Since 2004, a joint Saudi-German archaeological expedition has been working at the site of Tayma (Tabuk province), once an ancient oasis on the ancient frankincense route. The multidisciplinary project is aimed at reconstructing the history of the ancient settlement and patterns of subsistence as embedded into the environmental conditions through time, from the Neolithic until the Islamic periods.
The new archaeological excavations are based on a cooperation between Saudi Arabian and German institutions: The Oriental Department of the German Archaeological Institute, Berlin, a worldwide operating institution for archaeological research attached to the German Foreign office, and the General Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, Riyadh. The King Saud University, Riyadh, has joined the project in partnership.
Present-day visitors of Tayma, situated next to the Tabuk-Madinah highway, are impressed by the high-standing remains of the city walls of the oasis having a length of altogether more than 15 km. Early Arab travelers have been reporting on these famous walls as well as on the wealth of the oasis. Today, there are more than 80,000 date palms in extended gardens cultivated by artificial irrigation.
In the center of the old town, the Bir Hadaj, said to be the largest well on the Arabian Peninsula, embodies the significance of this resource for the inhabitants of the oasis. From this well with its 18m diameter water had been drawn by camels. The well itself was restored in the 1990s under the supervision of Mohamed Al-Najem, the director of the local Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography. In the walled area of the ancient settlement, at least three other sources of water have been identified by the hydrologists of the Saudi-German team.
North of the actual oasis, some 20,000 years ago, there was a lake which has turned into a dry salt-pan (Arabic: sabkha). The lake seems to have dried out during the 5th millennium BC. It was during this period that settlers — whether permanent or temporary — next to the sabkha have been producing flint drills. Thousands of these drills have been transported from the sabkha to the center of the settlement since the mud from the sabkha was used for the making of mud-bricks of the ancient city wall.
The earliest remains of these walls according to stratigraphic research, confirmed by scientific dating, should go back to at least the mid-2nd millennium BC. This implies the presence of administrative structures and public institutions at Tayma during the Late Bronze Age. The old walls were repaired several times, and new fortifications were erected, at latest during the Nabataean period, thus protecting the oasis for more than a thousand years.
Due to its location along an international trade route, the settlement at Tayma was in constant contact with adjacent cultures. A possibly religious building of the 11th to 9th centuries BC revealed several objects of Egyptian style and decorated wooden containers which have parallels in Syria and the Levant. Painted pottery, also found elsewhere on the site, can be compared with other sites in Saudi Arabia, such as Qurayyah (near Tabuk), Palestine and Jordan.
“Such contacts characterize the archaeological evidence and the further history of Tayma until the Islamic period,” says Ricardo Eichmann, director of the Oriental Department of the German Archaeological institute and head of the German component. Whereas the trade relations by camel caravans with Assyria and the presence of the last Babylonian King Nabonidus (556-539 BC) at the site was known from texts found abroad, a stele with cuneiform inscription and the representation of a royal figure found at the site in 2004, has been identified as the work of Nabonidus. The stay of the Babylonian king was recorded also by early Northwest Arabic rock-inscriptions in Taymanite or Thamudic language in the surrounding desert as well.
The presence of a flourishing oasis at a knot of the trading network may have influenced the last Babylonian king’s decision for taking his residence at Tayma — in addition to the political and religious conflicts he faced in his hometown Babylon. The fact that a large settlement existed already long before the king arrived at the site makes his decision only more understandable.
Nevertheless, apart from these short time attempts of foreign control and occupation, there appears to have been a continuous occupation at the site.
The bulk of excavated building remains dates from the mid-1st millennium BC to the first centuries AD, covering the dynasty of Lihyan until the post-Nabataean period. In the center of these remains there is a temple with several inscriptions of a Lihyanite ruler as well as figurative royal representations by larger-than-life statues. According to Arnulf Hausleiter, field director of the joint-project “these elements show clear parallels to the discoveries at the site of the capital of the Lihyanite dynasty, ancient Dedan, modern Al-Khuraybah/Al-Ula.” Therefore, there must have been strong relations between these two sites, possibly culminating in building activities carried out at Tayma by a local governor on behalf of the Lihyanite king.
In the period between the Nabataeans and the rise of Islam, extended parts of the ancient settlement have been occupied by residential and representative architecture. So far, these periods have been mainly known from textual sources. In the archaeological excavations building remains from the early Islamic period have been recovered concentrating on the central western part of the ancient site. These and other remains of this period constituted the settlement which Imru’ Al-Qays and subsequently Ishtakri, Ibn-Hawkal and Al-Muqadassi described in their reports as remains of one of the largest and wealthiest oases of North Arabia at the time.
Recently, an increasing number of tourists have been visiting the site and the local museum. Therefore, the concept for site management and conservation measures, developed during the last years, regards both the needs of an ongoing excavation and the requirements for touristic purposes. So far excavated building remains are being protected by traditional methods using local materials and the experience of a team of restoration experts.
It is expected that the interest in Tayma will increase even more, since one of the most famous objects from the Saudi-German expedition, the stele of King Nabonidus, is on display in the big European archaeological museums this summer. After its tour to Paris, London and Berlin it will return back to Tayma where it stood more than 2,500 years ago.