Posted April 24, 2015

Offering its visitors a glimpse into the extremes of desert life, the only permanent inhabitants here are the Bedouin. But despite these largely inhospitable conditions, petroglyphs, inscriptions and archaeological remains testify to 12,000 years of human occupation of this desert.

A petroglyph is an image that has been carved directly onto the rock face. There are thought to be around 25,000 different petroglyph scenes in Wadi Rum. Those responsible for most of these inscriptions are the Thamud, a nomadic tribe who migrated to the area around 800 BC. What has been written of this tribe is very limited and one of the few times they are mentioned is when the Quran talks of their demise. The Thamud are said to have been annihilated by a thunderbolt sent from Allah after they refused to worship him. The engravings left behind by the Thamud therefore give us an essential insight into a tribe that would otherwise have been forgotten.

The petroglyphs here mostly show human figures holding bows and arrows, or animals such as the horse, ibex, or camel. Alongside these pictures are usually symbols that comprise of lines and circles. These symbols are thought to be instructions left by tribespeople for one another, indicating hidden springs nearby, or messages announcing when the area had last been visited.

Aside from telling us that this tribe had an elaborate pictorial culture, the accompanying characters and symbols also tell us that the Thamud tribes had a surprisingly high literacy rate. These inscriptions testify to the very early emergence of alphabets from iconic representations.

Sometimes referred to as ‘ancient graffiti by the Bedouin, the presence of these markings reminds us that despite its harsh climate, the Wadi Rum has been home to humankind for thousands of years.

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