date back to between 400 and 650 AD). They were first noted by RAF Flight Lt. Percy Maitland in 1927. In a journal called “Antiquity” he reported that he saw the structures over Harrat-ash-sham lava field, while he was flying an airmail route across Jordan.
Close-up photo of one of the wheels geoglyph from the Azraq area. Credit: David D. Boyer APAAME
Some of the wheel-shaped structures are clustered closer together, while others appear to be solitary. Some structures have more of a rectangular shape, while many of them are round. Some of the circular structures contain two spokes that form a bar pointing in the same direction in which the sun rises and sets, while others contain spokes that do not appear to have any astrological meaning. The wheels are sometimes found on top of the kites, indicating that the wheels were constructed more recently than the kites. Some believe that the wheels may have been associated with some form of astrological ritual or event, or somehow associated with the seasons, but this has yet to be confirmed.
An illustration of some of the wheel-like geoglyph designs built into the landscape. Credit: Stafford Smith
It is believed that one type of structure, referred to as a “kite”, was actually used as part of a system for hunting. The long stone walls form a wide open area, which then funnels into a smaller, enclosed area. Wild animals would funnel from the larger area through the neck into the narrow area which was called the “killing floor.” This would make it easier to hunt wild animals, as their movement would be constricted once they reached the killing floor.
There are an estimated 2000 kite structures across the deserts of Syria, Jordan, Southern Israel and Saudi Arabia illustrating that this hunting method must have been widely used. Research has shown that the kites were likely used to hunt migrating Persian gazelle, which are now extinct. Scientific dating has shown the kites to be between 3000 and 5000 years old. There have been claims dating the structures back to 8000 or 9000 years, but these claims have been widely disputed, with scientific evidence concluding that they are likely half that age. One final claim is that rather than hunting, the kites were used to prevent camels from straying. Excavation of the area may provide further clues as to the purpose of the structures, although no excavation has been conducted to date.
Kite-like geoglyph, which may have been used as a system for hunting (usatoday)
Like many other ancient geoglyph structures, the “Works of Old Men” seem to raise just as many questions as answers. They simultaneously provide a great insight into ancient civilizations while pointing out just how little we know about these cultures. Over time, we may learn more about these structures and what they represent about the past, but it is likely that many secrets related to the geoglyphs may have died with those who constructed them.
Top image: Ancient geoglyphs of the Middle East.
Arabian archeology images revealed from the air – USA Today. Available from: http://content.usatoday.com/communities/sciencefair/post/2011/10/arabian-archeology-images-revealed-from-the-air/1#.VFaaavnF889
10 mysterious geoglyphs around the world – Mother Nature Network. Available from: http://www.mnn.com/lifestyle/arts-culture/photos/10-mysterious-geoglyphs-around-the-globe/works-of-the-old-men
Desert kite – Wikipedia. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desert_kite
Visible Only From Above, Mystifying 'Nazca Lines' Discovered in Mideast – Live Science. Available from: http://www.livescience.com/16046-nazca-lines-wheels-google-earth.html
By M R Reese