The Rural Cultural Landscapes of Sarawat Mountains

Saudi Arabia
Date of Submission: 23/01/2023
Criteria: (ii)(iii)(v)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Makkah, Al-Baha, Asir
Ref.: 6640

Description

01

Kherfi Landscape and Historical Beehives

20°48’15.78’’N

40°45’21.03’’E

02

Zee Ain Oasis and Village

19°55’48.20’’N

41°26’32.79’’E

03

Asiri Highland Landscape: Tihan and Rabea Rufaida

18°19'30.80"N

42°20'10.84"E

04

Asiri Highland Landscape: Qura Qaradah

18°18'56.80"N

42°25'5.08"E

05

Tihama Mountain Landscape: Al-Bir Village

18°15'0.16"N

42°11'42.60"E

06

Asiri Wadi Landscape: Wadi Thah and Wadi Huswah

18°12'22.71"N

42°19'59.43"E

07

Wadi Reedah and its Fortress

18°11'47.62"N

42°23'8.21"E


A virtually unbroken escarpment, known as the Arabian Shield, runs the entire length of the peninsula along the Red Sea. The stretch from the Gulf of Aqaba to the middle of the Peninsula’s coastline, a few kilometres south of Makkah, is called the Hijaz Mountains (Al-Ḥijāz, meaning “the barrier”), the more elevated basaltic stretch southwards to the southern tip of Yemen is known as As-Sarawat (the chain in Arabic). The lower range which borders the Red Sea declines abruptly to form an extensive coastal area called Tihama.

The Sarawat Mountain Range, which rises to an altitude of over 3,000 m, plays a crucial role in the local climatic conditions. Its highest peaks retain the rainy clouds brought by the winter winds coming from the northwest and catch the tail of the southwest monsoon in the summer, resulting in a much greater precipitation rate than elsewhere in the country. The frequency of rain and the low incidence of evaporation make it a prosperous agricultural region. A series of micro-climatic zones, depending on the topography, latitude, tropical winds, altitude, and proximity to the sea, favours the growth of conifers, fruit trees, and flowers (pandanus odorifer / kadi in Arabic, jasmine, roses…) and supports a rich fauna while man-made agricultural terraces host fruit trees and cereals production.

The unique geographic characteristics and dramatic mountain setting of southwest Saudi Arabia offered a secure and defensible environment for human settlement, protected agriculture, and fortified trade halts. In Antiquity, the mountain chain stood as the passageway for the frankincense trade originating from South Arabia and directed toward Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean basin. Because of its wealth and location, the region constantly attracted hegemonic intentions since the time of the Roman Empire. In addition to the ancient trade roads, also the Yemeni hajj route passed through the Sarawat mountains. In the following centuries, the appeal of the region led to the development of a series of defensive structures offering residents some relief from local wars and external invaders. The escarpment, stretching from Jizan to Al-Baha and ending in Taif, naturally provided autonomy and protection for its inhabitants throughout the ages. In the 19th century, in response to Ottoman raids, the so-called “hanging villages” and fortresses were built, taking advantage of the most unreachable mountainous areas to give a refuge to local populations. The protection provided by the natural setting was reinforced by watchtowers and fortifications typically set up at the upper ends of the wadis.

The Rural Cultural Landscapes of Sarawat Mountains serial property sheds light on the culture that thrived in this area in synergy with the local natural conditions. The different elements of the property show how the natural environment and human communities have fruitfully and sustainably interacted and shaped each other. Over many generations, human communities, supported by the cool weather and abundance of rains, developed an impressive system of agricultural terraces — permitting the development of orchards and gardens on mountain-tops and steep valleys —, channelled water, and built tower granaries and massive stone-built beehives that shaped and left relevant traces in the landscape.

The diversity and ingenuity of vernacular architecture, mirroring the different micro-climatic areas, constitutes an additional remarkable expression of human adaptation to local environment and an important asset of the serial property. The Rural Cultural Landscapes of Sarawat Mountains are characterised by rich and multifaceted architectural traditions skilfully using the local construction materials (wood, stones, and mud) depending on locally available resources, climatic constraints, and the specific aesthetics developed by each tribal community.

The serial property also aims to portray the thriving agricultural economy and the diversity of traditional settlements developed in these mountain regions. All the sites included in the series are located along the Sarawat Mountain chain in 3 different zones: the northernmost one, in the vicinity of Taif; the second in the region of Al-Baha; the third one, composed of 5 elements, represents the diverse topographical contexts of the Asir region: landscapes and villages developed in wadis, in the mountain escarpment, and on mountain tops and highlands. All the selected cultural landscapes result from a remarkable integration of natural and man-made elements making full use of the opportunities provided by local topography and natural resources.

The seven elements of the serial property are:

Kherfi and Historical Beehives

Writers in Antiquity expressed their wonder for the beekeeping industry in the region, and Strabo, the famous Greek geographer and historian (64 BCE-24 CE), considered honey as one of the prominent products of “Arabia Felix”. Many ancient apiaries can still be found near Taif, within a preserved traditional terraced agricultural landscape. The surroundings of the abandoned village of Kherfi — located in the governorate of Maysan south of the city of Taif — include the most impressive historical beehives of the entire region. These apiaries, probably 500 years old, were built, maintained, and transmitted within the same family from one generation to the other. The ancient beehive ensemble, aligned along curved terraces cut on a steep mountain side, has preserved its remarkable design mimicking the facades of high-rise buildings and evoking modern architecture. It could host 1,300 beehives heaped on different levels and is built of solid stones with stone columns supporting the weight of the upper floors. The ancient apiaries stand within a preserved cultural landscape that also includes agricultural terraces, defensive elements (20 m-high stone fortress overlooking and protecting the apiaries), areas dedicated to livestock, and the ruins of the village of Kherfi. This ensemble bears witness of an ancient, large-scale, and innovative honey production tradition that pre-dates the beginning of modern beekeeping.

Zee Ain Oasis and Village

Located some 24 km from Al-Baha, the village of Zee Ain is built on the summit of a white stony mountain outcrop, surrounded by a luxuriant wadi oasis. Watered by a permanent water source (‘ain in Arabic, hence the name of the village), it is renowned to produce banana, lemon, pepper, basil, and kadi flowers. The oasis and the settlement form a preserved ensemble intimately connected to the topography and hydrology of Al-Baha mountain region. The village of Zee Ain — offering picturesque views towards the surrounding plantations, orchards, and gardens — includes 49 dwellings and a small mosque and typifies a regional tradition dating back to the end of the 17th century with its stone houses forming a densely knitted defensive stronghold. Built with a polished local limestone with very thick load bearing walls (up to 90 cm), houses range from two to four levels; their ceilings and roofs are supported by wood beams. The lower floors are used for reception and living, the upper floors for sleeping. The solid and regular shape of the houses, their plain and polished stone façade with few openings, and the overall architectural homogeneity give the village a specific identity and appearance.

Asir Highland Landscape: Tihan and Rabea Rufaida

Tihan and Rabea Rufaida zone, located on the Asiri plateau, constitutes a remarkable example of traditional Asir highland landscape. Characterised by low, smoothly terraced fields and crossed by a multitude of wadis, the area is controlled by Borj Tihan, a tower located on the south of the zone strategically overwatching the agricultural plateau and the descent to the escarpment. The most significant and better-preserved village is Zabnah, 12 km north of Borj Tihan. It is crossed by two or three narrow alleys and is provided with gates. Zabnah presents a mix of architectural styles and boasts an ancient mosque, castles, ancient yards, and traditional housing.

Asir Highland Landscape: Qura Qaradah

Qura Qaradah is located on the plateau of the Asir. The main historic villages and hamlets are located on the right bank of the wadi, with the low agricultural terraces on the left bank. Cultivated terraces follow the path of the wadi benefitting from the rainfall. The largest and the most important village sits on a low promontory at the confluence of two wadis. A series of round watchtowers, forming a defensive chain overlooking the settlement, stands on both sides of the wadi, with the two main watchtowers laying upstream and downstream. The architecture of the area presents a mix of styles with both stone tower-houses and mud tower-houses with protruding slates. Ancient stone walls, defining the limits of the ensemble, still stretch over the landscape.

Escarpment Landscape: Al-Bir Village

The landscape of the isolated mountains of the Tihama is characterised by a very steep topography. It presents a series of hamlets spread over a small area: the biggest village generally stands just below the mountain top, while secondary hamlets lie downstream. In between, the mountainsides are extensively terraced to allow agricultural activities. Characterised by their massive un-plastered stone houses, historic villages present an elongated shape adapting to the steep landscape and are usually endowed with a granary defensive structure in their centres. The area of Al-Bir village, some 30 km west of Abha, includes Al-Dhafeer, the main settlement surrounded by several hamlets and terraces, that displays a rich preserved architectural vernacular heritage typical of this region, and notably a four-story large tower serving as a granary, a mosque, and 2-3 level houses compactly built next to each other. The agricultural terraces, though mostly no longer cultivated, still define the landscape, and animal husbandry is still widely practiced. Hamlets are typically surrounded by pedestrian paths with no pathways crossing the built fabric.

Asir Wadi Landscape: Wadi Thah and Wadi Huswah

The two adjacent wadis cover an approximate surface of 2,000 hectares. The large stone-built settlements, spread over the valleys, exemplify the “Tihama wadi landscape” of the Asir region and played a role as regional marketplaces. Wadi Thah and Wadi Huswah traditionally produced coffee, millet, tobacco, and honey. Both wadis have a historic village, acting as a defensive gate, setting on the top of a rocky cliff at the entrance of the valley. Watchtowers and granaries are spread throughout the two valleys. The villages are well preserved and are surrounded by pedestrian paths. Al-Rhoob, the main village of Wadi Huswah, presents an interesting traditional architecture composed of 2-3 floors stone houses, and an old mosque bearing an ancient inscription. In Wadi Thah, the two largest hamlets hosted no more than 50-60 people and belonged to notable families. Located one in front of the other, each possesses its own whitewashed mosque (one of them presents a double qibla facing Makkah and Jerusalem respectively). Houses are closely connected for both structural and defensive purposes. In the centre of Wadi Thah is located the ancient residence of the village tribal leader, that presents different architectural features more similar to the Asir highlands houses. The presence of an ancient beehive, near Al-Rouwyay, constitutes another relevant element of the local heritage, which displays an apiary tradition that is clearly distinct from the Kherfi beehives.

Wadi Reedah and its Fortress

The Asir region also counts another type of cultural landscape that reflects the feudal structure of the traditional tribal society: military clusters connected by historic trails deployed around fortresses built for defensive purposes by notable families or rulers. Wadi Reedah hosts a vast castle built in the mid of the 19th century to counter Ottoman attacks. This imposing architectural structure is surrounded by two large square watchtowers, located upstream, and by some smaller structures to host troops, laying downstream. The castle originally had four major towers and a defensive wall flanked by small round towers in the corners and used to be entirely plastered. The walls of the towers were extensively decorated with geometric patterns.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The Rural Cultural Landscapes of Sarawat Mountains property is proposed as a serial cultural landscape illustrating “the evolution of human society and settlement over time, under the influence of the physical constraints and/or opportunities presented by their natural environment and of successive social, economic and cultural forces, both external and internal.” According to UNESCO’s categories, they are organically evolved landscapes”.

The seven proposed areas belong to the same cultural and geographical Sarawat mountain spine. They share similar cultural characteristics and patterns of interaction with the landscape but represent multiple vernacular architectural traditions “developed by association with and in response to the natural environment”.

The mountain region covers approximately 100,000 km2 and benefits from the highest average rainfall of Saudi Arabia. Southwest Arabian mountains are among Arabia’s richest agricultural regions, with a diverse production ranging from cereals grown into large, terraced fields, to fruits and vegetables produced in smaller terraces and orchards, animal husbandry, and horticulture. This rural region, differently from nearby Yemen, never developed large urban centres and strong centralised political powers. The dominating tribal system was agriculture-oriented and based on a network of small-scale settlements — hamlets and fortified villages — closely interacting with and depending on their natural environment. Traditionally, local tribal self-government enabled a sustainable management of natural resources. The southwestern mountain region provides one of the best examples of the hima indigenous system of resource tenure. Practiced for more than 1,400 years in the Arabian Peninsula, al-hima, (literally “protected place”) consists of a piece of land (woodlands, grazing lands, flower reserves for beekeeping) set aside cyclically by the community to allow regeneration. Nearly every village in the southwestern mountains of the Saudi Arabia was associated with one or more hima-s governed according to customary management practices by and for a particular village, clan, or tribe. Despite the extensive changes that occurred through the 20th century, Saudi Arabia still counts a few dozen hima-s, most of which are in the Asir region.

For centuries, tribal communities and their leaders ruled over this mountain territory edifying villages, and progressively shaping the landscape into its present form. The region is characterised by the traditional villages, mostly dating from the 18th to 19th centuries, by vestiges relating to the agricultural life, like the stone granaries which dot the mountain valleys, and by a series of defensive constructions such as fortresses, gates, watchtowers, positioned as the entrance of the wadis, and fortified houses or villages. These distinct cultural landscapes, that include a rich corpus of built elements offer an overview of a settled tribal society that was able to preserve its identity and resist outsiders, notably the Ottomans, taking advantage of the local topography before peacefully integrating the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the 20th century.

The many villages included in the serial property, remarkably adapted to local environmental conditions, reflect the agricultural economy of the region. Animal husbandry constituted another important activity favoured by the climate of the region: herds spent most of summertime in the highlands and descended to the pastures of the hilly valleys in winter. These agricultural practices are reflected in the vernacular architecture of the region which commonly dedicates to livestock sheltering the ground floor of the traditional tower-houses.

The seriality of the property offers a complete representation of the richness of the Sarawat mountain chain architecture and of its aesthetics: in Al-Baha region, the openings, usually small for defensive reasons, are often framed by a decorative motif made of local white stone (called marrow) and wooden construction elements commonly present elaborate decorative carvings; the village of Zee Ain presents stone-built houses that shine under the sun and evoke fortress architecture; the stone-built and mud-built tower houses of the Asir region show unique technical solutions designed to adapt to the local climatic conditions and limit the erosion of the mud from rain (raqaf technique); while the forts, stone granaries, and isolated defensive towers prove the local mastery of stone masonry. All over the region, traditional constructions reflect the unique identity of this area shaped by a rural way of life, a tribal and feudal social fabric, and a typical and deeply rooted craftsmanship. The traditional interior decoration — inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2017 (Al-Qatt al-Asiri, female traditional interior wall decoration in Asir) — participates to the exceptionality of local architecture and is represented in serial property by multiple examples and a diversity of practices.

The large-scale terracing typical of The Rural Cultural Landscapes of Sarawat Mountains represents the tangible evidence of the continuous human effort to transform the naturally steep mountain profile into agricultural fields. Terrace-making probably originated already in the 4th millennium BCE and is frequently found in most regions of the world. This technique permits not only to increase land surface and to improve the practicability of a steep environment, but also improves the irrigation of terraced fields retaining runoff rainwater and upgrading soil’s moisture. Irrigation terracing progressively transformed the landscape of Southwestern Arabia since the Bronze Age and allowed the agricultural prosperity of this region that sustained local communities and produced agricultural surplus traded with neighbouring regions.

The elements of the serial property include different typologies of agricultural terraced landscapes adapted to the complex topography of the area, creating specific and distinct cultural landscapes within the southwestern mountains’ region. They illustrate the impact of terraces within different natural contexts: in the rather flat valleys of the highlands (Tihan & Rabea Rufaida); in the smoothly sloping fields along wadis (Qura Qaradah and Wadi Thah & Huswah); but also, in steep environments like in Al-Bir or in Kherfi, where the beehives complex reflects a different functional use of terraces, not intended only for cultivation, but also for space optimisation and accessibility in the context of apiculture activities. The components of the property display a variety of terracing and irrigation works within different geographical contexts: in Wadi Huswah integrated water channels supply the terraced fields, and the lower terraces are dotted with water wells; in Zee Ain irrigation is secured by a perennial spring and the storage of rainwater in birkat-s and the orchard development is achieved in synergy with forestry.

Honey harvesting is a traditional component of the regional agricultural production. The impressive scale of this production in the past is illustrated in the series by the Kherfi beehives, and by the ancient apiary near Al-Rouwyay in Wadi Thah displaying different designs and construction techniques. The beehives of Kherfi, isolated on a mountainside, are the largest and most architecturally significant in the region. Their monumental scale proves the relevance of honey production, while their position and surrounding defensive elements underline the imperative of securing production facilities.

If the iconic honey production in The Rural Cultural Landscapes of Sarawat Mountains participates in the reputation of the ancient Arabia Felix, another regional production, coffee, had a major global impact since the 16th century. Coffee beans, originally native from Ethiopia, are one of the most important traditional products of the region and an essential element of Arabian intangible culture. The so-called “coffee road”, that stretches on southwestern Arabian mountains across present-day Yemen and Saudi Arabia, favoured its transportation to the Red Sea harbours and introduced Arabic coffee to the world. Coffee is still produced in the region and small-scale producers grow, toast, and sell coffee to the regional and national market and to visitors. Plans for the revitalisation and upgrading of this production are being developed by the Saudi government. The rich horticulture practices in The Rural Cultural Landscapes of Sarawat Mountains are integrated into large-scale trade exchanges. Apiculture, coffee cultivation, and horticulture are associated to both tangible and intangible elements, and linked to multiple cultural traditions and rituals.

The Rural Cultural Landscapes of Sarawat Mountains property sheds light on the specificity of this region where the landscapes result not only from the specific environmental conditions (abundant rains and high mountain setting) but also from the constant activity of men and women who progressively modified the natural environment to develop agricultural production, while creating unique and multiple cultural and architectural traditions.

Though isolated and secluded, this mountain region was also part of a larger ancient traditional commercial network, producing and exporting high-quality agricultural products, and was connected to the rest of the Peninsula by traditional trade and pilgrimage routes. Its cultural richness and specificity — represented by the 7 elements of the serial property — results therefore from the fertile interplay of external and endogenous elements, from the creative interaction between large-scale cultural influences (Islam, Arab culture, Ottoman empire, etc.) and local tribal practices and traditions.

The complex topography and the specific historic and political context that left the region out of the direct reach of capital cities favoured the creation of multiple cultural and architectural traditions driven by a social fabric based on tribal belonging.

Criterion (ii): Favourable geographic and climatic conditions permitted the development of a sustainable agricultural economy along the southwest Arabian mountain spine, fostered by the rich cultural exchanges and the movement of people. The common civilisational history, the traditional commercial trade routes, and the Yemeni pilgrimage road to Makkah created a south-Arabian civilisational area along the Sarawat Mountains. Its traditional agrotechnology (terraced landscapes, artificial beehives, and floral industry…), ingenious vernacular architecture, and outstanding defensive system developed through mutually nurturing exchanges across the region. The Rural Cultural Landscapes of Sarawat Mountains outstanding specificity results from a creative reinterpretation of broader regional inputs and influences.

Criterion (iii): The Rural Cultural Landscapes of Sarawat Mountains, a precious food security enabler and a strategic “corridor” favouring commercial interchanges, became both a defensive bastion and an isolated refuge hosting a specific tribal culture, distinct from other regions of the Arabian Peninsula. Out of the reach of strong administrative and military power centres, the rural villages of the Sarawat Mountains are characterised by their defensive elements. Their remote location and compact urban plans, the tower-houses, the watchtowers, and the edification of imposing fortresses offer an exceptional testimony of the tribal and feudal civilisation that has been able to preserve its peculiar and unique identity, shaped by its tribal social fabric, until today. The agricultural and sedentary lifestyle constitutes the cornerstone of this living cultural identity reflected by local community’s agricultural expertise and traditional resources management systems, and by the multifaceted architectural tradition and interior design aesthetics embodying their sedentarism.

Criterion (v): The diversity of landscapes along the southwestern Arabian spine, ranging from the wadi-s and steep mountains of the Tihama escarpment, to the flat valleys on the highlands, resulted in a mosaic of outstanding and ingenious locally adapted traditional settlements. The seven sites forming the serial property of The Rural Cultural Landscapes of Sarawat Mountains host multiple vestiges of preserved traditional agricultural features and vernacular architecture illustrating a remarkable nature-culture interaction that resulted in a unique aesthetics proper to the region. Agricultural terraces and scattered villages progressively converted to agricultural use large sections of a naturally steep and uneasily cultivable territory. The terraces are a remarkable expression of the local tribes’ mastery of the watershed ecology and terrace engineering, and are part of a larger traditional farming system that includes also hydraulic systems (birkat-s, water channels and wells), apiculture, and pastoralism, as well as seasonal rests allowing the land to regenerate itself, successfully ensured by the al-hima community land tenure. Sarawat Mountains land occupation patterns and vernacular architecture typify the ingenious use of local topography, and the ability of its residents to envisage ad hoc solutions based on the creative use of the available resources to respond to local environmental constraints.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Authenticity

The Rural Cultural Landscapes of Sarawat Mountains foremost cultural value lies in the testimony it delivers of an exceptional and specific living culture. The attributes embodying this value include the remarkably ingenious vernacular architecture, the defensive vestiges bearing witness of the protection imperative, the interior and decorative design aesthetics, as well as the diverse agricultural practices show a high degree of authenticity.

The second essential cultural value of this serial property is the quality of the interaction between local communities and their natural environment expressed by the diversity of agricultural, landscaping, and architectural practices that developed in The Rural Cultural Landscapes of Sarawat Mountains. The inclusion of 7 distinct areas along the spine of the mountain chain offers a fair representation of the diverse forms of adaptation to the local environment typical of this area.

The cultural attributes forming these cultural landscapes are very diverse: town planning and architectural elements (limitation of urban sprawl on arable land, hanging villages, tower-houses in stone and in mudbrick, raqaf  technique…); typological variety of rural settlements and agro-heritage elements (villages, granaries, beehives, terraces, orchards…); defensive architectural elements (watchtowers, fortresses); setting of villages within the mountain context (steep mountains, wadis, highlands…) and pathways connecting the villages; and water management as a cultural legacy (terraces, channels, reservoirs, wells).

In the 7 selected areas composing the serial property — differently from other parts of the region that have witnessed a rapid development in the past decades — the attributes of the property show a remarkable state of preservation and have been mostly left untouched. Many terraces are still in use and participate to perpetuate the agricultural living tradition of the area, even though some are no longer cultivated. The cultural continuity of traditional agricultural practices and production within the serial property — honey still stands as a landmark regional specialty — contributes to its authenticity.

The relevance and richness of local intangible culture is apparent in the unique local craftsmanship, social practices, and agricultural productions that contribute to forge a specific local identity celebrated in traditional festive events underlining local community’s pride and attachment to ancestral traditions.

Integrity

The property is composed of 7 complementary territorial ensembles that jointly materialise the narrative of the mountain spine as the cradle of a rich and diversified culture based on a tribal social fabric and an agricultural economy. Its multiple tangible elements (beehives, orchards, terraces, fortified villages, best-preserved examples of typical vernacular architecture…), and the selection of diverse geographical settings of the mountain range (escarpment, highlands, wadi valleys), include all the elements necessary to express the potential Outstanding Universal Value of this serial property. The 7 selected zones are of an adequate size to ensure a complete representation of the features and processes which convey the significance of The Rural Cultural Landscapes of Sarawat Mountains. They notably include a sufficient number of elements illustrating the variety and richness of the agricultural tradition within the serial property.

The elements of the property are mostly located in relatively remote places and did not suffer either from adverse effects of recent development, or of neglect. Only the site of Zee Ain (village and orchards) is in the vicinity of a modern city, but its inscription on the 2015 Saudi Tentative List and the architectural conservation works carried out by the Saudi authorities have ensured a satisfactory level of preservation. The site of Kherfi can only be reached on foot and its integrity is guaranteed by its isolation. The 5 elements in the Asir region are among the best-preserved ensembles of historic villages and agricultural terraces of this region. The historic castle of Wadi Reedah displays a good level of conservation, strengthened by the integrity of the surrounding landscape that includes watchtowers and historical paths materialising the ancient defensive landscape.

Comparison with other similar properties

The potential Outstanding Universal Value of The Rural Cultural Landscapes of Sarawat Mountains serial property is based on three main components: 1st) the diverse agricultural practices aiming to increase productivity in the mountain region, and the distinctive agricultural products (honey, flowers, coffee…), materialized by terracing, orchards, hydraulic systems and beehives; 2nd) the rich vernacular architecture organically integrated into a breath-taking natural environment, which creatively adapted to local climatic conditions making a skilful use of available materials and developing innovative techniques and a specific aesthetics; 3rd) and the defensive culture, attested by the prevalence of fortified structure, watchtowers and gates, always carefully positioned in the landscape to make the best use of the local topography. All these elements participate to shape a series of distinct, but closely connected, cultural landscapes.

The comparative analysis addresses different aspects of the property to underline similarities and differences with existing World Heritage properties and relevant cultural landscapes in the larger region and beyond.

A first set of comparisons can be drawn with other historic settlements set in mountainous landscapes that bear witness of traditional rural cultures.

Palestine: Land of Olives and Vines – Cultural Landscape of Southern Jerusalem, Battir (Palestine, 2014, criteria iv, v): The Battir hilly landscape is located a few kilometres south-west of Jerusalem and comprises a series of farmed valleys, known as widian, with characteristic stone terraces, some of which are irrigated for market garden production, while others are dry and planted with grapevines and olive trees. A network of irrigation channels fed by underground sources ensured an egalitarian distribution between families from the nearby village of Battir.

The Historical Village of Abyaneh (Iran, Tentative List 2007, criteria ii, iii, iv): The Village of Abyaneh, located 2,235 m above sea level, is a historical village that contains elements dating from the Sassanid period to the present time and three castles built during the rebel periods to preserve the security of the villagers. Abyaneh thrived on agriculture (including orchards and terraces) and raising cattle. To counter the lack of space offered by the steep mountain slopes, the villagers created cave-like warehouses used for livestock and storage. It also displays rich intangible cultural elements.

Cultural Landscape of Hawraman/Uramanat (Iran, 2021, criteria iii, v): The remote and mountainous landscape of Hawraman/Uramanat bears testimony to the traditional culture of the Hawrami people, an agro-pastoral Kurdish tribe that has inhabited the region since 3000 BCE. Human habitation has been adapted over millennia to the rough mountainous environment. Tiered steep-slope planning and architecture, gardening on dry-stone terraces, livestock breeding, and seasonal migration are the distinctive features of the local culture of the semi-nomadic Hawrami people who dwell in lowlands and highlands during different seasons of the year.

The Rural Cultural Landscapes of Sarawat Mountains share many characteristics with these three properties as they similarly illustrate outstanding examples of mountainous traditional settlements adapted to the local environment. However, Battir is located in the direct outskirts of Jerusalem and maintained close relations with the city and with major regional capitals. Far from an isolated refuge Battir was in the direct sphere of influence — and protection — of urban centres.

Abyaneh village and the Hawraman villages provide a different narrative. They were historical refuges of ethnic and religious minorities defended by castles, and they deliver fascinating narratives on adaptation to the environment. Abyaneh settlers developed terraces both for the edification of the village and the fields, and created caves to increase space availability, while the inhabitants of Hawraman seasonally moved from lowlands to highlands. They were important agricultural areas, however these sites were mostly led by subsistence economy, while The Rural Cultural Landscapes of Sarawat Mountains serial site was part of a larger trading context and exported part of its production beyond the mountain region. 

A second set of comparison refers to vernacular architectural traditions in the Arab region:

M’Zab Valley (Algeria, 1982, criteria ii, iii, v): A traditional human habitat, created in the 10th century by the Ibadites around five ksour (fortified cities), has been preserved intact in the M’Zab valley. Simple, functional, and perfectly adapted to the environment, the architecture of M’Zab was designed for community living, while respecting the structure of the family.

Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou (Morocco, 1987, criteria iv, v): The ksar, a group of earthen buildings surrounded by high walls, is a traditional pre-Saharan habitat. The houses crowd together within defensive walls reinforced by corner towers. Ait-Ben-Haddou, in Ouarzazate province, is a striking example of the architecture of southern Morocco.

Like the villages and built elements of The Rural Cultural Landscapes of Sarawat Mountains, these two properties shed light on vernacular architectural traditions developed by local communities to adapt to specific geoclimatic conditions using available resources. These settlements display important fortification elements like the serial property villages, but they belong to a different architectural tradition and to different geographical and historical contexts.

A third set of comparison relates to Southwest Arabian sites in the World Heritage List, rooted within the same geo-cultural sphere:

Historic Town of Zabid (Yemen, 1993, criteria ii, iv, vi): Zabid's domestic and military architecture and its urban plan make it an outstanding archaeological and historical site. Besides being the capital of Yemen from the 13th to the 15th century, the city played an important role in the Arab and Muslim world for many centuries because of its Islamic university.

Old City of Sana’a (Yemen, 1986, criteria iv, v, vi): Situated in a mountain valley at an altitude of 2,200 m, Sana’a has been inhabited for more than 2,500 years. In the 7th and 8th centuries, the city became a major centre for the propagation of Islam. This religious and political heritage can be seen in the 103 mosques, 14 hammams and over 6,000 houses, all built before the 11th century. Sana’a’s many-storeyed tower-houses built of rammed earth (pisé) add to the beauty of the site.

Sites in the Yemen Tentative List (Yemen, 2002): Many properties included in the 2002 Yemeni Tentative List refer to historic villages/towns, cultural landscapes, and mixed properties with relevant cultural landscape components. These sites (Jabal Bura, Jabal Haraz, Jibla and its Surroundings) materialise the long and unique history of Yemen, and its unique natural features, and underline the links between human historic settlements and their surroundings. Most of these sites, located in present-day Yemen, are ancient royal capitals: Sana’a was a major urban centre since the 7th century, Jibla was founded by Queen Arwa in the 11th century; and Zabid was the capital of Yemen from the 13th to the 15th centuries. They are older than most villages of the Asir Mountains and were urban centres with aqueducts, royal palaces, etc. The Jabal Haraz, which includes several mountain fortified villages and terraced agricultural landscapes, and the Jabal Bura mixed site present strong similarities with The Rural Cultural Landscapes of Sarawat Mountains property, however they are not serial sites and therefore do not include multiple architectural traditions as the Saudi proposed site. Jabal Bura, on the other hand, is a mixed property with relevant natural components.

A fourth set of comparisons can be drawn with sites inscribed as Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This new program, created in 2002, aims to identify, support, and safeguard globally important agricultural heritage systems. GIAHS sites are not living museums, but places where people practise “dynamic conservation". They retain the best of the past to build a sustainable future and they might include World Heritage properties. GIAHS distinguish agricultural systems that 1st) contribute to the local community’s food and livelihood security; 2nd) are endowed with agrobiodiversity, genetic diversity and relevant practices/knowledge contributing to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity for agriculture, fisheries, forestry, and livestock practices; 3rd) mobilize local and traditional knowledge, ingenious adaptive technologies, and management systems for natural resources; 4th) are connected to cultural identity and sense of place and fair and resilient social organization; 5th) constitutes stabilized seascapes or landscapes resulting from interaction between human and the environment.

Hanging gardens from Djebba El Olia (Tunisia, GIAHS since 2020): Perched on the heights of Mount el Gorrâa, the gardens of Djebba el Olia form a unique agroforestry system which articulates fig tree cultivation and extensive livestock farming. At an altitude of 600 m, the communities have shaped this mountain landscape integrating agriculture in terraces derived from natural geological formations or built of dry stone. Backed by an efficient irrigation system, the hanging gardens of Djebba El Olia offer many food resources to its owners.

Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras / The Ifugao Rice Terraces (Philippines, 1995, criteria iii, iv, v, and GIAHS): The fruit of knowledge handed down from one generation to the next, and the expression of sacred traditions and a delicate social balance, the Ifugao rice terraces create a landscape of great beauty that expresses the harmony between humankind and the environment. They are an outstanding example of an evolved, living cultural landscape product of the Ifugao ethnic group. They also constitute a 2000-year-old remarkable agricultural farming system of organic paddy farming, a manifestation of strong culture-nature connections and marvellous engineering systems to maximise use of the mountainous lands for food production.

The Rural Cultural Landscapes of Sarawat Mountains meet several of the criteria identified for GIAHS, notably the criteria i, iii, iv and v, even though, despite the continuity of agricultural activities in Zee Ain and the ongoing honey production in the mountain region, the agricultural heritage systems of some elements of the series have fallen into disuse. The approaches proposed for the management and preservation of the Ifugao terraces in the Philippines are an important reference for the future of the serial property sites that are similarly threatened by the modernization and transformation of local communities.

A last set of comparisons refers to the formal structure of The Rural Cultural Landscapes of Sarawat Mountains that is a serial Cultural Landscape property composed of 7 independent sites belonging to a common cultural area, and a larger geographic territory, but representing different regional interactions between nature and man. Jointly, the seven sites constitute a coherent ensemble that declined into distinctive “cultural landscapes” represented by each element. Only a few World Heritage Cultural Landscapes present a similar structure. Among these a relevant comparison can be made with the following sites:

The Cultural Landscape of Ancient Villages in Northern Syria (Syria, 2011, criteria iii, iv, v): Eight parks situated in north-western Syria, including some 40 villages, provide remarkable testimony to rural life in late Antiquity and during the Byzantine period. Abandoned in the 8th to 10th centuries, the ancient villages feature a remarkably well-preserved landscape and the architectural remains of dwellings, pagan temples, churches, cisterns, bathhouses etc. Vestiges illustrating hydraulic techniques, protective walls and Roman agricultural plot plans offer additional testimony to the inhabitants' mastery of agricultural production.

Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape (United Kingdom, 2006, criteria ii, iii, iv): The landscape of Cornwall and West Devon was transformed in the 18th and early 19th centuries as a result of the rapid growth of pioneering copper and tin mining. Its deep underground mines, engine houses, foundries, new towns, smallholdings, ports and harbours, and ancillary industries together reflect prolific innovation which, in the early 19th century, enabled the region to produce two thirds of the world’s supply of copper. The property is composed of ten areas that together form a unified, coherent cultural landscape and share a common identity as part of the overall exploitation of metalliferous minerals.

This set of comparisons highlights the contribution of distinct, non-contiguous areas with specific cultural and natural characteristics in the creation of coherent cultural landscapes illustrating the interaction between man and nature, strengthening, and confirming the formal approach proposed by The Rural Cultural Landscapes of Sarawat Mountains serial property.

The ensemble of the comparisons presented above confirm the specific interest of this property and the original contribution it can bring to the World Heritage List with its distinct and multiple agricultural productions, its rich vernacular architecture, and its cultural landscapes — building on a fertile mountain natural environment close to vast deserts — consolidating over time the expression of a particular regional civilisation.