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
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