Arabia’s deserts have always been peopled landscapes, rich with human and natural diversity. People have lived in and around them, people have journeyed across them, and people have found water sources within them to sustain life.
That is how it is in the AlUla valley, a green oasis of citrus and palms set amid desert cliffs of sandstone in northwestern Arabia. Here, ancient civilizations flourished from at least the Iron Age (first millennium BCE) onwards. Archaeologists working on the neighboring basalt plateau of Harrat Uwayrid have discovered tools such as hand axes made of local stone, leading Azhari Mustafa Sadig, archaeology professor at Saudi Arabia’s King Saud University, to suggest “that the plateau was occupied by hunter-gatherers as early as the Paleolithic age, more than 200,000 years ago.”
Nomadic hunter-gathering shifted into farming as people took advantage of the AlUla valley’s natural resources to settle. They began harnessing water flows within the oasis for agriculture, while continuing to herd sheep, goats, and other livestock. According to archaeologist Abdulrahman Alsuhaibani, by 2,600 years ago the oasis hosted the growth of Dadan, a “powerful capital city” with an economy fueled by farming and long-distance trade.
Ruled by a dynastic succession of kings from a power base within the AlUla valley, Dadan soon rose to prominence in the region. As Alsuhaibani confirms, the city’s centralized structure of governance was strong and stable enough to deploy resources on defense, with inscriptions testifying to the presence of “guardians” posted to Dadan’s frontiers.
Movements of people along routes of trade were bringing new commodities northwards, such aromatics including frankincense, a resin formed from the sap of a tree native to southern Arabia and the Horn of Africa. Trade of frankincense formed a huge part of Dadan’s economic success. Farmers in distant southern Arabia would harvest vast quantities of the resin for transport northwards to markets around the Mediterranean and elsewhere. They dealt with traders, who then carried the frankincense on journeys that sometimes lasted months at a time to reach Dadan, where it was transported onwards. The profits they generated—and the tolls charged by the people of Dadan—formed the bedrock of the region’s prosperity for several centuries.
With trade came new ideas, new expressions in art, and new ways of writing. Dadan developed its own writing system, based on scripts used in neighboring oases, such as Tayma and Dumah, and the alphabets of southern Arabia. Thousands of inscriptions survive here now, some formally composed dedications, others casual graffiti. Dadanitic, as the local language is known, was extraordinarily resilient, remaining in use in and around the AlUla valley for at least 500 years.
Historian Michael Macdonald has analyzed subtle differences across Dadanitic inscriptions, noting how shapes of letters vary in a way that is unusual for a script designed purely for carving into stone. Intriguingly, he says, the development of letter forms “suggests that the script was used to write in ink on materials such as papyrus or potsherds.” Archaeologists continue to hunt for examples.
It is natural to presume that the power of Dadan waxed and waned. In particular, we know about a period of conflict with Nabonidus, king of distant Babylon, who claims in the sixth century BCE to have invaded Dadan’s home region, killing its king and occupying its land.
After Nabonidus, at some point around 2,500 years ago (it isn’t known precisely when), control over Dadan shifted to the kings of the tribe of Lihyan, who ruled the region for several centuries, perhaps until the first century BCE. But the material evidence that survives suggests that Lihyanite rule perhaps didn’t greatly disrupt Dadanite culture.
In what was now the kingdom of Lihyan, men and women both owned property in their own right. Agriculture remained critical to society, enhanced by innovative developments in the control of water resources. Water was clearly used for domestic and agricultural purposes, but also appears to have played a role in rituals. A huge cylindrical basin for water hewn from a single stone, located in the heart of Dadan next to a building, was likely used for religious or other ceremonial purposes. Along with its own writing system, Dadan had its own gods and forms of worship, with sanctuaries located in mountains near the city and on the summit of Mount Umm Daraj across the valley.
The people of ancient Dadan worshipped the supreme deity Dhu Ghabat, the meaning of whose name is debated: some interpret it as “master of the grove,” others as “lord of the forest,” and some as “god of absence.” The Umm Daraj mountain sanctuary is dedicated to Dhu Ghabat, where devotees including Lihyanites, visiting traders, and Dadan’s resident trading colony of Minaeans from southern Arabia would make votive offerings with frankincense, as well as small figurines in sandstone depicting humans. Architectural elements have been discovered bearing decorative motifs of a snake, perhaps as “a protective function,” suggests historian Husayn Abu al-Hassan. Inscriptions also suggest, as Michael Macdonald notes, that “worship of Dhu Ghabat may have included the offering of the ‘first fruits’ to the deity.” Other gods worshipped in Dadan at this time include Ha-Kutbay, the goddess of writing.
Art clearly mattered to the ancient peoples of Dadan—Dadanite and Lihyanite artistry involved in carving statues is remarkable. “Where and how [did] the inhabitants acquire such mastery of the rules of sculpture—anatomical proportions, volume, perspective?” asks archaeologist Said al-Said. He believes that, although there were cultural interactions with neighboring cultures in Egypt, the Levant, Mesopotamia, and southern Arabia, it’s likely that this Dadanite skill demonstrates a cultural evolution unique to this part of Arabia.
Rock art that may date from the Dadanite or Lihyanite period includes hunting scenes, camels, ostriches, and abstract depictions of people. Archaeologists have discovered statuary at certain sites, including anthropomorphic likenesses that have been interpreted as either Dadanite gods or images of living individuals, carved to show homage and dedication to the gods.
Alongside the people of Daan's notable skills in politics, trade, science, and art, evidence suggests dedication in how they buried their dead. During the Lihyanite period, people carved tombs into the cliffs, designed for one person or for more. Also visible today, set into sandstone cliffs, are the “lion tombs,” carved tombs adjacent to one another, each of which is flanked by reliefs of lions, perhaps as divine protection for the tombs’ inhabitants.
“The kingdoms of Dadan and Lihyan played a major role during the first millennium BCE,” says Alsuhaibani, confirming the importance of a place and a period of history long overlooked. Today, excavations and investigations into the cultures of the people of Dadan continue throughout the AlUla valley, shedding new light on their artistry and ingenuity. With each new discovery, it becomes clear that the desert—once thought of as barren or empty—in truth has always hosted life. The Dadan oasis, among other oases and centers of activity in this region, exhibits human achievement and drama as rich as anywhere on our planet.
Find out more about AlUla, the wonder of Arabia, here.