Mleiha, Late Pre-Islamic Center of a South-East Arabian Kingdom
Ministry of Culture and Youth of the United Arab Emirates
Emirate of Sharjah
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The site of Mleiha is located in the Central Region of Sharjah, UAE, to the east of Jebel Faya. The region is distinguished by a rich assemblage of archaeological sites ranging in date from the Paleolithic to the Islamic period, as well as an uninterrupted occupation since the Neolithic.
The area of Mleiha in particular shows Neolithic and Bronze Age occupations, specifically on the slopes of Jebel Faya. The Iron Age period, early and mid-1st millennium BCE, is particularly well represented and shows a sophisticated approach to water procurement through falaj technology, which allowed cultivations in a region whose climate was similar to the present one. In addition to this, the domestication of the dromedary triggered the development of an extensive network of trade routes crossing the Arabian Peninsula. The intensification of the use of the land and of trade networks, bringing with them long distance contacts, allowed Mleiha to develop and to become a trade hub, showing contacts with India, Iran, East Africa, the Middle East and with the Mediterranean basin. The large pre-Islamic settlement of Mleiha is found on the plain, where groundwater could be more easily reached by digging wells in the alluvial deposits.
The 2016 discovery of a tomb and a tombstone with a bilingual script, Aramaic and Hasaitic, has significantly confirmed that a Kingdom of Uman, probably the “Omana” of classical sources, was established in this region in the third century BCE. This Kingdom included most of modern UAE and the northern regions of the present Sultanate of Oman. In the six centuries leading to its final demise in the third century CE, Mleiha grew in importance due to its control of a network of trade routes crossing the Arabian Peninsula. Evidence of this trade network and of the wealth that accompanied the control of trade routes in this region was unearthed at the site. This evidence varied from the minting of coins modelled after Alexander the Great’s tetradrachm, to the breeding of Arabian horses and hybrid camels, and from the use of Aramaic as one of the official languages spoken in the Kingdom to the architectural style of monumental tombs, forts, as well as palaces.
All evidence points to the fact that Mleiha was not only a hub for trading goods, but a place where a distinct civilization emerged, that characterized this corner of the Arabian Peninsula for six centuries. The site was abandoned following a violent attack by an unknown enemy, during the time when the Sasanian Empire took control of the major East-West trade routes, possibly causing the collapse of the Kingdom of Oman.
Justification of Outstanding Universal Value
The cultural influence of the Uman Kingdom on the whole region was so significant that Mleiha became the eponym site for the period between 300 BCE to 300 CE in the south-eastern Arabian Peninsula. Archaeological evidence is witness to the contacts that this Kingdom had with Iran, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, India, Central Asia (Kushan) and the Mediterranean. Evidence proofs the vital role played by Mleiha in the caravan trade across the Arabian Peninsula. The study of this evidence is revealing a civilization that was until recently only known through secondary sources. The material culture, architectural remains, and burial practices revealed by continuing research are exceptional testimony to a vanished civilization whose role in the history of humankind in this region is slowly coming to light. Outstanding architectural ensembles add universal value to the physical remains of this civilization. Thanks to their state of preservation, these remains maintain their authenticity and integrity. They also enjoy full protection at the national level, and they continue to be researched and conserved, allowing their presentation and interpretation to the public.
Criterion (ii): The mortuary practices and funerary architecture discovered at Mleiha show important interchanges that involved cultural groups and civilizations across the Arabian Peninsula. The Mleiha tower tombs are among the first to appear in the region, while camel burials (some of which including hybrid camels) contemporary to those in Mleiha were found in Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Yemen and at other sites in UAE. The horse burials remain unique to Mleiha although a donkey burial was found in Bahrain, thus suggesting that equids could also be sacrificed in other sites across the region. Mleiha’s camel and horse burials are the most spectacular in the region, suggesting a primary role played by this site in spreading this type of mortuary practice in the region.
Criterion (iii): Mleiha is an exceptional testimony to a civilization established in this corner of South-East Arabia during the Late Pre-Islamic period, represented by the material remains found at the site. Ceramic imports from the Mediterranean, North Africa, Western Asia, Mesopotamia, Iran and India show that the site was at a crossroad of important trade routes. The largest number of Rhodian amphorae recorded in the Arabian Peninsula were found at Mleiha, where silver tetradrachm coins imitating those of Alexander the Great were also struck. Large number of alabaster vessels, as well as locally produced calcite imitations of those vessels, and inscriptions in Zabur script – the only found outside of Yemen – are evidence of important contacts and exchanges with the southern regions of the Arabian Peninsula. The burial practices discovered at the site are unique in the region, and include the burying of Arabian horses, first evidence of this breed, dressed with a magnificent gold bridle and of hybrid camels, a crossbreed of a dromedary and a Bactrian camel. The minting of coins, the evidence of rich imports, the monumental tombs, and the large palaces discovered at the site are witness to the existence of elites that directly enjoyed power and wealth derived from the control of trade routes in the region and beyond. Bilingual inscriptions point to the positioning of this civilization in an international context where Aramaic was the lingua franca. Continuing excavations and study at the site will improve our knowledge and understanding of this civilization and the role it played in the ancient world.
Criterion (iv): The fort, palaces, and domestic buildings, as well as the monumental tombs found at the site are outstanding examples of structures that have little parallels elsewhere. The site presents itself with unique features: a monumental palace with a buttressed enclosure wall; a large, fortified monumental building that may have served as administrative centre, and tower tombs without direct parallels in the region. The general shape and some of the technical and decorative elements of the monumental tower tombs survive in local Arabian building traditions. Among these elements are the use of slightly slanting outside walls, roof construction techniques and plaster decorative building elements such as crowsteps. The high square tower-shaped funerary monuments are in part contemporary with other types of tower tombs found at caravan cities such as Qaryat al-Faw, in Saudi Arabia, Petra in Jordan, and Palmyra in Syria. More modest domestic architecture also shows peculiar elements, such as subterranean kitchens and ovens. Together, these elements provide evidence of outstanding architectural solutions adopted in response to harsh climatic conditions, allowing this civilization to thrive for centuries.
Statements of authenticity and/or integrityAuthenticity
The site shows a high degree of authenticity of its location and setting, as the landscape has changed little since its abandonment. The environment of the property and its buffer zone provides a crucial framework for the authenticity of the site. The Jebel Faya Mountain Range provides an intact and dramatic backdrop to the ruins of the town and it conveys a very strong and unique sense of place. The few farms surrounding the site are still practicing traditional farming and camel breeding. The small town of Mleiha is outside of the property and its development is not threatening the authenticity of the site.
The excavated remains are in a good state of preservation and maintain their authentic shape and materials: they have been scientifically documented and 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). Large areas of the site are still unexcavated and they will remain as such to allow future research at the site. 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 made evident. 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.
The property includes all the attributes expressing the Outstanding Universal Value, as evidenced by the movable and immovable archaeological features identified through archaeological research. As most of the site is still unexcavated, there are still intact elements that are preserved for research in the future.
The site is intact and coherent in the archaeological landscape in which it stands, as it was abandoned following its destruction in the 3d century CE, and never reoccupied. Because of these circumstances, it is of adequate size to represent all the features that characterize it, from large public buildings to grand palaces, and from domestic dwellings to the cemeteries that have revealed unique burial customs.
Finally, the site does not suffer from the adverse effects of development or neglect: it is protected by the Sharjah Archaeological Authority, the competent governmental institution, ensuring the professional protection and conservation of the archaeological site. Development is managed to avoid the extension of human activities on the site, such as the enlargement of the farming surfaces by the local farmers and the expansion of the nearest settlement, outside of the buffer zone of the property. The site is materially protected by fences and shelters where required, and their physical integrity is regularly controlled by the Sharjah Archaeological Authority.
Comparison with other similar properties
For the Comparative Analysis, archaeological sites that were capitals of ancient kingdoms or empires, were a centre of long-distance trade and that show peculiar building types or architectural elements have been taken into consideration.
In the Arabian Peninsula, the sites of Hegra (Mâdain Sâlih) (Saudi Arabia, inscribed in 2008, criteria (ii) and (iii)) of the Nabatean period (1st century BCE to 1st century CE) and the Pre-Islamic City of Qaryat Al-Faw (Saudi Arabia, Tentative List), capital of the Kingdom of Kinda, are contemporary to Mleiha. These kingdoms, as is the case of the Uman Kingdom, based their wealth and power on the successful control of trade routes. Petra, in Jordan (inscribed in 1985, criteria (i), (iii), and (iv)), was also active in trade during the Nabatean period between the Arabian Peninsula and the Mediterranean before being annexed to the Roman empire in the early second century CE. Being largely contemporary to Mleiha, all these sites may have had direct commercial contacts with Mleiha. Besides the exchange of goods, architectural models may have also travelled across the peninsula: tower tombs emerge during the third century BCE at Mleiha and Qaryat al Faw, and somewhat later at Petra. Only in the latter site -and later also in Palmyra, Syria, (inscribed in 1980, criteria (i), (ii), and (iv)) they evolve from a simple square structure with crowsteps/battlements decorating their tops, to complex, richly decorated structures carved in the rock, in Petra, or built, in Palmyra. It is still debated where these tower tombs first emerged, but it should be pointed out that the Mleiha tombs are among the most ancient found in the region.
The site of Arikamedu, in India Tentative List in a serial nomination under the proposed Silk Road Sites of India entry, was largely contemporary with Mleiha. The site was an important trade centre where large quantities of Roman and Southern Mesopotamian glazed wares have been found. These types of pottery were also found at Mleiha and the two centers may have been in commercial contact.
In Sudan, the Archaeological Sites of the Island of Meroe (inscribed in 2011 under criteria ii, iii, iv, v) centre of the Kushite Kingdom between the 8th century BCE to the 4th century CE, and Jebel Barkal and the Sites of the Napatan Region (inscribed in 2003, criteria i, ii, iii, iv, vi) 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 in the Nile Valley.
The comparative analysis will also look at some of the sites along the Silk Road, in particular those that became capitals of kingdoms, caliphates or empires during their history, such as Merv -Turkmenistan, (inscribed in 1999, criteria ii and iii) which occupation spans four millennia and was the capital of a caliphate in the 9th c. CE and of the Seljuk empire in the 11th and 12th c. CE. Merv was at the centre of a network of trade routes, a fact that explains both its long, uninterrupted occupations, as well as the importance it had under the Seljuks. Another site that controlled an important branch of the Silk Road was Ani -Turkey, (inscribed in 2016, criteria ii, iii, iv) capital of the Armenian kingdom of the Bagratids, flourishing between the 10th and 11th century CE.
What distinguishes Mleiha from the sites mentioned above is its emergence within a relatively short period of time, rapidly becoming the largest urban center in the Arabian Peninsula, in a cultural context where urbanization was largely absent. Its sudden disappearance also marks the end of a trade-based urban civilization in this region for many centuries. It is this sequence of rapid urbanization and similarly rapid collapse that makes this site exceptional compared to other examples of trade cities of the ancient world.