Northeastern Arabia

From the Seleucids to the Earliest Caliphs

By: Daniel T. Potts

Originally Published in 1984

View PDF

The course of Near Eastern archaeology, as we are seeing very vividly today, is highly sus­ceptible to the winds of political change. Iran and Afghanistan, to name but two examples, are lands in which it is at present impossible for western archaeologists to work. Yet this trend is hardly new, and in the Arabian penin­sula political conditions have always played a very important role in determining where and when research was or was not possible.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, for example, both the northwestern and south­western parts of the peninsula were inves­tigated by European scholars, whether search­ing for remains of the Nabataean kingdom, ancient Dedan, the land of Midian, or Qataban and Saba, But in the northeastern part of the peninsula, with the exception of politically motivated explorers cum agents (Potts 1984a: Table 1), such was not the case, and indeed until very recently, the only explo­ration of any kind was that carried out by members of the ARAMCO (Arabian American Oil Company) community. In the last several years, however, research teams from the Pea­body Museum, Harvard University, and the Institute of Near Eastern Archaeology, Free University of Berlin, in cooperation with the Saudi Arabian Dept. of Antiquities, have helped to throw light on this forgotten corner of the Near East, traditionally known as Al-Hasa. A season of survey in 1977 (Fig. 1) between Dhahran and Kuwait (Potts et al. 1978) was followed up in 1982 by a brief recon­naissance (Potts n.d.) of the site of Thai, the largest site (ca. 8 sq. km.) in northeastern Arabia and one inhabited between ca. 300 B.C. and A.D. 300. Finally, in 1983, a very productive season of excavations was carried out at Thaj (Potts, Pedde, and Fanelli n.d.).

In the following pages, some of the results of our research on ancient Hasaean society Will be discussed, focusing on one of the least understood periods in the region’s history, the 3rd century B.C. to the 7th century All The area is of extreme interest given the fact that here we have an indigenous, North Arabian culture that was influenced in turn by its nearby Seleucid, Parthian, and Sasanian neigh­bors in Babylonia and Iran, and by its more remote trading partners in southern Arabia. Yet throughout its history, the unique character of the region has persisted.

The Ancient Hasaean Environment

To begin with, what were the environmental conditions which permitted settled habitation in this area? For the layman, and certainly many scholars as well, oil and extreme aridity are the first things that come to mind when the name Saudi Arabia is spoken. But it is per­haps not always recognized that all of Saudi Arabia’s oil conies from northeastern Arabia—the area of our concern— and from off-shore wells in the neighboring Arabian Gulf itself. And it is certainly also worth stressing that where oil wells are dug, large amounts of fresh water are required to produce the mud which encases and thereby cools the drilling appara­tus. And where fresh water is present in the Near East, it is unlikely not to find substantial remains from the ancient past.

The water in question is not rain water, however, for of that there is little in eastern Arabia. In 1946, for example, only 5.3 mm. fell in Dhahran. And while 215.1 mm. are recorded for Ras Tannura in 1955, the average over the last fifty years has been only about 84 mm., a far cry from the 200 mm. generally conceded to be necessary for dry-farming in the Near East. These statistics tell us not only that there is little rain water to be expected, but also that the yearly variability is enormous. To be sure, what little rain does fall can, quite literally, make the desert bloom, as a result of which the wildflowers of the Arabian desert have become justly famous. In addition, it is surely of importance for the Bedouin whose herds of camel, goat and sheep graze here, and for the wild asses of Thaj, mentioned by the pre-Islamic poet ‘Amr b. KuIthum in the 6th century A.D, (Thilo 1958:103) and still to be found here today.

But there can be no comparison between this meager and sporadic source of water and the abundantly endowed Umm ar-Radhuma aquifer, located at a depth of 280-600 m. below ground level, whose course is shown in Fig. 2. Naturally, prior to the advent of deep drilling, there could be no question of directly tapping this rich water source, but we know that three other aquifers which are much shal­ lower receive their water from the Umm ar­Radhuma formation, and it has been possible at least since the Seleucid era, when the first stone-lined wells at Thaj must have been dug, to reach water at depths of 10-35 m. below ground level. These wells have been cared for over the years, replastered or in some cases repaired with cement, and nowhere else is their effect more impressively shown than in the Qatif oasis, where 32 hand-dug wells have a total discharge of no less than 36,000 cubic meters of water per day, the largest spilling forth 30-50 liters of water per second (Potts 1984a:91). This water supply has, enabled the large-scale cultivation of dates in both the Qatif and Hofuf oases, so famous throughout the Islamic world and praised by early Arabic poets such as Labid b. Rabí’a (d. A.D. 661) and Du’r-Rumma (d. A.D. 720).

But garden cultivation was not the only form of subsistence production in ancient Hasa. Large-scale agriculture was also impor­tant for the sustenance of the many towns and cities whose names are preserved on Ptolemy’s map of Arabia. In this regard it is particularly interesting to note that Pliny (Nat. Hist. VI,159) speaks of a river Murannimal flowing from inner Arabia towards the Gulf, just as Al-A’sâ (d. A.D. 629), Labid (d. A.D. 661), Al­Hamdani (d. A.D. 945) and Yacut (A.D. 1179-1229) did, calling it the “Muhllim”, and writing that the “Muhallim is a great river, and it is for Arabia, what the Oxus is for Balkh.” Although the existence of this river was much debated by later authorities, both Arab (e.g., Abu’l-Fida, A.D. 1273-1331) and Euro­pean (e.g., G. F. Sadleir in 1819), there is hardly a pre-modern map of Arabia that does not show it. Furthermore, it is important to note that a series of sabkhas — salt-lakes which are dry in summer and wet in winter—stretches from Hofuf northeastwards towards the Gulf (Fig. 3), indicating that a fluvial system could have once existed here, of which the sabkhas are the mere residue. In fact, low-level aerial photographs of the area almost equidistant between Al-`Uqayr and Hofuf show a series of river channels and traces of irriga­tion canals.

We know from pottery found on its surface that the site associated with this irrigation system was occupied in the period of our con­cern. Indeed a recent satellite photograph (Fig. 4) shows the course of Pliny’s Murannimal river quite clearly, now in use again for drain­age as part of a new irrigation project. Geomorphologists have determined that ‘the Jaffurah sands, which currently stand between Hofuf and the Gulf, were responsible for the original blockage of the river, moving across its outlet to the sea and thereby causing pools of stagnant water to form the chain of sabkhas mentioned above.

Chaldean Origins?

Let us turn briefly now to another problem, namely, what were the origins of the culture of which we find the first traces in the 3rd cen­tury B.C.? Without reaching back into the remote past of the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th millennia B.C., we have little more than a handful of unpublished seals of Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian type from eastern Arabia to let us know that the area was inhabited during the first half of the 1st millennium B.C. What is perhaps of potentially greater importance, however, is a dedicatory inscription (Fig. 5) carved on a rock face in the Hofuf oasis which represents that rare genre of texts variously called Old Arabic, Chaldean or, more com­monly, Proto-Arabic, dated to between the 5th and 9th centuries B.C. While the actual dedicatory content of the text is of considerable interest, the mere fact of its existence in north­eastern Arabia is of even greater significance, for it was W. F. Albright’s belief that such inscriptions, known also from Ur, Uruk, Abu, Salabikh, Nippur, and Anah on the Middle Euphrates (Potts 1984a: Table 7), represented the earliest traces of the Chaldeans. Fifteen years before the Hofuf inscription was known to the scholarly world, he suggested that the last dynasty to rule Babylonia before the Per­sian conquest, the dynasty which included the illustrious Nebuchadnezzar, had originated in “an undetermined part of east Arabia:’ Does this inscription then provide confirmation for Albright’s thesis? At this point it is still too early to tell, although this is the southernmost Chaldean or Proto-Arabic inscription thus far discovered. It is also interesting that the Chal­deans appear in yet another context, namely as exiles expelled from Babylon to Gerrha. By whom they were expelled we do not know, although it is sometimes said that, if indeed the tale is true, they were expelled either by Sen­nacherib in the early 7th century B.C., or else left following the Persian conquest of Babylonia.


Gerrha, regardless of whether or not it was founded or in part populated by Chaldeans, is famous as that fabulously wealthy emporium to which Antiochus the Great made an expedi­tion in 205 B.C. As Strabo tells us, the caravan­eers of Gerrha went to the Hadhramaut in 40 days’ time to purchase incense (for the route followed, see Potts 1983a) and were the main suppliers of that most coveted commodity to their contemporaries in Babylonia. In an exceptional case, according to Agatharchides, they even went to Petra to sell incense. This was not necessarily a case of carrying coals to Newcastle, but perhaps, as W. W. Tarn sug­gested more than a half century ago, came about because the Ptolemies had penetrated western Arabia and diverted the caravans bear­ing incense from southern Arabia away from Petra to their own advantage (Potts 1983a: 122, n. 69).

But what of the location of ancient Gerrha? Many suggestions have been made, but new evidence is emerging which suggests that the site of Thaj is the best candidate (Potts 1984b). To understand why this may be the case, how­ever, we must first consider the etymology of the name Gerrha. W. W. Muller has suggested that Greek `Gerrha’ derives from North Ara­bian ’11GR’ via an Aramaic form ‘Hagara.’ Indeed there is plenty of evidence from ancient Hasa for the use of Aramaic in addition to the indigenous `Hasaean’ dialect of ancient North Arabian, and it is not unlikely that Aramaic eventually superseded Hasaean as the popular language of the area. Aramaic inscriptions, Hasaean-Aramaic bilinguals, and Aramaic toponyms on Ptolemy’s map of Arabia, includ­ing Magindanata, Bilbana, Ibirtha, and Masthala (Altheim and Stiehl 1968: 94-95, 165; 1969: 27-30) all attest to the use of Aramaic in the region. This said, the task becomes one of identifying the site known to the ancient inhabitants of the area as HGR.

HGR, Gerrha and Thaj

HGR is a common South Arabian designa­tion for a walled, fortified city. Of all the archaeological sites discovered thus far in northeastern Arabia, only Thaj has a city wall (Fig. 6) complete with towers which merits the South Arabian designation HGR. It was, indeed, the immensity of the site, only a frac­tion of which is contained within the city wall, and the fact that surface finds attested to a major occupation in the Seleucid era, that prompted our investigations here.

The full report on our work is in press (Potts, Pedde, and Fanelli n.d.), but it may be helpful to give a brief account of the main results here. Thaj, with an areal extent of ca. 8 sq. km., may be the largest site in the entire Arabian peninsula. The first season concentrated on establishing a ceramic sequence through the completion of a deep sounding down to virgin soil, the clearance of part of a large building complex extending over 600 sq. m., mapping of and test excavation alongside the city wall, and the uncovering of an enigmatic building out­side the walled city area. A sequence of four building levels and their associated pottery form the basis for our preliminary definition of four occupational periods. The earliest two (Periods 4 and 3) are datable to the 3rd cen­tury B.C., due to the presence of Seleucid egg­shell ware, well-known on many sites in Mesopotamia of this period. Period 2, with which the first large-scale architectural activity at the site can be associated, cannot be much later, for it is marked by the presence of Greek black-glazed sherds whose forms suggest a date in the 3rd century B.C. as well. Luckily, we recovered identical sherds beneath the founda­tions of the city wall during a sounding at the southwest tower (Fig. 7), and are now able to date this massive, irregularly rectangular con­struction —4 m. wide and more than 2.5 km. in total length—with reasonable accuracy. It must be stressed, furthermore, that all of the architecture at the site is built of cut limestone ashlars, and thus represents an enormous effort of urbanization completely without parallel elsewhere in eastern Arabia. Finally, our Period I, the latest period of occupation at the site, can be dated roughly to the 2nd-4th cen­turies A.D. through the recovery of rouletted sherds with Roman parallels in Europe and Sasanian parallels in Mesopotamia.

In view of its city wall, Thaj is certainly worthy of the South Arabian designation HGR. But it must also be stressed that Thaj is the only site in eastern Arabia at which coins minted by two of the presumed kings of HGR, Abyatha and Abi’el, have been found (Potts 1984b:88; 1984c; Robin 1974:87,89). Thus, on the basis of both the coins and the massiveness of the city wall, one could well suggest that Thaj was ancient HGR, and as a corollary, based on the etymology of Gerrha suggested by Muller, that Thaj was Gerrha.

Ancient Hasaean Society

Now that we have discussed Gerrha, Thaj, and the environment of Al-Hasa, one may well ask, what do we know about the ancient inhabitants of the area? Mention has already been made of their inscriptions, which repre­sent a local North Arabian dialect written in South Arabian characters, and it may not be too speculative to suggest that herein lies the language encountered by Antiochus III when he came to Gerrha seeking to neutralize its economic power. For, as Polybius reports (Hist. XIII,2,9), Antiochus required an interpreter to understand the letter written to him by the people of Gerrha, and the Hasaean dialect, represented by the still small corpus of no more than 30 inscriptions, seems a likely candidate for the language in which this letter was written.

But what do these texts tell us of the people of Gerrha or the region as a whole? C. Robin and J. Ryckmans date them to the Seleucid era, and as such they should be examined in every way possible for information which could throw light on early Hasaean society. In fact, although the known inscriptions are all funerary (for a complete listing of these inscriptions see Potts 1984a: Table 8), they do serve as a mirror of the society which created them, when examined from an anthropological perspective. For the inscriptions, although standardized, contain not only the name of the deceased, but also different formulae of descent which tell us something about the organization of their society. Six formulae of descent are to be found in these inscriptions. Is the simplest, of which eight examples are known, the deceased’s name is given (“grave­stone and grave of X”), followed by those of his/her ancestors in up to three `genealogical steps, e.g., son/daughter of A, son/daughter of B, son/daughter of C. One should be careful not to assume that these represent true genera­tional steps, i.e., the actual mother/father, grandmother/grandfather, etc., of the deceased, since we know from other cases in the ancient world that the “father” in a funer­ary inscription could in fact be several genera­tions removed from the deceased, while the “grandfather” might be an eponymous or even mythic ancestor.

Other inscriptions include not only the genealogical steps, but additionally the name of the deceased’s clan, the family name, family and clan names together, clan and tribe names, and in one case, family, clan, and tribe names. Two inscriptions may be considered exemplary, and are of particular importance, namely, the inscriptions Ja 1045 and Cornwall 2. These are shown in Fig. 8 where they have been diagrammed, using triangles for the males and circles for the females; the deceased in each case is shown in black. Ja 1045 shows that a male might indicate descent exclusively through the female line, while Cornwall 2 shows that the opposite was also true, for here a female names three male ancestors. This shows clearly that, contrary to the thesis of W. Robertson Smith, whose 1885 work Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia still exerts great influence, pre-Islamic Arabian society was not exclusively matrilineal.

Many interpretive problems remain to be solved before it can be said that we ‘under­stand’ these inscriptions fully. Their study, however, could yield unexpected new insights into ancient Hasaean society.

Ancient Hasa and the Parthians

The decline of Gerrha is usually attributed to the rise of Parthia, the consequently greater importance of the land route from the east through Iran, and the activities of those suc­cessful merchants of Charax Spasinou, the city from which Isidoros, author of Parthian Sta­tions, hailed. Another competitor, of course, was Palmyra, a city in the Syrian desert with enough influence in the Gulf to have had a satrap on Bahrain attested in A.D. 131 and well-carved tombs on the Iranian island Kharg.

However one wishes to look at the decline of Gerrha, it must be stressed that Parthian con­tact with northeastern Arabia was not insub­stantial. Ardashir, the founder of the Sasanian empire, waged a campaign against eastern Arabia in A.D. 228. In Tabari’s account of that campaign we read that he encountered and conquered the local king, whose name was Sanatruk. Now Sanatruk is a distinctively Par­thian name (sntrwk), also attested in the Par­thian royal family and among the rulers of Hatra, Armenia, and Adiabene. Despite objec­tions from various scholars, such as Franz Altheim (Altheim and Stiehl 1965:228) and Geo Widengren, as to the veracity of Tabari’s testimony, there is no reason to doubt that a Parthian governor may have been resident in eastern Arabia. Certainly this would explain the otherwise enigmatic fact that, as Ardashir’s first act upon becoming king, he chose to invade the area.

If we look to our area for archaeological indications of Parthian presence, moreover, we find several of interest. At the site of Ayn Jawan (Fig. 9) a T-shaped tomb of cut lime­stone ashlars was opened in the late 1940s by several American oil men (Bowen 1950). It was obviously a wealthy tomb, as shown by the jewelry found in it (Fig. 10). Furthermore, it lies next to a small settlement of the Seleucid and Parthian periods investigated by the Pea­body Museum team in 1977 (Potts et al. 1978:21; Potts 1984a: Fig. 7). This grave could well represent the tomb of some petty Parthian royalty, for the jewelry found within it can be compared with a number of Parthian pieces from Iran. Nor is this the only excavated tomb in the area containing Parthian material.

At Dhahran, the American oil town on the mainland opposite Bahrain, there is a tomb field which once contained about 1500 burial mounds. In 1977 we discovered that one of these tombs (Fig. H) had been cut into by a bull-dozer, a not uncommon occurrence as many of them lie in the area of a proposed new runway for the Dhahran airport. We were able to do a quick salvage excavation, recovering the remains of at least four individuals and a small number of artifacts, all of the Parthian and Sasanian periods. Typical Parthian green-blue glazed amphorae fragments with twisted han­dles, a type well-known at Seleucia or on Failaka, were recovered, not to mention a fine glass pitcher of a type with Roman parallels of 2nd or 3rd century A.D. date (Potts et al. 1978: Pl. 10/43-45,48).

Before leaving Ardashir and his time, there is another interesting point which should be mentioned. Tabari tells us that, in addition to defeating Sanatruk, Ardashir founded a new city in eastern Arabia on the site of Khatt. The name of this city has been rendered variously in the sources, but Frye has recently reaffirmed Altheim’s suggestion that it should be read Peroz-Ardashir, i.e., “victorious is Ardashir.” Now it is interesting that the district Khatt is normally identified with, at least in part, the modern Qatif oasis (Thilo 1958:59), and here in 1941, P.13. Cornwall heard of a headless statue found there some years before and sub­sequently reburied, which he then succeeded in re-excavating (Cornwall 1946:45). The dress of the statue (Fig. 12), with its long coat and skirt, is not at all like the typical Parthian baggy trousers and kandys (type of coat) in many folds, but rather calls to mind the relief showing the investiture of Ardashir himself at Naqsh-i Rajab. We may well wonder whether this slightly smaller than life-size statue is not a relic of Ardashir’s campaign in the area and subsequent foundation of Peroz-Ardashir. Unfortunately, the whereabouts of this impor­tant piece are not known, but I am in touch with a number of retired ARAMCO employ­ees who were in Arabia in the late 1940s and early 50s, and they may be able to help in locating it.

Lakhmids, Sasanians, and Nestorian

 A text known as the “Provincial Capitals of Erânshahr,” composed between A.D. 754 and 775, tells us that Ardashir installed a governor or marzban in eastern Arabia, and this marks the beginning of ca. 400 years of direct or indirect Sasanian domination in the area. Under Ardashir’s son, Shapur I, however, actual administration of the area passed to the Sasanians’ clients, the Arab dynasty of Al-Hira in Iraq known to us as the Lakhmids. It was perhaps at the hands of one of the Lakhmids, Mar al-Qays, that Thaj was destroyed ca. A.D. 300 (Potts n.d.). At any event, we do not hear of it in Tabari’s account of Shapur II’s cam­paign against eastern Arabia in 325. Obviously Lakhmid control in the early years of the 4th century was not a great success, for Shapur found it necessary to make a punitive expedi­tion into the area, penetrating deep into cen­tral and even western Arabia.

It is about 30 years after the death of Shapur H, in the year A.D. 410, that we read for the first time in the acts of a synod held by Bishop Isaac at Seleukeia-Ktesiphon of the existence of Nestorian bishoprics in north­eastern Arabia. Present at the synod was Paul, bishop of Ardai and Todoru. These names have been maintained down to the present day in slightly altered form. Darin, i.e., Ardai, is the

name of the main town on the island of Tarut, i.e., Todoru, just opposite the Qatif oasis. The only relics of the Nestorian community, which flourished in northeastern Arabia from at least the beginning of the 5th century until perhaps the 10th century A.D., are three grave stones. These were originally found at Darin, but by 1914, as we learn from a letter written by an American missionary to the German orientalist Eduard Sachau, the objects were on Bahrain, and indeed they are now on display in the Bahrain museum.

The Coming of Islam

The breakup of Sasanian control in north­eastern Arabia began by A.D. 629 when the Arab governor of the area, al-Mundir b. Sawa, received an invitation from the Prophet to con­vert to Islam. Seeing this as an opportunity to overthrow his Sasanian overseer Sëboxt, al­ Mundir sent a delegation to Medina, conclud­ing a treaty with Muhammad, and providing the new Moslem regime with their very first taxes, namely, dates and grain from eastern Arabia. This act of conversion, however, was principally aimed at overthrowing the Sasa­nians’ control, not at taking up a new religion, and as soon as the Prophet died, the movement known as ridda (apostasy) began, in which the eastern Arabians renounced Islam. But this movement was short-lived. At Juwaytha, later the site of the first mosque in eastern Arabia (said to have been built in 635), the defeat of al-Mundir b. an-Nu’man in 633 opened the way for an advance towards the coast. In 635 Darin was the object of the final assault which destroyed the ridda movement once and for all. Yacut tells us that the conquest of Darin required boats, and that the Moslem army had none. Sayf says that the journey to Tarut would have taken a day and a night’s sailing, but God performed a miracle by parting the waters separating Tarut island and the mainland, thereby allowing the Moslem army to advance. He says that the water barely went over the tops of the camels’ feet as they crossed Qatif bay. In fact, at low tide one can today walk across the bay with no trouble, and there are obviously shades of God parting the waters of the Red Sea for the Hebrews in this apocryphal tale. Nevertheless, the Moslem conquest did not put an end to the Nestorian community here, and we possess records of an important synod held on Tarut in 676 (Potts n.d.), as well as later references to Christians and Jews in the region.

Research on northeastern Arabia is still in its infancy, but it is hoped that this brief review has shown how many fascinating topics await the researcher who enters into this field of study. For here one has an opportunity to com­bine the fruits of over a century of archaeologi­cal, philological, anthropological, and histori­cal scholarship on Iran, Iraq, and Arabia, with the results of surveys and excavations under­taken within the last few years.

Cite This Article

Potts, Daniel T.. "Northeastern Arabia." Expedition Magazine 26, no. 3 (March, 1984): -. Accessed May 29, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

Report problems and issues to