In AlUla, a vast repository of knowledge from across the ages gives insight into the civilisations that once made this place their home. Described by many as a huge ‘open air library’ and, by some as ‘ancient graffiti’, Jabal Ikmah features hundreds of inscriptions that date as far back as the first millennium B.C.E
Located five kilometres from the ancient city of Dadan, once the capital of the long-lost Dadanite and Lihyanite kingdoms, a simple opening in the rock leads to what could easily be mistaken as just another crevasse in a landscape marked by dramatic mountain ranges and sandstone canyon, a geological inheritance resulting from tectonic movements that date to the opening of the Red Sea 30 million years ago.
While these rock formations are in themselves remarkable, what makes this crevasse truly exceptional is that it serves as a gateway to yet another of AlUla’s historical treasures. Upon closer examination, hundreds of inscriptions, rock art, and petroglyphs can be found etched into the rock face, transforming it into what the local community refers to as the ‘open library’. Ranging from people’s names, occupations, and geographical locations to more detailed written records of significant events and religious rituals, Jabal Ikmah tells a fascinating story of the people who lived in and passed through the area over a period that spans thousands of years.
What inspired quite so many people to leave their mark in this exact location remains a mystery. As a crossroads on the incense and pilgrimage routes, the AlUla oasis was a hub of commercial and cultural exchange; indeed, inscriptions at Jabal Ikmah of names of other cities along this same trading route, which include Badr, Tha’al, and Mahja, bear testament to this. This cultural richness propelled the growth of settlements, including Dadan, and attracted both traders and scholars from far and wide.
Jabal Ikmah acts as the chronicle of a lost time, giving valuable insight into how ancient Arabic formed and evolved. With language shaping our perception of and relationship with the world around us, being both a reflection of and the driving force that shapes the values, beliefs, and worldview of communities, culture and language can be seen to be intrinsically entwined. In the words of Noam Chomsky, the renowned academic lauded as the ‘father of modern linguistics’: “A language is not just words. It’s a culture, a tradition, a unification of a community, a whole history that creates what a community is. It’s all embodied in a language.
An organic canvas upon which the earliest forms of the Arabic script were inscribed, Jabal Ikmah is a treasure trove that sheds light on the use of the Arabic alphabet and the development of the Arabic language, which has in turn shaped the cultural evolution of the region. Sitting at the intersection of linguistics and culture, this rich repository is a key by which the secrets of ancient societies can be unlocked.
Of particular significance is the fact that the rock acts as a showcase for hundreds of inscriptions, some of which, including Aramaic, Dadanitic, Thamudic, Minaic, and Nabataean, predates Arabic. Of particular interest are inscriptions dating back to when the Dadanite Kingdom thrived, during which time an alphabet form of the South Semitic writing system was developed; by deciphering these petroglyphs etched into the sandstone cliffs of AlUla, historians have been able to uncover valuable insights into Dadanite history which, in the absence of other records, would otherwise be lost forever in the mists of time.
In addition to writing, various drawings give insight into everyday life. Drawings of human figures engaged in hunting, herding, and farming, alongside depictions of farming and hunting tools, and some musical instruments, tell us what these civilisations valued. Images of the animals they raised, such as camels, deer, sheep, goats, ostriches and, notably, a single muscular bull, also give an indication of husbandry practices through the ages.
The conservation of landmarks such as Jabal Ikmah is central to the Royal Commission of AlUla’s vision for the region, whereby its rich cultural heritage is central to the sustainable development of tourism and, ultimately, to drive economic growth for the benefit of the local community, now and for future generations.