The Cultural Landscape of the Central Region in the Emirate of Sharjah
Délégation Permanente des Emirats Arabes Unis auprès de l'UNESCO
The central region in the Emirate of Sharjah
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The central region of Sharjah is characterised by a chain of high outcrops located to the West of the Hajar Mountain range, at an approximate distance of 55 kilometres from both the Arabian Gulf to the West and the Gulf of Oman to the East. The chain is composed of small mountains extending in a north-south orientation for about 20 kilometres. Coming from the north through the al-Dhaid plain one encounters Mleiha, Jebel Faya, Jebel Emeilah, Jebel Aqaba and Jebel al Buhais, the latter being surrounded by the al-Madam plain and oasis at the southern end. The serial property is a cultural landscape characterised by its unique environment as a limestone range (jebels) rich in raw materials (flint inclusions) rising between the desert red dunes and the gravel plain leading to the high Hajar Mountains. The eastern slopes benefited from water catchment coming from the Hajar Mountains, thus enabling a repeated human occupation over more than 250 000 years in this area. Incessant research has allowed understanding the climatic evolution and its impact on human occupations during this same period. Five major archaeological sites, Jebel Faya (Palaeolithic), Al Buhais (Neolithic and Late Bronze Age), Jebel Emailah (Early Bronze Age), Al Tuqaibah (Iron Age) and Mleiha (Pre-Islamic), are included in this cultural landscape. Each of with has delivered exceptional discoveries that have changed the historical understanding of this region of the world. The scientific analysis of the archaeological remains acknowledges phenomena of universal importance such as the understanding of how anatomically modern humans spread out of Africa, the understanding of the particular nomadic way of life during the Neolithic and Bronze Age or the domestication of dromedary which is central in the lifestyle of desert populations still today. The features such as the raw materials in the limestone of the Jebels or the paleolakes at their foot rendered this landscape substantial for the populations during the optimum climatic periods since the Palaeolithic. This location offered first of all shelter, tools and nutrition on the long walk of anatomically modern humans out of Africa and leading to Asia. During the Neolithic and Bronze Age, semi-nomadic populations sustained a very particular link with the Jebels since they repeatedly came to Jebel Emailah and Al Buhais to bury their dead. During the dry period of the Iron Age, the occupation in Al Tuqaibah led to the development of new technologies concerning mud-brick building, water management and the domestication of the dromedary. Last of all, with the intensification of the use of the land and of trade routes linking east to west and south to north bringing with them long distance contacts, Mleiha became the capital of the kingdom of Uman, a centre of trade and power for the entire Arabian Peninsula during the Pre-Islamic times.
Justification of Outstanding Universal Value
The landscape of Central Region of Sharjah is a unique expression of repeated human occupation throughout 250’000 years of a mountainous region surrounded by harsh desert conditions. It conveys the ingenuity of the populations in adapting to changing climatic situations and exploiting the territory and resources to their advantage. This particularly well-studied area allows understanding the complex symbiosis between the environment and the populations during all periods from the Palaeolithic to the Pre-Islamic period. From the first steps of anatomically modern humans out of Africa to the rise and fall of the first Oman kingdom, this region bears a unique testimony of the history of humanity in a region linking the African continent to Asia. It is also reflecting influences and depicting interactions with the Mediterranean and Levantine spheres, and whose central role has long been undervalued. Managing this territory and its harsh climate leads to the development of strong homogeneous cultural groups who, even when defeated, were never subdued to external rule. This specific cultural feature continues to pervade the people of this region till today.
Criterion (iii): The prehistory of the Central Region in the Emirate of Sharjah reflects the evolution of a way of life in a specific environment, whose changes through millennia affected the people living there leading to the development of explicit cultural responses. The archaeological sites of the region are testimonies of a succession of different traditions that have continuously left traces in the culture and in the landscape, some of which can still recognise today. The density of the traces left by those repeated events and human actions provides an outstanding example of human adaptational behaviour and interactions with the environment through time. The environment of the jebel mountainous ecological system has repeatedly exceptionally attracted mankind from the Palaeolithic to the Pre-Islamic period (250 000 BP to 300 CE), this occupation only being interrupted by dramatic climatic conditions rendering the region inhospitable. The Arabian Peninsula is an essential link between Africa and Asia. The sites of south-eastern Arabia, and particularly the Central Region of Sharjah, testify of the importance of this location as a crossroad of cultures. This region played a crucial role in the history of humanity. The oldest testimony of human dispersal out of Africa by the southern route, dating to more than 125 000 years ago, have been found in the Central Region of Sharjah. Moreover, this region allows understanding the transition between the Pleistocene and the Holocene regarding human occupation. During the Neolithic (8500 – 3000 BCE) and the Bronze Age (3000 – 1300 BCE), the herder’s transhumant population always came back to the mountains to bury their dead, thus testifying of a sacred relationship with the jebels. Furthermore, their nomadic way of life subsequently led to the development of inter-regional contacts which lasted for millennia and characterise society until today. During the Iron Age (1300 – 300 BCE), cultural responses are put forward to the growing aridity. The desert environment contributed to the development of a society based mainly on trade and irrigated agriculture – with the well-known system of aflaj. Trade is rendered possible thanks to the link with the coastal populations and the contacts with the other inland tribes. With the controlled access to the main resources of copper and of soft stone, located in the Hajar Mountains and extracted since the Bronze Age by the same population, the Central region stands out on a supra-regional scale. After thousands of years of being at the crossroads of influences, being the witness of the incessant population and thought flows, it is not astonishing that the capital of the kingdom of Oman was founded in Mleiha, at the foothills of the multi-millenary Jebels of the Central Region of Sharjah. The cultural influence of the kingdom on the whole region was so great that Mleiha became the eponym site for the period between 300 BCE to 300 CE. The architectural remains of this political and economic centre linking the inhabitants of the Oman Peninsula to the Hellenistic, Nubian and Asian kingdoms and later to the Roman Empire are still visible in the landscape today.
Criterion (v): The succession of various human occupations and the specific land-use by the populations throughout time is a distinctive feature of the Central Region of Sharjah. In this region, the history of human interactions with the environment is clearly rendered by the development of different forms of settlements and economies, which are always related to climate change. The Arabian Peninsula, like the Alpine region, eloquently reflects global climatic changes, with alternating arid and humid periods, which strongly affected human occupation. Research on climate changes and on archaeology in this region are intimately interlinked. The analysis of specific settlement patterns related to climate have helped understanding occupational mechanisms on a global scale. Moreover, the sedimentary studies of the layers on the sites procure important data for climate research. The specificity of the jebel landscape and the combination of the desert, the gravel plain and the mountainous environments permitted a repeated occupation whose forms reflects the challenges of climate change during more 250’000 years, leading to specialised subsistence strategies of which some still exist today. On their way out of Africa, anatomically modern humans repeatedly used the caves of Jebel Faya, as a resting place and flint workshop, coming and going from the coast inland depending on the climate stages of the Later Pleistocene. The climate specificities of the Arabian Peninsula led Neolithic and Bronze Age populations to maintain a nomadic lifestyle based on occupation on the coastlines, the Hajar Mountains and the Jebel area of Central Sharjah. Land and sea resources were both complementary, but the Jebel area seems to have had a specific significance since it always attracted the populations back for symbolic and practical purposes, as illustrated by the presence of numerous graves in Jebel al Buhais and Jebel Emeilah over millennia. In continuity with the Bronze Age, the Iron Age settlement of Al Tuqaibah exemplifies a consequent and inventive adaptation to the climatic changes, illustrated by the building of the aflaj irrigation system, the development of adobe brick constructions and the domestication of the dromedary. It is the beginning of the ships of the desert. This optimisation of the desert lifestyle laid the groundwork for the emergence of Mleiha: as the capital of the Uman kingdom, it represents the outcome of these long-lasting processes. This region has been the focus of attention of continuous research since the 1970’s, allowing understanding of the influence of climatic conditions on human occupations on the Arabian Peninsula from the Palaeolithic to the Pre-Islamic periods. The archaeological sites of the property continue to be a major source of knowledge, not only for specific areas or periods but also for the understanding of human relationships with the surrounding landscape.
Statements of authenticity and/or integrity
Statement of Integrity
The property includes all the elements (attributes) expressing the Outstanding Universal Value. The chosen archaeological sites and their immediate geological surroundings represent the main features of the nomination and give life to the processes described by the attributes. They complete each other forming a whole within the cultural and natural landscape.
Environment/geology: All the sites included in the inscription of the property are located in a delimited geographical area. This natural landscape is characterised by the north-south oriented limestone hills of the Jebels and the appending water catchment zones reflecting geomorphological and past climatic processes. This specific landscape has tangible natural boundaries: the gravel plain leading to the Hajar Mountains on the eastern side and the red sand desert to the West. This virtually undisturbed area offered necessary resources that attracted intense human occupation since
Palaeolithic times, of which each site is a major feature ensuring a coherent representation of the universal value of the Property.
Climate: Incessant research on the sites of the property has allowed understanding the climatic evolution and its impact on human occupations of this area during more than 300 000 years. All the major sites have thus contributed to comprehend a small but important part of the global climate changes that still influence the desert areas of the world.
Repeated human occupation: The property includes an illustrative ensemble of archaeological sites demonstrating the density and the continuity of human occupation of the area for more than 250 000 years. The ongoing human occupation of the jebels forms a consistent whole and gives a complete overview of the development of this region and the archaeological phenomena throughout time. The density of the settlements also highlights the close relationship people maintained with the beneficial environment of the central region and their ingenuity to adapt to climatic changes.
Research: All the periods of human occupation of the Arabian Peninsula are represented in the central region of Sharjah. The sites and their direct surroundings have delivered a plethora of scientific data which have allowed defining the ways of life and the developments necessary to survive in a harsh environment due to dramatic climate changes. Nevertheless, many sites included in the region are still unexplored (ca. 60%) and are considered as an archaeological reserve with still intact scientific resources for the future.
Intactness: All the sites of the property are integral and coherent in the archaeological landscape in which they stand. All sites have been well investigated and their position in the global framework is mostly relevant for the understanding of the development of the human occupation in this privileged area. Most sites are still largely intact and even though some tombs have undergone complete research, their position in the landscape is still very evocative when it comes to their meaning.
Absence of threats: The region being under research for almost 50 years, the whole jebel range is well known for the density of its archaeological remains. The sites are thus well protected from a legal and institutional view. Development is managed to avoid the extension of human activities on the sites, such as the enlargement of the farming surfaces by the local farmers and the expansion of the nearest agglomerations (al-Madam, Mleiha). The sites are materially protected by fences or shelters and their physical condition is regularly controlled by the Sharjah Archaeological Authority.
Statement of Authenticity
The authenticity expresses the credibility and truthfulness of the attributes for the understanding of the Outstanding Universal Value. On one hand, it is based on the location itself and on its use and management on the other hand.
Form and design; materials and substance; spirit and feeling; location and setting: The environment of the property and its buffer zone provides a crucial framework for the authenticity. The dramatic landscape of the jebels has not changed much since the early Holocene. The mountain range was and still is an important landmark for the societies living in the modern Emirate of Sharjah and it conveys a very strong and unique sense of place. The few farms surrounding the jebels are still practicing traditional farming and camel breeding. The small town of Mleiha to the north and the oasis of AlMadam toward the south of the region are both outside of the property and their development are not threatening the authenticity of the sites. The geological topography, the viewing points and the visual connections between the sites are mostly unchanged since the end of the Palaeolithic notwithstanding necessary non-intrusive or occasional modern facilities. Furthermore, even though the climate has constantly changed and is still changing, the adaptation to drier climatic conditions are significant for the understanding the Outstanding Universal Value of the property.
All archaeological structures and features of the property are composed by authentic materials and conceal authentic artefacts and remains. The excavated sites have been scientifically documented. All the artefacts coming from the successive excavation campaigns have been inventoried, analysed, prepared for conservation and stored in appropriate conditions by the responsible entity (Sharjah Archaeology Authority). Some archaeological remains are still conserved underground with or without visible traces on the surface of the actual soil cover. The remains and structures still located in the landscape, such as standing or underground structures, have been conserved and preserved and some of them are now accessible for visitors. Their visibility and interconnection therefore contribute to the meaning of the values of the property. Some significant structures, such as Mleiha Fort, have undergone anastylosis in such a manner that the difference between authentic materials and modern additions are conspicuous. The materials used, such as adobe bricks, are local and the construction techniques are traditional. The reconstructions only represent shapes that are known from the results of scientific research. Based on solid knowledge, they ensure the authenticity of the concerned component parts and help to convey the meaning of the property. Along the same line, the continuous research undertaken in the central region of Sharjah since the 1970’s allows to draw up solid hypothesis regarding the development of the diverse societies who inhabited and shaped this place, thus enhancing the authenticity of the past of the region.Use and function; tradition, techniques and management systems: some of the traditions and techniques of the past societies living in the Jebel region that were highlighted through scientific research are continuously used in various areas of the Arabian Peninsula such as the traditional adobe brick production, the irrigation systems still feeding the oasis and the breeding of camels either for food or for riding. The component parts of the property are well known archaeological sites. As such, they have always been protected both legally and by the Sharjah Archaeological Authority, a competent governmental institution thus ensuring its conservation in a professional way.
Comparison with other similar properties
The archaeological landscape of the Central Region of Sharjah presents 250’000 years of repeated human occupation in a mountainous region with desert surroundings subdued to changing climate conditions, which have been particularly well studied in the area. This strategic region between two continents includes all major prehistoric and historic cultures from the Palaeolithic to the beginning of written History. It reflects the original ways of how the different populations interacted with the environment and used the land to survive and developed power and economic wealth. The Palaeolithic sites of Eastern Africa (Upper and Lower Awash Valley, Omo Valley) are perfect examples for expressing the dispersal of anatomic modern humans and are very useful for the understanding of the different routes out of Africa. They therefore confirm and complete the information offered by the site of Jebel Faya, the only proof of repeated occupation on one site in the Arabian Peninsula but cannot replace it. Also, they do not testify of occupational levels indicating the development of agriculture and urban development in the later periods as in the Central region of Sharjah. Another important UNESCO World Heritage Site for the understanding of anatomically modern human dispersal includes the sites of Nahal Me’arot / Wadi el-Mughara Caves (Tabun, Jamal, el-Wad and Skhul) in Israel, which represent more than 500’000 years of human evolution from the Middle Palaeolithic to the beginning of the Neolithic period (Natufian). These sites are important for understanding the northern route out of Africa through the Levant but are not to be compared to what may be found along the southern route through Arabia. A comparable site in the United Arab Emirates would be Al Ain (Abu Dhabi, UAE) which testifies to human occupation from the Neolithic to the Iron Age and concentrates on the oasis environment and development of the aflaj systems in the landscape. It differs from the Central region of Sharjah through its mainly current urban situation and by the fact that it is missing the Palaeolithic and Pre-Islamic urban occupations. In Saudi Arabia, the Hail Region (inscribed in 2015) presents the relation between the local prehistoric populations and the change of environment due to desertification through the unique artistic expression of rock art for over 10’000 years. If the environmental setting is comparable to the Central region of Sharjah, stratigraphic evidence of occupation during the Palaeolithic to the PreIslamic era are missing. Susa, in the Lower Zagros Mountains in Iran, contains several layers of superimposed urban settlements in a continuous succession from the late 5th millennium BCE until the 13th century CE but concentrates mainly on the Elamite, Persian and Parthian periods. The earlier Neolithic and Palaeolithic remnants are not present on this site, although they are recorded in this mountainous area. The archaeological sites of Bat, Al-Khutm and Al-Ayn as well as the Cultural Landscape of Bisya and Salut in Oman represent Bronze Age settlements and tombs similar to those of Emeilah and Al Buhais and Al Thuqaibah. The occupation of Qal’at al Bahrain, ancient port and capital of Dilmun (Bahrain), concentrates on a period after the third millennium BCE but has no earlier prehistoric evidence. The remains of the mud-brick city of Shahr-i Sokhta (Iran) bear witness to the emergence of the first complex societies during the Bronze Age between 3200 and 1800 BCE, but here again, it is a single site of one period and not a cultural landscape showing the evolution of human occupation during long periods of time. Also, the sites of Al-Hijr (Mâdain Sâlih) of the Nabatean period (1st century BCE to 1st century CE) and the Pre-Islamic City of Al-Faw (Qariah), capital of the Kingdom of Kinda, are contemporary to Mleiha (3rd century BCE to the 3rd century CE). The cultural landscape around Bam in Iran may also be compared to Mleiha since its origins can be traced back to the Achaemenid period, but its importance resides in the later periods. Earlier occupations have not been registered in the immediate surroundings. In Soudan, the Archaeological Sites of the Island of Meroe, centre of the Kushite Kingdom between the 8th century BCE to the 4th century CE, and Gebel Barkal and the Sites of the Napatan Region dating of the Napatan (900 to 270 BCE) and Meroitic (270 BCE to 350 CE) cultures, of the second kingdom of Kush, are contemporary to Mleiha and probably played a similar role, although in another cultural context linked to the development of the Nile Valley. Also, these sites do not give testimony of older occupations, as is the case in the Central Region of Sharjah. There may be other archaeological landscapes presenting a long time-span in other parts of the world (Bassari Country Cultural Landscape in Senegal; Orheuil Vecchi in Moldova; Archaeological Site at Khuduu Aral and Surrounding Cultural Landscape in Mongolia; Cold Desert Cultural Landscape of India, Cultural landscape of Ulytau (Kazakhstan), Valle Calchaquí (Argentina), etc.). But the landscape of Central Region of Sharjah cannot be compared with them because of the environmental or cultural features so particular to these far-away regions. Most World Heritage sites of the same periods that those present in the Central Region of Sharjah represent one or two chronological stages, but never all epochs, furthermore tangible. This makes the landscape of the Central Region of Sharjah one and unique.