The Cultural Landscape of Al-Faw Archaeological Area

Date of Submission: 03/01/2022
Criteria: (ii)(iv)(v)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of Saudi Arabia to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Riyadh Region, Wadi Ad-Dawasir Province
Coordinates: N19 46 56.15, E45 8 52.02
Ref.: 6574
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Description

The Cultural Landscape of Al-Faw Archaeological Area, situated at the north-western fringe of the Empty Quarter, stands at the intersection of Wadi Ad-Dawasir and the Tuwaiq escarpment. The climatic conditions of the region evolved considerably over time and passed through significantly wetter periods, which allowed the formation of Wadi ad-Dawasir. The environmental legacy is witnessed by ancient springs in Al-Faw and by the availability of subterranean water that supplied the site and the agricultural sector of the oasis in the past, permitting an early human occupation. The continuously evolving environmental setting of Al-Faw hosted various types of human occupation throughout history: from prehistoric nomadic and semi-nomadic presence to an urban settlement when a thriving ancient caravan city developed in the second half of the 1st millennium BCE. The site was not occupied in the Islamic period.

An outstanding collection of prehistoric stone structures of different shape and size is found in The Cultural Landscape of Al-Faw Archaeological Area, at the foot of the cliffs and on the plateau. More than 320 tapered structures (triangular stone structures), varying from 2-3 to 108 m length, are concentrated in an 8 km2 zone on the Eastern plateau, and South and North of the archaeological site. Approximately 1,500 circular stone structure (tombs) are found in the valley, concentrated in a 4 km2 sector, south of the site, while more than 150 circular stone structures (cairns, tombs...) are found on the upper plateau. The number and size of these prehistoric stone structures, and their specific geometric and spatial arrangement, bear witness of the collective effort carried out by its builders, proof of a long-lasting human presence in the area. Rock carvings representing human and animal motifs, sometimes accompanied with inscriptions, are found on various part of The Cultural Landscape of Al-Faw Archaeological Area. The most relevant one, located on the slope of the Tuwaiq escarpment, represents a man holding two spears in his left hand and armed with a sword. Many inscriptions are found on other parts of the mountain slopes, as well as petroglyphs of camels, humans, chariots and wild animals (ibex, oryx, gazelles).

At the core of The Cultural Landscape of Al-Faw Archaeological Area lies the ancient oasis settlement of Qaryat Al-Faw, located west of Tuwaiq escarpment that overlooks the settlement. The remains bear witness of a thriving and cosmopolitan caravan city probably founded in the 4th c. BCE as a caravan station by the trading tribes transporting aromatics (myrrh, frankincense) from the South of Arabia to the oasis of Gerrha (Eastern Arabia), Mesopotamia, and the Mediterranean. The availability of water and fertile lands, and the absence of other oases on the Eastern section of the Frankincense Road, made Qaryat Al-Faw a key port of call for the whole region. Its golden age lasted from the 3rd c. BCE to the 3rd c. CE.

Research and excavations results show a succession of settlements from the mid-first millennium BCE until before the Islamic era. The successive and simultaneous presence of various groups originating from different civilizational areas of the Peninsula, is attested by the linguistic diversity of inscriptions found in the remains of the residential areas of Qaryat Al-Faw, as well as in the necropolis where a large pantheon of gods is invoked. Mineans from South Arabia, Lihyanites, and later Nabataeans from the North-West, all settled in Qaryat Al-Faw. The town was successively the capital city of the ancient kingdoms of Dhakir, Qahtân, and then Kinda around the 3rd c. CE. It was known in antiquity as Qaryat dhat-Kahl referring to the main local deity Kahl in pre-Islamic times. The establishment of the capital of the Kingdom of Kinda in the oasis reinforced its position as a key milestone for caravans crossing the Peninsula from South to North and from West to East across the desert. The excavations have proved cultural ties with Hellenistic, Roman, Parthian, and Sassanian cultures, in addition to the civilizations of southern Arabia. Qaryat Al-Faw also minted its own coinage, proof of its political and financial relevance.

Frankincense occupied a special place in the ancient trade network. Harvested only in South Arabia (present-day Eastern Yemen and Oman), its consumption for religious and funerary practices was widely spread in Egypt, Babylonia, the Roman Empire and later Byzantium, and even farther places such as India and China. This luxury product was one of the most expensive global commodities, and the control of the frankincense roads was a fundamental economic and geopolitical stake. A western road, crossing the Arabian Peninsula from South to North along the Red Sea coast, passed through the oases of Marib, Najran, crossed the North-West Arabian oases, and reached Egypt and the Levant. An alternative eastern route was developed to carry the precious frankincense to Gerrha and Babylonia. This route passed notably through the sites of Bir Hima (2021 World Heritage site) in the South, and Al-Aflaj in the North, and through the modern town of Al-Sulayyil about a hundred kilometres northeast of Qaryat Al-Faw. Al-Faw was the most important and strategic stop along this route.

Al-Faw was one of the largest Arabian towns of the period; its extensive habitat extended over more than 2 km from North to South and over 1 km from West to East. Archaeological excavations in the historic core of Qaryat Al-Faw have uncovered an integrated city and an extraordinary number of movable artefacts reflecting its economic, political, and social status. The variety and refinement of these artefacts (statues, jewellery, metal objects, glass objects, ceramics, etc.), imported or produced locally, attest to the wealth of the oasis and the dynamism of its long-distance contacts.

The urban site suggests the presence of a large and well organised population and its vestiges are significant even though only part of the ancient city has been excavated. At least two main historic layers are superimposed (mostly reusing the walls of the first as foundation bases for the houses of the second), preserving therefore a large part of the earlier urban fabric. Some of its residential units were endowed with very large rooms, and most of them had a staircase to access one or several upper floors, topped by a balcony, as represented on a fresco found on-site. A large building, possibly a caravanserai, is found on the northeast of the southern sector. This fortified ensemble, protected by corner towers, is likely the most impressive vestige of the settlement reaching a height of some 6-8 meters over the plain. East of this structure lie a series of prestigious houses where remarkable frescoes were discovered, and a temple where an important corpus of statuettes was excavated. An impressive necropolis for the Al-Faw upper class is found around the residential area while common people tombs lied further away in the valley.

The site carries the legacy of the revolution brought by caravan societies. Its specific town-planning reflects the imperatives and priorities of a caravan city. The edification of a big caravanserai, north of the residential area demonstrates that welcoming merchant visitors was in the essence of Al-Faw. The town administration was controlled by a local sovereign and his court and there was also a religious clergy as witnessed by the presence of several temples and shrines on the site.

The Necropolis of Al-Faw shows the relevance of lineage and genealogy for these tribal populations as illustrated by detailed inscriptions carved on the tombs of the deceased. The tower-tombs of Al-Faw also indicate a strong social hierarchy within the population. Religious rituals were an important channel of community-building. The architectural quality of the temples proves their social relevance. The so-called “Nose of Qaryat Al-Faw”, a huge cliff at the foot of which one finds two small sanctuaries, South Arabian graffiti in abundance and a human representation carved in the cliff rock, is interpreted as a place where rituals were performed in the name of the protector of the city, the god Kahl. Next to the “caravanserai”, the temple illustrates the three layers which united the inhabitants of Al-Faw as a community: economic exchange, religion — influenced by shared regional symbols such as ibex and camels — and the authority of the king who defended the inhabitants and hosted the merchant visitors in exchange of a tax.

To feed its population and herds, the city relied on a vast irrigation network made up of water channels, for its agricultural needs. The historic limits and the evolution of Al-Faw oasis are still unclear, and research is on-going to unveil the human interaction with the environment.

The exceptional diversity and richness of the movable archaeological remains found on-site which illustrate various lifestyle aspects of the successive populations who occupied the area, suggest that the city had three major phases of development between the 4th c. BCE and the 4th c. CE. During the first phase of occupation (4th - 2nd c. BCE) the site was a Minean trading post. During the following stage, from 1st c. BCE to 1st c. CE, the city became the capital of the kingdom of the Qahtan-Madhḥij. Contacts with the Nabataeans and Parthian (then Sasanian) empires have been uncovered at the site. Kinda settled in Qaryat Al-Faw in the 2nd - 3rd c. CE, due to military pressure exerted from the Abyssinians in Hejaz. The campaign of Sha‘r ‘Awtar, king of Saba’, against Qaryat Al-Faw in the early 3rd c. CE, aimed to stop Kinda’s blockade of the eastern incense route. Then, during the 3rd - 4th centuries CE, the city was probably integrated in the Himyarite empire before vanishing. No trace of human occupation is known in Islamic times; the rare Islamic sources only mention Al-Faw’s well and refer to the site as a deserted field of ruins. The brusque and definitive abandon of the city probably illustrates the conjunction of historical events and climatic change to a more arid situation.

The site was rediscovered by engineers from the Arab American Oil Company (ARAMCO) operating in the area at the beginning of the 20th century. The famous explorer Philby published a short description and a sketch map in 1949. After several site visits in the late 1960s, starting from 1972, Prof. Ansari and the King Saud University, Riyadh, undertook archaeological excavations on the site. In the following decades, and until today, Qaryat Al-Faw has become the main field training site for Saudi archaeologists.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The Cultural Landscape of Al-Faw Archaeological Area uniqueness and outstanding universal value lie in the multifaceted dimensions of its legacy. Al-Faw sits in a unique desert landscape, far from other contemporaneous civilizations, in one of the most hostile environments in the world. Its inhabitants developed a sophisticated and international trading city where multiple cultural influences from afar met. Even before the city was established, people living in the area lastingly marked their occupation, and infused clues of their relationship with the environment, reflecting diverse practices, such as ritual stone structure construction, illustrating a nascent attachment to ancestral pastures paving the way to a sedentary life based on farming.

The Cultural Landscape of Al-Faw Archaeological Area is an organically evolved landscape that has developed its present form by association with, and in response to, its natural environment. It falls in the sub-category of the “relict” landscapes, as its evolutionary process came to an end when the site was abandoned before the beginning of the Islamic period.

The OUV of the site is based not only on its exceptional archaeological remains, but also on its surroundings that are equally relevant and impressive both from an aesthetic and a cultural point of view. The remains of the ancient springs and the oasis agricultural fields formed an essential and functional part of its original setting, but Al-Faw stunning natural landscape, where the desert dunes meet the cliffs of the Tuwaiq mountain range, directed its evolution through time. The relationship between these multiple elements forms a very impressive cultural landscape, combining archaeological evidence, noteworthy natural elements in the first plan, and a breath-taking mountain and desert background.

The cultural attributes forming this landscape are very diverse: Ancient urban and architectural elements (housing, urban fabric, fortified caravanserai, open market, temples, craft activities...); Artefacts and decorative elements showing a great diversity of materials, styles, and influences; Multiple typologies and locations of necropolises and tombs, relating to different periods and human communities; Multiple prehistoric stone structures; Rock carvings and drawings; Associated setting of the historic city within its natural environment (springs, underwater resources, and oasis); Relevance of water management as a cultural legacy.

The multiplicity of historical/prehistorical periods found in The Cultural Landscape of Al-Faw Archaeological Area witnesses not only different and successive human settlements, but also different ways of life (nomad versus urban; trade and craft versus agriculture, farming, and oasis crops), and can shed light on the interactions between nomadic and sedentary lifestyles across antiquity. The Cultural Landscape of Al-Faw Archaeological Area provides a fascinating overview of different stages of human history where human communities developed a new approach to space and experienced new ways of constituting a cohesive social group.

The edification of prehistoric geometric stone structures, some of which of an impressive size, illustrates a first historical transition. These structures represent a major physical collective investment, channelling the energies of human groups to achieve a shared goal probably related to religious rituals or funerary practices. They also bear witness to a territorial appropriation, or sense of belonging, that challenges the commonly accepted binarity between nomadic and sedentary populations. The energy and time invested in the edification of the stone structures visible in Al-Faw reflect a major turn in the human history and are probably connected to the emerging notion of ancestral pasture. The precise dating, and the study of the meaning of these stone structures — found also in various other parts of the Arabian Peninsula — is a challenging new field of research.

The development of caravan-societies in the 1st millennium BCE constitutes another significant revolution in human history evident in The Cultural Landscape of Al-Faw Archaeological Area. Remote regions with their own languages, religious pantheons, political and social organisation systems, technologies, and craft traditions were able to connect with each other and with the broader cultural areas of Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean basin.

The many, and multilingual, inscriptions found in the site, and the multicultural influences identified in the city and the necropolises, demonstrate the cosmopolitan nature of this oasis, set at the juncture between mobile ways of life and an established sedentary city. The Cultural Landscape of Al-Faw Archaeological Area reflects how human societies developed community cohesion and organised themselves as a group in the context of an economic and logistics revolution triggered by the domestication of camels, and reflected by the emergence of partly mobile, cosmopolitan, caravan-oases.

Criterion (ii): Since its preliminary phases of development as a caravan station strategically located in a water-rich environment, Qaryat Al-Faw built on the influences of multiple trading tribes and groups who occupied the area and resided there over time. These successive layers of architectural and town planning traditions produced a complex and multifaceted pre-Islamic city. The interchanges of human values across space — from South Arabian to North-West Arabian influences (Lihyanites and Nabataean) and beyond (including Hellenistic) — and time are evidenced by the variety of inscriptions and architectural styles found in the ancient town and in the tomb design, but also by the highly-developed artistic practices that range from the mural frescoes found in the palaces, to richly decorated potteries and glasses, to human and animal statuettes.

Criterion (iv): The Cultural Landscape of Al-Faw Archaeological Area provides a fascinating overview of different stages of human history where human communities developed different approaches to space occupation in a specific context. On the one hand, the numerous stone structures found in the vicinity of Al-Faw, shed light on the key junction between mostly nomadic human communities and their ancestral pasture lands. On the other hand, the remains of the city represent outstanding vestiges of a rich and highly developed caravan society. The domestication of the camel and the development of terrestrial routes linking distant stations, and the creation of oases and caravan halts equipped with wells, khan-s and market areas, represent intertwined key stages in human history, that allowed to connect distant civilizations and to nurture their development and innovations.

Criterion (v): The Empty Quarter is one of the largest sand-desert in the world and among the most hostile environments for human life. The evidence of different human communities living in The Cultural Landscape of Al-Faw Archaeological Area reflects the ability of these groups to survive in an evolving environment. The environmental evolution experienced by human communities since prehistoric times is reflected in the cultural practices deployed in Al-Faw. The rock carvings and drawings on the cliffs — representing human and natural motifs — portray the evolution of the local fauna and their evolving relationship with human group through domestication and hunting. Rock art, petroglyphs, and inscriptions bear witness of successive civilizations where animals’ hunting, cattle breeding, and the domestication of camels successively constituted the core of the communities’ survival strategies. The story of this lifestyle evolution depicted on the rocks, is completed by the testimony of the ancient city’s remains proving human capacity to develop innovative solutions to reach a fruitful interaction with the environment and to ensure water availability and food security to a growing settled population.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Authenticity

The natural landscape, and the larger setting of the site, show an extraordinary level of preservation. No modern infrastructure perturbates the site and the ensemble of the cultural landscape attributes is preserved. Since the beginning of the Saudi excavations in the 1970s, the archaeological sites have been fenced off, and access to the area is strictly controlled by the Saudi authorities. The vestiges of the built heritage of Qaryat Al-Faw, though suffering inevitable damages caused by erosion and human and natural elements, present a remarkable state of preservation due to their remoteness and to the desert climatic conditions. The vestiges show the highest level of authenticity, as no modern structures or reconstruction works have been carried out on the site and its surroundings.

Integrity

The size of The Cultural Landscape of Al-Faw Archaeological Area adequately represents the totality of the cultural landscape that it illustrates. The site notably includes the ensemble of the attributes manifesting its potential Outstanding Universal Value, including not only urban and architectural archaeological vestiges, but also prehistoric stone structures and their setting, vestiges of the ancient landscape that permitted human presence over millennia, and large stretches of desert sands and mountains cliffs that influenced and directed human settlement and activities throughout time.

The site includes an ensemble of vestiges belonging to multiple phases of human occupation from the high antiquity to the 4th c. CE and embracing a diversity of manifestations of the interaction between humankind and the natural environment. The property is representative of a specific geo-cultural region where the harsh natural environment was made progressively accessible by the development of trade routes and by the domestication of the camel which facilitated the connection amongst remote and scattered human settlements and permitted the creation of a coherent network of oases and stations where ancient civilisations mingled and developed.

Comparison with other similar properties

The Outstanding Universal Value of The Cultural Landscape of Al-Faw Archaeological Area lies in the unique juncture between the exceptionally well-preserved archaeological vestiges of a cosmopolitan caravan city and its surrounding desert landscape, in perpetual interaction with human communities. The comparative analysis is developed along three axes that address different aspects of this large and complex site.

A first set of comparison relates to historic settlements located along ancient caravan routes. Among them, some relevant cases are found in Saudi Arabia, while others belong to the larger regional context. In Saudi Arabia the comparison addresses:

The Ancient Walled Oases of Northern Arabia (Saudi Arabia): The four ancient oases of Northern Arabia (Tayma, Dumat al-Jandal, Ha’it and Qurayyah) tell the millennia-old history of sustainable human settlements in a desert environment, through adaptive solutions to environmental change; the organisation of international trade and exchange through a route and caravan stations network; and resilience despite political and economic transformation in the course of history. These oases share a unique characteristic, the edification of monumental walls surrounding all the oasis, which contribute in explaining their longevity and their economic status as caravan stations.

Dadan Archaeological Site and Hegra Archaeological Site (Saudi Arabia, 2008, Criteria ii, iii): Dadan is a major ancient oasis, mentioned 9 times in the Bible. The oasis was the capital of the kingdom of Dadan as attested by a corpus of one thousand inscriptions from the 7th c. BCE found on-site. During the Persian and Hellenistic periods, it became known as the capital of the kingdom of Lihyan. The presence of a Minean colony under the Lihyanite dynasty, illustrates the regional importance of this oasis on the caravan route. Some 30 km north is found Hegra, inscribed on the World Heritage list in 2008, the largest conserved site of the Nabataean civilization after Petra in Jordan. It features well-preserved monumental tombs with decorated facades dating from the 1st c. BCE to the 1st c. CE. Hegra bears a unique testimony to Nabataean civilization; with its monumental tombs and water wells, it is an outstanding example of the Nabataeans’ architectural accomplishments and hydraulic expertise.

Outside the Kingdom, relevant sites already inscribed on the World Heritage List include:

Incense Routes - Desert Cities in the Negev (Israel, 2005, Criteria iii, v): The four Nabatean towns of Haluza, Mamshit, Avdat and Shivta, along with associated fortresses and agricultural landscapes in the Negev Desert, are spread along routes linking them to the Mediterranean end of the incense and spice route. Together they reflect the hugely profitable trade in frankincense and myrrh from south Arabia to the Mediterranean, which flourished from the 3rd c. BCE until the 2nd c. CE. With the vestiges of their sophisticated irrigation systems, urban constructions, forts, and caravanserai, they bear witness to the way in which the harsh desert was settled for trade and agriculture.

Petra (Jordan, 1985, Criteria i, iii, iv): Inhabited since prehistoric times, this Nabataean caravan-city situated between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea was an important crossroads between Arabia, Egypt, and Syria-Phoenicia. Petra is half-built, half-carved into the rock, and is surrounded by mountains riddled with passages and gorges. It is one of the world's most famous archaeological sites, where ancient Eastern traditions blend with Hellenistic architecture.

Land of Frankincense (Oman, 2000, Criteria iii, iv): The frankincense trees of Wadi Dawkah, the remains of the caravan oasis of Shisr/Wubar (170 km inland in the Rub Al Khali desert), and the affiliated ports of Khor Rori (4th c. BCE to 5th c. CE) and Al-Baleed (8th c. till 16th c. CE) vividly illustrate the trade in frankincense that flourished in this region for millennia. It was one of the most important trading activities of the ancient and medieval world. The site constitutes an outstanding testimony to the civilizations of south Arabia since the Neolithic and represents in a unique way the distribution of frankincense produced in the wadis of the coastal hinterland.

Ancient City of Bosra (Syria, 1980, Criteria i, iii, vi): Bosra, once the capital of the Roman province of Arabia, was an important stopover on the ancient caravan route to Makkah. A magnificent 2nd c. Roman theatre, early Christian ruins, and several mosques are found within its walls.

Cultural Sites of Al-‘Ain (Hafit, Hili, Bidaa Bint Saud and Oases Areas) (UAE, 2011, Criteria iii, iv, v): The cultural sites of Al-‘Ain constitute a serial property that testifies to sedentary human occupation of a desert region since the Neolithic period with vestiges of many prehistoric cultures. Remarkable elements in the property include circular stone tombs (ca 2500 BCE), wells, and a wide range of adobe constructions: residential buildings, towers, palaces, and administrative buildings. Moreover, Hili features one of the oldest examples of the sophisticated aflaj irrigation system which dates to the Iron Age. The property provides important testimony to the transition of cultures in the region from hunting and gathering to sedentarisation.

The Cultural Landscape of Al-Faw Archaeological Area shares many similarities with these sites. Like them, it is an ancient caravan station relying on regional trade and the exploitation of the caravan routes, and it hosted colonies of the same ancient regional civilisations (including the Mineans, Lihyanites and Nabataean). Yet, despite these resemblances, Al-Faw stands out for three main reasons. 1st) For its remote location on the fringe of the Empty Quarter far from the major regional powers (Babylon and Egypt), but also from the north-western Arabian ancient kingdoms, and outside the direct control of South-Arabian hegemony (despite several conquest attempts in the course of history); 2nd) Notwithstanding the presence of important prehistoric stone structures, the attested sedentary presence in Al-Faw is much shorter than the one in most of the above examples, some of which, like Tayma and Dumat Al-Jandal, or Al-Ahsa and Al Ain, are still inhabited today; 3rd) For the role the dramatic desert landscape played in its origins, evolution and, likely, final collapse.

A second set of comparisons can be drawn with archaeological cities located in desert environments and/or belonging to comparable epochs and civilizations. The Middle East and North Africa regions count among the richest archaeological areas in the world and the World Heritage List includes many archaeological towns that share similarities with Al-Faw. Below is a brief selection of the most relevant ones:

Dilmun Burial Mounds (Bahrain, 2019, Criteria iii, iv): The burial mounds, built between 2200 and 1750 BCE, include 21 archaeological sites in the western part of the island for about 11,774 burial mounds, originally in the form of cylindrical low, and 17 royal mounds, constructed as two-storey sepulchral towers. The burial mounds are evidence of the Early Dilmun civilization, around late 3rd – early 2nd millennium BCE, during which Bahrain became a trade hub whose prosperity enabled its inhabitants to develop an elaborate burial tradition for the entire population. These tombs illustrate globally unique characteristics, not only in terms of number, density, and scale, but also in terms of architectural details such as burial chambers equipped with alcoves.

Shahr-i Sokhta (Iran, 2014, Criteria ii, iii, iv): Shahr-i Sokhta, meaning ‘Burnt City’, is located at the junction of Bronze Age trade routes crossing the Iranian plateau. The remains of the mudbrick city represent the emergence of the first complex societies in eastern Iran. Founded around 3200 BCE, it was populated during four main periods up to 1800 BCE, occupying distinct areas within the city. Diversions in water courses and climate change led to the eventual abandonment of the city in the early 2nd millennium. This site a rich source of information regarding the emergence of complex societies and contacts between them in the 3rd millennium BCE.

Hatra (Iraq, 1985, Criteria ii, iii, iv, vi): A large, fortified city under the influence of the Parthian Empire and capital of the first Arab Kingdom, Hatra withstood invasions by the Romans in 116 and 198 CE thanks to its high and thick walls reinforced by towers. The remains of the city, especially the temples where Hellenistic and Roman architecture blends with Eastern decorative features, attest to the greatness of its civilization.

Ashur (Qal’at Sharqat) (Iraq, 2003, Criteria iii, iv): The ancient city of Ashur is located on the Tigris River in northern Mesopotamia in a specific geo-ecological zone, at the borderline between rain-fed and irrigation agriculture. The city dates to the 3rd millennium BCE. From the 14th c. to the 9th c. BCE, it was the first capital of the Assyrian Empire, a city-state and trading platform of international importance. It also served as the religious capital of the Assyrians, associated with the god Ashur. The city was destroyed by the Babylonians but revived during the Parthian period in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE.

Archaeological Sites of Bat, Al-Khutm and Al-Ayn (Oman, 1988, Criteria iii, iv): The protohistoric site of Bat lies near a palm grove in the interior of the Sultanate of Oman. Together with the neighbouring sites, it forms the most complete collection of settlements and necropolises from the 3rd millennium BCE. in the world.

Jebel Barkat and the Sites of the Napatan Region (Sudan, 2003, Criteria i, ii, iii, iv, vi): These five archaeological sites, stretching over more than 60 km in the Nile valley, are testimony to the Napatan (900 to 270 BCE) and Meroitic (270 BCE to 350 CE) cultures, of the second kingdom of Kush. Tombs, with and without pyramids, temples, living complexes and palaces, are found on the site. Since Antiquity, the hill of Jebel Barkal has been strongly associated with religious traditions and folklore. The largest temples are still considered by the local people as sacred places.

Site of Palmyra (Syria, 1980, Criteria i, ii, iv): An oasis in the Syrian desert, north-east of Damascus, Palmyra contains the monumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world. From the 1st to the 2nd c. CE, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences.

The extraordinary richness and multiplicity of the ancient Middle East is represented by many urban archaeological sites inscribed on the World Heritage List, each presenting common elements and unique aspects related to their geographic setting, epoch, and culture. Al-Faw archaeological site — that is just one element of The Cultural Landscape of Al-Faw Archaeological Area — could add to this prestigious ensemble bringing new specific elements: a city born for trade, a remote regional centre gathering multiple sedentary and semi-nomadic peoples where different deities and languages mixed, but also a city intimately connected to a unique desert natural setting, and an ensemble of archaeological vestiges — still partially unknown — that span millennia and bridge nomadic traditions and early settlements, leaving the remarkable presence of gigantic stone structures and rock art in an extraordinary desert environment.

A last set of comparisons refers to World Heritage Cultural Landscapes in the region, with a specific focus on Rock Art sites in desert environments.

Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape (Azerbaijan, 2007, Criterion iii): The rock art landscape 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 Reserve.

Wadi Rum Protected Area (Jordan, 2011, Criteria iii, vi, vii): The 74,000-hectare property, inscribed as a mixed natural and cultural site, is situated in southern Jordan, near the border with Saudi Arabia. It features a varied desert landscape consisting of a range of narrow gorges, natural arches, towering cliffs, ramps, massive landslides, and caverns. Petroglyphs, inscriptions and archaeological remains in the site testify to 12,000 years of human occupation and interaction with the natural environment. The combination of 25,000 rock carvings with 20,000 inscriptions traces the evolution of human thought and the early development of the alphabet. The site illustrates the evolution of pastoral, agricultural and urban activity in the region.

Rock Art District in the Hail Region (Saudi Arabia, 2015, Criteria i, iii): This property includes two components situated in a desert landscape: Jabal Umm Sinman at Jubbah, and the Jabal al-Manjor and Raat at Shuwaymis. A lake, once situated at the foot of the Umm Sinman hill range, used to be a source of fresh water for people and animals in the southern part of the Great Nafud Desert. The ancestors of today’s Arab populations have left traces of their passages in numerous petroglyphs and inscriptions on the rock faces. Jabal al-Manjor and Raat form the rocky escarpment of a wadi now covered in sand. They show numerous representations of human and animal figures covering 10,000 years of history.

Kondoa Rock-Art Sites (Tanzania, 2006, Criteria iii, vi): On the eastern slopes of the Masai escarpment bordering the Great Rift valley are natural rock shelters, overhanging slabs of sedimentary rocks fragmented by rift faults, whose vertical planes have been used for rock paintings for at least two millennia. The spectacular collection of images from over 150 shelters over 2,336 km2, many with high artistic value, displays sequences that provide a unique testimony to the changing socio-economic base of the area from hunter-gatherer to agro-pastoralist, and the beliefs and ideas associated with the different societies. Some of the shelters still have ritual associations with the people who live nearby, reflecting their beliefs, rituals, and cosmological traditions.

Like the World Heritage sites listed above, diverse attributes of the landscape underline the interaction between human communities and their local environment. The Cultural Landscape of Al-Faw Archaeological Area, however, delivers a specific narrative relative to the evolution of the environment and the corresponding changes of human occupation patterns that is unique to this site.