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The Jordanian ḥarrah

Date of Submission: 08/08/2019
Criteria: (iii)(v)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Mafraq Governorate
Coordinates: N32 25 27.8 E37 19 47.3
Ref.: 6425

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Al- ḥarrah, or basalt desert, stretches from southern Syria across north-eastern Jordan into northern Saudi Arabia. Much of this area consists of broken-up lava flows which cover the desert floor with millions of basalt stones and boulders. As a result of the chemicals in the basalt interacting with those in the atmosphere the exposed parts of these rocks are covered with a thin patina (or “desert varnish”) which over millions of years has produced a shiny black surface. If this surface is pierced, the resulting mark shows the natural pumice-grey colour of the rock beneath, which looks almost white against the surrounding black. Over the millennia, this mark gradually patinates back to the black of its surroundings, at a speed dependant on the depth and width of the mark and the degree of exposure it suffers.

Al- ḥarrah is full of vast number of Safaitic inscriptions, graffiti carved by ancient nomads roughly between the 1st century BC and the 4th century AD. There are also thousands of rock drawings of wild and domestic animals, entertainments, battles, and hunts, which date back from prehistory to the present day, as well as early Islamic and modern inscriptions and rock-art.

These inscriptions show that the authors were aware of events beyond the desert. Herod the Great and his successors appear to be mentioned several times, as are (unspecified) Roman emperors and at least one Nabataean King. Their distribution and content show that they were written almost exclusively by nomads, and the majority consists of the author’s name and between one and 17 generations of his genealogy, significant number also contain statements describing his actions or emotions, or events of which he was aware. Many also contains prayers to a variety of deities, and a considerable number refer to adjacent rock-drawings.

This was the only period in which literacy has been wide spread among the nomads of the Syro-Arabian desert, where inscriptions documented were written by men, women and slaves, and these texts (and most of the Thamudic graffiti) are therefore the only surviving first-hand records of their ways-of-life, before the pre-Islamic poetry. They are thus of considerable importance since they contain historical, linguistic and palaeo-ethnographic information which is not available from any other source.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Al- ḥarrah is vastly rich with Safaitic as well as early Islamic and modern inscriptions and rock-art that are a unique testimony to the civilizations that once lived in this arid area, in addition, the geological history manifested in the millions of basalt stones and boulders add a layer of natural importance to the site.

People in this area had been carving inscriptions and rock- drawings for ages. The difference at this period -the last few centuries BC and the first few centuries AD- was that, for the only time in their history, the nomads of this region were able to read and write, a skill which they practised with great enthusiasm on the rocks with which the desert was so conveniently supplied. This means that for the first time, they were able to “sign” their drawings and often identify the subjects.

There are scores of thousands of these inscriptions and rock-arts in Al- ḥarrah, which given the relatively small numbers of people these area of desert could support at any one time, suggest very widespread literacy among both men and women in the nomadic population. This provide a rich body of indigenous first hand evidence for the ways of life, social structure, religious beliefs and languages of these nomads and their relations with settled states such as the Nabataeans and the Romans, which is not available from any other source.

These inscriptions and rock-arts by nomads are therefore extremely important for understanding our history and the nomadic societies from their perspective; unlike societies residing in cities and settlements, these inscriptions and rock-art gives an overview of the Bedouins lifestyle, their social structure, and the economic system they used, this information are otherwise known from the writings of outsiders.

Criterion (iii): The inscriptions, whether Ancient North Arabian inscriptions (Thamudic and Safaitic) Nabataean, Palmarian, Greek, or early Islamic all present an exceptional testimony to the societies and tribes who lived in the area from their perspective; their lifestyle, their social structure, and the economic system they used.

The site is also a testimony to the continuity of the cultural tradition of inscription on basalt, where the oldest inscriptions found were from the Third Century BC and the newest inscriptions documented are from the 2019.

Criterion (v): The inscriptions and rock-art at the site are an outstanding example of how nomads used to document their social life and events happening to them. The inscriptions and rock-art also recount how the nomads interacted with their desert environment.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The main attributes or features that convey the site’s outstanding value, which are the inscriptions and rock-arts and its natural landscape, are intact in their original setting and largely unaltered. The authenticity is also truthfully expressed through the materials and substance, traditions and techniques used, and the location and setting of the inscriptions and rock-art.

In addition, more than 70.000 inscriptions and rock-art have been documented so far with the exact geographic information, which constitute an immense added value to the site, indicating that all elements and attributes necessary to express the site’s Outstanding Universal Value exist in the site.

Researches believe there are more than 100,000 inscriptions and rock-art not yet documented and to be documented in the future.

Comparison with other similar properties

Wadi Rum - Jordan

Inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2011, Wadi Rum Protected has a special status among comparable areas; where petroglyphs, inscriptions and archaeological remains testify to 12,000 years of human occupation and interaction with the natural environment, illustrating the evolution of pastoral, agricultural and urban human activities in the Arabian Peninsula and the environmental history of the region, however, what really distinguishes Al- ḥarrah is that the inscriptions and rock art found in Al- ḥarrah testify to the nomadic life from a different time period, which is the 1st century BC and the 4th century AD. In addition, the natural landscape in Al- ḥarrah consists of broken-up lava flows which cover the desert floor with millions of basalt stones and boulders used in inscriptions and rock art, contrary to Wadi rum where inscriptions were made on sandstone, which required different techniques.

The Rock Art in the Hail Region of Saudi Arabia

The World Heritage site “The Rock Art in the Hail Region of Saudi Arabia” is where the rock art testifies to 10,000 years of human history within a valley with flowing water, which represents a different time period to Al- ḥarrah as well. The inscriptions in the Hail Region were made on sandstone.

Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape - Azerbaijan

The World Heritage Site covers three areas of a plateau of rocky boulders rising out of the semi-desert of central Azerbaijan, with an outstanding collection of more than 6,000 rock engravings bearing testimony to 40,000 years of rock art. The site also features the remains of inhabited caves, settlements and burials, all reflecting an intensive human use by the inhabitants of the area during the wet period that followed the last Ice Age, from the Upper Palaeolithic to the Middle Ages. The site, which covers an area of 537 ha, is part of the larger protected Gobustan Reservation.

Tassili n'Ajjer – Algeria

The World Heritage site is located in a strange lunar landscape of great geological interest, this site more than 15,000 drawings and engravings record the climatic changes, the animal migrations and the evolution of human life on the edge of the Sahara from 6000 BC to the first centuries of the present era.

Twyfelfontein or /Ui-//aes - Namibia

The World Heritage site has one of the largest concentrations petroglyphs in Africa. Most of these well-preserved engravings represent rhinoceros. The site also includes six painted elephant, ostrich and giraffe, as well as drawings of human and animal foot printed rock shelters with motifs of human figures in red ochre. The objects excavated from two sections, date from the Late Stone Age. The site forms a coherent, extensive and high-quality record of ritual practices relating to hunter-gatherer communities in this part of southern Africa over at least 2,000 years, and eloquently illustrates the links between the ritual and economic practices of hunter-gatherers.

Of the 35 rock-art properties currently on the World Heritage List, there are no similar sites that contain Safaitic inscriptions and rock art like the inscriptions found in Al- ḥarrah, in addition, Al- ḥarrah is the only place in the world where rock art and inscriptions are curved on black basalt stone. Lastly, Al- ḥarrah is one of the best examples of documented areas densely covered with Safaitic inscriptions that reflects the traditional life and social structure of the nomads who lived there.