Bronze Age Fortifications Discovered in Northwest Arabia

Massive wall likely protected oasis from marauding nomads

Khaybar oasis

Reconstruction of the Bronze Age Fortifications at the Khaybar oasis. Courtesy Khaybar LDAP, G. Charloux.

An international team in the Khaybar oasis has uncovered one of the most extensive Bronze Age fortifications ever discovered in Saudi Arabia. Dated to the end of the third millennium BCE, the fortification, which encircled the oasis, stretched 9 miles and likely stood around 16 feet tall. The Khaybar fortifications join a group of other well-known defenses constructed in the third and second millennia in the region, such as Tayma and Qurayyah, roughly coinciding with a period of urbanization to the north in Canaan.

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Fortifying an Oasis

Originally spotting the wall in satellite images, the team from the Khaybar Longue Durée Archaeological Project carried out an extensive field survey of the oasis to identify the remains of the ancient wall. Although only 40 percent of the wall is still standing today, the team estimated that it originally encircled an area of over 2,700 acres and incorporated as many as 180 bastions that faced outward toward the surrounding desert.


Aerial view of excavations at the Khaybar oasis. Courtesy Khaybar LDAP, G. Charloux.

Although the researchers remain uncertain as to the wall’s exact function, it likely served as a defensive fortification against marauding desert nomads, a frequent problem in the pre-Islamic Hijaz. It may have also served to protect the site’s agricultural land from erosion and floodwater, while at the same time acting as a display of local power and authority.


Section of the wall with dismantled infilling. Courtesy Khaybar LDAP, G. Charloux.

Constructed without mortar, the lower half of the wall was double-faced and filled with rubble, while the upper portion was likely made of mudbrick. Following the contours of the plateau, the wall averaged between 5 and 7.5 feet thick. While it is difficult to date such dry-stone constructions, the team was able to utilize radiocarbon samples taken from various spots in and below the wall to date it between 2250 and 1950 BCE.

The team believes the wall was likely built in its entirety at one time, with modifications and refurbishments made later, over the 400-plus years that it was in use. Such construction would have necessitated a large amount of planning and effort, which suggests the oasis’s inhabitants had a high level of social complexity. Based on their reconstruction of the wall, researchers estimate it would have required nearly 6 million cubic feet of stones. While both the wall and the quantity of stones needed were massive, this would have certainly been manageable, even for the small settlement inside the oasis. Indeed, calculations suggest that it would have taken 250 workers only two years to build if they were working full time.


Map of the Khaybar oasis and other major sites in northwestern Arabia. Courtesy G. Charloux, ESRI.

Despite the wall’s monumental nature, many questions remain about the people who built it and their relation to other oasis communities in North Arabia. Although the people around the Khaybar oasis had likely been semi-nomadic just a few centuries before the creation of the wall, their process of becoming sedentary is mirrored in several other communities in northwestern Arabia during the third and second millennia BCE. Indeed, the fortifications at the oases of Qurayyah and Tayma, located in biblical Midian to the north of Khaybar, date to earlier in the third millennia, with Tayma even rivaling Khaybar in size. These fortified oases would be the seeds of the later caravan kingdoms, such as Dadan and Lihyan, that would come to dominate the Arabian Peninsula in the first millennium BCE.

Read more in Biblical Archaeology Daily:

Neolithic Shrines and Pilgrimages in Saudi Arabia

Ramesses III in Arabia?

Exploring Arabia’s Pre-Islamic Heritage

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

Arabia or Africa: Where Is the Land of Sheba?

Lawrence of Arabia as Archaeologist

Mt. Sinai—in Arabia?

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

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