Want to get away from all the mad­ness this New Year? Take a step back in time to Mleiha, an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal trea­sure site near Shar­jah, with just the stars for com­pany.

Barely 60km from Shar­jah lies one of the most fas­ci­nat­ing ar­eas in not just the UAE but in the re­gion – a place that of­fers you a peek into the his­tory of mankind go­ing back to Pa­le­olithic times, dis­cov­ers Sangeetha Swa­roop. Pho­tos by Ste­fan Lin­d­eque

Friday - - CONTENTS -

There’re prob­a­bly a mil­lion and more rea­sons why Mleiha, an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal trea­sure site around 60km on the out­skirts of cen­tral Shar­jah, should rank high on your to-do list while in the UAE. For starters, it is an area steeped in his­tory. It is a place where pre- and proto-his­toric ev­i­dence are still be­ing un­rav­elled, one dig site at a time, and where relics ex­ca­vated are of­fer­ing clues not just to the his­tory of the UAE or the Ara­bian re­gion but that of the en­tire hu­man race.

Mleiha has the unique dis­tinc­tion of be­ing one of the few sites out­side of Africa that has find­ings from five dis­tinct ar­chae­o­log­i­cal and hu­man his­tory time­lines – Pa­le­olithic or Old Stone Age, Ne­olithic or New Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, and late Pre-Is­lamic pe­ri­ods. A stone tool made by ho­minins – pre­cur­sors to Homo sapi­ens – was un­earthed here where early hu­mans are be­lieved to have crossed over from Africa, over 130,000 years ago dur­ing the time of an Ice Age.

Mleiha al­lows you to take a step back in time, to as far back as 65 mil­lion years ago when shift­ing tec­tonic plates pushed up moun­tains from the seabed. Here you can see, touch and ex­plore fos­silised re­mains of ma­rine crea­tures from that dis­tant time pe­riod. Amidst the scenic back­drop of golden-hued sand dunes, you can also mar­vel at an­other ge­o­log­i­cal won­der – a tow­er­ing moun­tain made of the earth’s up­per man­tle pushed up over the con­ti­nen­tal crust and said to con­tain ig­neous or vol­canic rocks rich in iron and mag­ne­sium.

Scat­tered on the gravel plains and rocky moun­tains, you can still find shards of flint stones which our an­ces­tors used to make stone tools, and high up on these moun­tains, you can en­ter

caves where the dead were buried in the 5th mil­len­nium BCE.

Lo­cated south of Al Dhaid near Jebel Fayah, south­east of Shar­jah city and flanked by the Al Ha­jar moun­tain range, Mleiha is an area of out­stand­ing nat­u­ral beauty that takes you on an in­cred­i­ble jour­ney of ex­plo­ration into the worlds of the past, re­veal­ing the story of mankind’s first foot­prints in the re­gion. The nerve cen­tre of this relic-rich his­tor­i­cal gold­mine is the Mleiha Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Cen­tre, in­au­gu­rated in Jan­uary 2016, and which houses a sam­ple of the abun­dance of ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ev­i­dence un­earthed through­out the Mleiha area.

How and why did early man ar­rive here? Where did they come from? How did they live? To dis­cover all this and more, we join Aj­mal Hasan, ed­u­ca­tion man­ager at the Mleiha Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Cen­tre, as he of­fers us an in­sight into the re­gion’s an­thro­po­log­i­cal his­tory and its strate­gic lo­ca­tion as a gate­way from the con­ti­nent of Africa to the rest of the world.

Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Cen­tre – a sin­u­ous, curvi­lin­ear struc­ture built in sand­stone that wraps it­self around the cir­cu­lar Bronze Age Umm an-Nar tomb, con­structed around 2300 BCE and con­sid­ered to be the most im­pres­sive grave build­ing among the many fu­neral sites in Mleiha. De­signed to rep­re­sent the un­du­lat­ing sand dunes, its cas­cad­ing cop­per roof hints at Mleiha’s strate­gic im­por­tance as a Bronze Age site.

In the court­yard, is a tow­er­ing indige­nous Ghaf tree that sits in its orig­i­nal lo­ca­tion, light fil­ter­ing through its thick fo­liage. ‘The tomb and the ghaf tree were both pro­tected and pre­served dur­ing the con­struc­tion stage and are sym­bolic of the links be­tween man and na­ture and our ties with the past and the present,’ says Aj­mal.

Ar­ranged in a chrono­log­i­cal or­der, start­ing with the Pa­le­olithic Age, the first arte­facts we dis­cover at the Mleiha Mu­seum are the typ­i­cal tools of the pe­riod – al­mond-shaped stone tools used as hand axes. A large brown one is es­ti­mated to be half-a-mil­lion years old while a white stone one less thick, was made with a dif­fer­ent flak­ing tech­nique and un­earthed in Jebel Faya, over­look­ing the Mleiha plains. ‘It is one of the old­est tools made by hu­mans found out­side Africa and is sim­i­lar to the ones found in East Africa where the ear­li­est hu­mans once lived,’ ex­plains Aj­mal.

It was prob­a­bly a ma­jor cli­matic event – the last Ice Age - that caused the mi­gra­tion from Africa across the Red Sea and into the Ara­bian Gulf which was then a re­gion blessed by na­ture’s bounty and had an abun­dance of wa­ter, he says. ‘Mleiha’s geo­graph­i­cal po­si­tion be­tween East Africa and South-West Asia makes it a nat­u­ral bridge be­tween the con­ti­nents and it is pre­sumed that it is from here that hu­mans spread out to the rest of Ara­bia and moved onward to Iran, In­dia, South Asia, Europe and be­yond.’

A num­ber of stone and me­tal arte­facts dis­cov­ered from the pe­riod are on dis­play here. ‘The ex­ca­va­tion of the re­gion’s fu­neral sites has paved the way for our un­der­stand­ing of burial prac­tices at the time and en­hanced our un­der­stand­ing of the Ne­olithic pe­riod in south­east Ara­bia,’ he adds. ‘The no­madic Ne­olothic peo­ple had their pres­ence in the re­gion around 8000 BCE, just af­ter the cold, dry pe­riod of the last phase of the Ice Age was over. Although agri­cul­tural cul­ti­va­tion had not yet com­menced, they had with them herds of cat­tle, sheep, goats and other live­stock. Peo­ple of this pe­riod buried their dead along with their per­sonal be­long­ings in the be­lief of an af­ter-life.’

Bronze, an al­loy of cop­per and tin, be­gan to re­place stone as the ma­te­rial for tools and weapons some­where around the 3300 BCE. ‘Dur­ing the Bronze Age in the Mleiha re­gion, cop­per ore from the Ha­j­jar moun­tains served not only the lo­cal needs but was also ex­ported to dis­tant re­gions such as Me­sopotamia. Ob­jects re­cov­ered dur­ing ex­ca­va­tion such as ivory pen­dants and sil­ver brooches at­test to trade links with the In­dus Val­ley. A seal from Dil­mun – a pow­er­ful king­dom in present day Bahrain – in­di­cates con­nec­tions with that place too,’ ex­plains Aj­mal.

This pe­riod was also known for its ce­ramic ves­sels in dif­fer­ent shapes and sizes. ‘Com­mu­nal graves were com­mon dur­ing the pe­riod, and the Umm an-Nar tomb lo­cated out­side the Cen­tre which would have housed 300 bod­ies is one of the largest of its kind,’ he says.

By the end of the Bronze Age, the Ara­bian re­gion started turn­ing into a desert, says Aj­mal. ‘The In­dian Ocean mon­soon used to cover all of Ara­bia but 3,000 years ago when the Iron Age started, those wind pat­terns be­gan to change and ceased to bring rains to south east Ara­bia lead­ing to the on­set of drought-like con­di­tions.’

Dur­ing the Iron Age, how­ever, peo­ple were craft­ing more re­fined ob­jects and hon­ing their skills in art. Apart from weaponry like ar­row­heads and spears, they also cre­ated jew­ellery boxes and evil eye beads with an­i­mal fig­urines for young chil­dren.

One of the most im­por­tant dis­cov­er­ies of the Iron Age pe­riod in the re­gion was the find­ing of Thuqeibah, an agri­cul­tural set­tle­ment that had a par­tic­u­larly suc­cess­ful wa­ter man­age­ment sys­tem con­sist­ing of wells and a falaj. ‘The rains that came down the Ha­j­jar moun­tains col­lected in an un­der­ground wa­ter ta­ble, and it was this that the peo­ple tapped into by de­vis­ing an in­ge­nious sys­tem of dig­ging wells in a hor­i­zon­tal line at equal dis­tances apart and con­nect­ing them by means of a gen­tly slop­ing canal. The falaj sys­tem thus en­abled wa­ter to flow from wadis in the foothills of the moun­tains to plan­ta­tions in the plains. The peo­ple of this pe­riod there­fore be­gan to set­tle around the

An im­por­tant dis­cov­ery of the Iron Age in the re­gion was Thuqeibah, a set­tle­ment that had a suc­cess­ful wa­ter man­age­ment sys­tem

farms with their live­stock,’ he ex­plains.

One of the most in­ter­est­ing dis­cov­er­ies per­tain­ing to the late Pre-Is­lamic Pe­riod that lasted from 400 BCE to 400 CE is the in­trigu­ing prospect that Mleiha may have been ruled by a dy­nasty of queens. Coins from this pe­riod, pro­duced over four cen­turies – imi­tat­ing the coinage of Alexan­der the Great – bear the name ‘Abiel’, a le­gendary fe­male ruler of Ara­bia. Since Mleiha coin moulds were used to pro­duce these coins, it is pos­tu­lated that Abiel may have ruled these parts.

‘Although Mleiha, lit­er­ally means ‘salty’, it is also a word that sug­gests fem­i­nine beauty, giv­ing rise to the as­sump­tion that Mleiha could have been a queen­dom,’ says Aj­mal.

A 3rd cen­tury BCE tomb­stone with en­graved in­scrip­tions is a his­tor­i­cal trea­sure that oc­cu­pies pride of place at the Mleiha Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal

Cen­tre. The in­scrip­tion, writ­ten in Ara­maic and the south­ern Ara­bic lan­guage, car­ries the name of a king of the an­cient King­dom of Oman – thus mak­ing it the old­est his­tor­i­cal dis­cov­ery that refers to Oman and trac­ing its ex­is­tence to the late third cen­tury BCE.

No­table items on dis­play in the late PreIs­lamic Pe­riod in­clude a sil­ver kohl stick with one end in the shape of a gazelle and dec­o­rated with in­cised pat­terns; gold and sil­ver items from In­dia or Iran; am­phora jars from Greece – their han­dles bear­ing their mak­ers’ stamps have been traced to the is­land of Rhodes; stat­ues of Greek god­desses; a per­fume bot­tle shaped in the form of a date; a hoard of gold, cop­per and sil­ver coins; and many more. ‘All of these sug­gest that there was a wider move­ment of peo­ple and goods, not just within the re­gion, but even trade ties with an­cient Greece in the 2nd cen­tury BCE,’ says Aj­mal.

The ex­is­tence of a fort, palace, farm­house and other large sites of this pe­riod came to light by mere ac­ci­dent, says Aj­mal. ‘In 1991, when pipe­lines for a road were be­ing dug from nearby Al Madam to Mleiha, work­ers came upon ru­ins of a struc­ture. On be­ing in­formed, the Ruler of Shar­jah in­structed to change the course of the road to al­low for ex­plo­ration of the site.’

Funer­ary prac­tices that in­volved bury­ing the dead with their cher­ished trea­sures such as swords, jew­ellery and pot­tery took on an in­ter­est­ing turn dur­ing this pe­riod as im­por­tant fig­ures in Mleiha were also buried with their favourite camels and/or horses. Known as “baliya” prac­tice, pits were dug for camels and horses, ex­plains Aj­mal.

What makes the trip to the Mleiha Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Cen­tre re­ally in­ter­est­ing is that af­ter the guided tour, you are taken to see the sites where the arte­facts were orig­i­nally found. This im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence paves the way for the con­tin­u­a­tion of a di­a­logue be­tween the past and the present, al­low­ing you to bet­ter im­bibe the his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive.

We climb up to the view­ing plat­form out­side the Cen­tre to get a bird’s eye view of the per­fectly cir­cu­lar Umm an-Nar tomb, with the grave cham­ber sep­a­rated into two halves that are fur­ther sub­di­vided into four cor­belled units. ‘The dis­cov­ery of a sin­gle well-shaped rec­tan­gu­lar stone block, typ­i­cal of the Bronze Age cul­ture, pro­vided the clue to the grave’s dis­cov­ery,’ re­veals Aj­mal. ‘Un­for­tu­nately, like many other graves dis­cov­ered here, it was looted for its trea­sures.’

It is on a 4WD that we head to the other ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites in the area. The roads to the sites are paved with a spe­cial biodegrad­able glue. This high-tech bond­ing agent con­tains no chem­i­cals, is en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly and makes the gravel ap­pear wet.

Our first stop is at the Val­ley of Caves in the moun­tain range of Jebel Faya where four caves were dis­cov­ered when me­tre-deep lay­ers of sand were re­moved. As we stand at the base of the lime­stone moun­tain, Aj­mal de­scribes how the in­land basin of Mleiha came into be­ing as a deep trough when the Ha­jar Moun­tains that form its eastern rim were thrust up­ward from the seabed eons ago. Sur­rounded by a chain of low moun­tains, the flat plains were

filled with gravel by a nat­u­ral ge­o­logic force of ero­sion over mil­lions of years through rain-fed floods, streams and rivers.

It was the plen­ti­ful avail­abil­ity of wa­ter, abun­dance of raw ma­te­ri­als such as flint for the pro­duc­tion of tools and weapons and teem­ing wildlife that drew early hu­mans to Mleiha, he ex­plains. We climb up to ex­plore the cave which has a round open­ing on the ceil­ing for light and ven­ti­la­tion.

The re­cent show­ers have left a trail of green growth all around the moun­tain slopes and Aj­mal, a wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher and botany en­thu­si­ast, points out the var­i­ous flow­er­ing plants grow­ing in this rocky ter­rain. We ob­serve the poi­sonous milk weed with white la­tex sap that all an­i­mals shun. It is here, he says, that he had once spot­ted the elu­sive Rose of Jeri­cho or the Res­ur­rec­tion Plant.

As we make our way to the eastern side of the site, Aj­mal asks us to com­pare the ghaf trees grow­ing in the wild with those fenced in­side the mu­seum com­plex. The camels have neatly pruned all the drought-tol­er­ant, ev­er­green trees to a height of 1.3 me­tres while the ones in­side the fence have over­grown fo­liage, droop­ing all the way down!

We pass by the Mleiha Fort, the land­mark of the an­cient city in the late Pre-Is­lamic Pe­riod, and stop at The Palace, a for­ti­fied cen­tral build­ing built around an in­ner court­yard and dat­ing to 1st and mid-3rd cen­turies BCE. Quite likely the palace of a ruler or chief­tain, it is be­lieved that the struc­ture – with a sin­gle point en­try and exit – was com­pletely burnt down when it came un­der at­tack. As with all other sites in the area, this too was com­pletely cov­ered by sand when ar­chae­ol­o­gists be­gan ex­ca­va­tion, he says. ‘Based on the foun­da­tion work, it was built up to show vis­i­tors how peo­ple lived at the time.’

A short drive leads us to the Farm­house Com­plex – a dwelling abode of the com­mon peo­ple. A semi-sub­ter­ranean kitchen lies just 30 me­tres away with mill­stones and tanoor ovens in­di­cat­ing ce­real pro­cess­ing and bread bak­ing.

Pieces of bro­ken pot­tery - each more than 2,000 years old – can still be found in the sandy gravel.

We then make our way to the burial cham­bers and en­ter into a rec­tan­gu­lar pit around 3m deep. ‘Pre-Is­lamic graves were of the sub­ter­ranean type and those of the wealthy or high-rank­ing in­di­vid­u­als had mud-brick tow­ers built over them with a crenelated frieze for dec­o­ra­tion,’ ex­plains Aj­mal.

More than 120 hu­man burial cham­bers have been found at Mleiha but sur­pris­ingly, hu­man re­mains were miss­ing in all of them while in the nearby camel and horse graves, bones have re­mained in­tact, he says. ‘The only pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion is that af­ter the vi­o­lent con­flict, the res­i­dents prob­a­bly came back to col­lect the re­mains of their an­ces­tors and took it away with them.’

As we head out to see the nat­u­ral ge­o­log­i­cal for­ma­tions in the area, we drive through a stun­ning land­scape of multi-coloured hues of ochre, am­ber and golden sand dunes. Fos­sil Rock, as the name sug­gests, is cov­ered with the fos­sils of shells and small sea crea­tures that were on the ocean floor mil­lions of years ago. Tip a glass of wa­ter onto the rock and the im­print of the shells that have so­lid­i­fied be­comes clear in­stantly.

Sprout­ing from among the rocks, Aj­mal points out the Tribu­lus, a dainty yel­low flower which is the na­tional flower of the UAE. We taste the tangy fresh­ness of the wild Sor­rel plant that grows here and also come across the lo­cal ca­per plant that grows on lime­stone moun­tains and which Be­douins pre­vi­ously rel­ished in pick­led form.

Driv­ing up and down the slop­ing dunes, we reach the mono­lith shaped in the form of a camel. A short dis­tance be­hind the Camel Rock is a vantage point for sun­set gaz­ing.

As we make our way back, Aj­mal points out the overnight camp­ing site the Cen­tre hosts for vis­i­tors. Here, as the fiery red sun­set gives way to the night, Mleiha is bathed in the glow of thou­sands of twin­kling lit­tle stars, he says. ‘We pro­vide tele­scopes and guided as­tron­omy ses­sions to iden­tify dis­tant ce­les­tial bod­ies and to wit­ness the full glory of the cos­mos.’

Fos­sil Rock is cov­ered with the fos­sils of shells and small sea crea­tures that were on the ocean floor mil­lions of years ago.

With the weather turn­ing pleas­ant, this is just the time to head off out­doors for a les­son in his­tory

From jew­ellery to urns to burial sites, Mleiha of­fers tourists a view of life in the an­cient days

Aj­mal Hasan of the Mleiha Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Cen­tre, of­fers in­trigu­ing in­sights into the lives of the an­cient peo­ple who lived in the re­gion

Camel Rock and Fos­sil Rock (in­set) of­fer les­sons in ge­og­ra­phy... and his­tory

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