A Bronze Age desert fortress

Khaybar Oasis

This is what the fortified oasis of Khaybar might have looked like in the Bronze Age. © Khaybar Longue Durée Archaeological Project, M. Bussy & G. Charloux

In the desert of Saudi Arabia, archaeologists have discovered one of the largest Bronze Age structures in this region. It is a fortified oasis that was surrounded by a 15 kilometer long wall with around 180 bastions. The wall, made of stacked stones and clay walls, is up to 4,250 years old and was probably intended to protect the sedentary inhabitants of the oasis from attacks by nomadic desert tribes, as the team reports.

The interior of the Arabian Peninsula is now a barren, hostile desert. But that wasn't always the case: just a few thousand years ago the climate there was more favorable, there were wild animals and there was water and plants in the wadis. Even in the Stone Age, there were nomadic cultures in this area who hunted wild animals and sometimes left behind kilometer-sized fishing structures such as the “Desert Kites”. During the Bronze Age, some groups began to become sedentary, settling in fertile oases in the northwest of the Arabian Peninsula. The remains of settlements, cemeteries, ramparts and other buildings bear witness to them.

Remains of the fortification wall
Remains of the fortification wall of Khaybar. © Charloux et al./ Journal of Archaeological Science, CC by 4.0

Oases with protective walls

A special feature of the Hijaz region in Saudi Arabia, located north of Medina, are some oases that were discovered a long time ago and were apparently surrounded by long protective walls during the Bronze Age. “This defense system appears to characterize the beginning of a process of urbanization and oasis protection in northwestern Arabia,” explain Guillaume Charloux of the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and his colleagues. The largest of these Bronze Age oases, Tayma, is surrounded by a 19 kilometer long protective wall.

Now Charloux and his team have identified another one of these Arabian desert fortresses. As part of field studies from October 2020 to March 2023, they examined the surroundings of the Khaybar oasis in more detail. This oasis, which encompasses three river valleys, was previously known primarily for its fortified castles from Islamic times, but also for being an important agricultural center at the time. With the help of on-site investigations, aerial photographs and topographic maps, the archaeologists investigated whether Khaybar was already one of the walled desert fortresses in pre-Islamic times.

Ring-shaped fortress wall with dozens of bastions

“The archaeological exploration revealed the existence of previously unrecognized fortress walls 15 kilometers long,” the team reports. “The outer ring of walls surrounds the entire Khaybar oasis and encloses an area of ​​around 1,180 hectares.” This makes this construction one of the largest known from the Hijaz region to date. Radiocarbon dating of charcoal remains under the walls and their construction indicate that the fortress wall dates from around 2600 to 2200 BC. “This dating also fits well with the age of vessel shards that were found in the vicinity of the fortifications,” the archaeologists write.

The segments of the fortification ring that are still preserved today consist of a double-walled dry stone wall around 1.80 to 2.40 meters wide, the space between which was filled with rubble. The wall sections are on average three meters high. However, the archaeologists suspect that this base made of stone blocks once supported a two-meter-high wall crown made of mud bricks. However, this has been almost completely destroyed by erosion. The researchers also discovered 74 bastions along the wall belt that protrude outwards from the fortress wall. “These bulwarks always face outwards, towards the desert, never towards the interior of the oasis,” report Charloux and his team. This suggests that these buildings have a defensive function.

Territory marking and protection against desert nomads

According to archaeologists, these finds demonstrate that the phenomenon of walled oases appears to have been no exception during the Bronze Age in this part of the Arabian Peninsula. The impressive dimensions of these outer walls and the lack of labor required indicate that construction was centrally controlled by a local political power at the time,” the researchers explain. They suspect three possible reasons for the elaborate construction of these fortifications. On the one hand, the sedentary oasis inhabitants were apparently exposed to frequent attacks from nomadic groups from the desert, against which they protected themselves with the walls.

Another motivation for building these walls could have been to mark the territory. “This was about demarcating one’s own living space in the form of a farming settlement from the surrounding desert,” said Charloux and his colleagues. As a possible third reason, they cite the protection of fields and buildings from sandstorms, erosion and flash floods, which often occur, especially in the wadis. The archaeological investigations and dating also suggest that these ramparts remained in place for several centuries.

Source: CNRS; Specialist article: Journal of Archaeological Science, doi: 10.1016/j.jasrep.2023.104355

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