Bir Hima Saudi Arabia Rock Art Site Gets UNESCO World Heritage Status
UNESCO has just added the famed Saudi Arabia rock art of site Bir Hima to its list of World Heritage sites. Officially designated as the “Hima Cultural Area,” this expansive section of the Najran province in southwestern Saudi Arabia features one of the world’s most extensive and well-preserved collections of petroglyphs (pictures carved into rock) and ancient inscriptions. The Saudi Arabia Bir Hima rock art images were created over a period of thousands of years, and date back to Neolithic and pre-Islamic times.
Commenting on the qualities of the site, UNESCO notes that Hima is located “on one of the Arabian Peninsula’s ancient caravan routes” and is comprised of “a substantial collection of rock art images depicting hunting, fauna, flora, and lifestyles in a cultural continuity of 7,000 years.” Hima also functions as a miniature ancient library, as it features tens of thousands of inscriptions written in a variety of scripts, including ancient Greek, Arabic, Musnad, Aramaic-Nabatean, Thamudic, and South-Arabian.
The site at Hima is also known for its many ancient wells. They were constructed at various times between 7,000 BC and 1,000 BC, and incredibly some of them still provide water even to this day.
Despite what has already been found, there is still much more to be discovered at Hima. As the UNESCO announcement mentions, the area is “rich in unexcavated archaeological resources in the form of cairns, stone structures, interments, stone tool scatters, and ancient wells.”
UNESCO first listed Hima as a possible addition to their World Heritage sites back in 2015. Its granting of this designation now makes it the sixth Saudi archaeological site to achieve World Heritage status.
The Bir Hima Saudi rock art region is famous for inscriptions like this written in languages ranging from ancient Greek and Aramaic-Nabatean to Thamudic, and South-Arabian. (Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage / UNESCO)
Saudi Arabia Rock Art in the Hima Cultural Area Revealed
Hima is not a single site. It is actually a 346 square mile (896 square kilometer) rock art complex that features multiple sites (34 in one counting). It features hundreds of petroglyphs and tens of thousands of inscriptions of many different sizes, seemingly carved wherever rock faces can be found. The inscriptions were not added to the carvings, but were instead left by individual traders, soldiers, merchants, adventurers, and other passers-by who chose to use Hima rock faces as their personal message boards.
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The southwestern border of the Hima Cultural Area is located approximately 18 miles (29 kilometers) to the northeast of the city of Najran. This ancient settlement was an important stop on the region’s incense trade route, which carried incense from its origin in the area of modern-day Yemen to Egypt, Greece, Rome, Mesopotamia, and the Levant. This trade peaked between 800 BC and 600 BC but was around in one form or another long before that.
For caravans traveling on this important route, or on others connected to trade, the wells at Hima represented the last opportunity to acquire fresh water in the area. The site at Hima had a busy marketplace where merchants and traders could stop to sell their goods or stock up on supplies if they were just passing through. Hima sits on the edge of the foreboding Rub ‘al Khali desert, a lifeless and desolate expanse of sand dunes and extreme temperatures that wouldn’t be survived for long by ancient travelers who entered unprepared.
Many of the Bir Hima rock art images relate to hunting and fighting. (Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage / UNESCO)
Hima did experience some level of climate change over the millennia. Its incredible collection of rock art features many types of animals, including those that would not have survived in Saudi Arabia’s present climate. The animals pictured (often in hunting scenes) in Hima rock art included camels, domesticated cattle, ibex, lions, baboons, giraffes, and ostriches.
Battle scenes are among the most common petroglyphs found at Hima. These action scenes often cover multiple rock panels and feature soldiers on both foot and horseback. There are quite a few petroglyphs that include religious imagery as well, including ritual scenes and recreations of various gods and goddesses from pre-Islamic times.
While some of the imagery is carved at a human scale, some of it is much larger. One of the most well-known creations found at Hima is a gigantic camel, four-to-five times as tall as a human, which was carved into a massive shell-shaped rock face perched on a rock outcropping.
In one form or another, Hima was occupied and in use from the seventh millennium BC through the first millennium BC. This is an extraordinarily long period of time, and Hima’s impressive collection of petroglyphs and inscriptions help provide more in-depth knowledge about what life was like for the traders and settlers who passed through or resided there over the course of many generations.
An ancient Saudi Arabia rock art (petroglyph) at Bir Hima depicting an ibex. (retlaw snellac / CC BY 2.0)
Saudi Arabia Responds
"We are thrilled to have this exceptional ancient site recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site,” declared Saudi Arabian Heritage Commission CEO Dr. Jasir Alherbish in a Saudi Press Agency announcement. “The area has outstanding universal value, providing us with many lessons about the evolution of human culture and life in ancient times … we are looking forward to welcoming more local and international visitors to come and see this historic cultural site for themselves."
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The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has stated its intent to preserve its heritage sites, and to make them available for examination by experts in various fields of ancient studies. In the Saudi Press Agency announcement, the government proclaims that a “raft” of new discoveries has “cemented the country’s reputation as a go-to destination for archeologists, historians and scientists looking to understand human history across the region.”
It seems that Saudi Arabia is trying to change is reputation as a closed and unwelcoming society. If they follow through on this commitment, it could be a boon to the archaeological community, which may gain greater access to a large territory that still has many historical secrets to reveal.
Top image: One of the more mysterious Saudi Arabia rock art examples found in the Bir Hima region. Source: Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage / UNESCO
By Nathan Falde