The mysterious symbols found carved in the deserts of Qatar

(CNN) – Some shoot out of the soft rock like reptiles bathing in the sun. Others are mysterious depressions that resemble an ancient board game played around the world. And some are downright puzzling.

In a desolate and windswept corner of the northeast coast of Qatar, among the sand dunes of the arid desert, is Al Jassasiya, the largest and most important rock art site in the Gulf country.

Here, centuries ago, people used a series of low-lying limestone outcrops as a canvas on which they sculpted symbols, motifs and objects that they observed in their surroundings.

Overall, archaeologists have found a total of about 900 rock carvings, or “petroglyphs,” at Al Jassasiya. They are mostly enigmatic cup marks arranged in various patterns, including rows and rosettes, but also striking representations of sailing ships, usually viewed from above but also depicted in linear profile, among other symbols and signs.

“Although rock art is common in the Arabian Peninsula, some of the carvings at Al Jassasiya are unique and cannot be found anywhere else,” Ferhan Sakal, head of excavation and site management at the Museums of Qatar, told CNN. , referring to the petroglyphs of the ships. seen from a bird’s eye view.

“These carvings represent a high degree of creativity and observation skills. [on the part of] the artists who made them, “he said.” Too [of] abstract thinking, since they couldn’t see the dhow (a traditional boat) from above. “

Cup brands

Experts say that the Al Jassasiya rock carvings are unique to the place.

Courtesy of Dimitris Sideridis

There are around 12 notable petroglyph sites in Qatar, located mainly along the country’s coastline, although some carvings can even be seen in the heart of Doha’s Al Bidda Par, overlooking the Corniche, a popular waterfront.

Al Jassasiya, an hour north of the ultra-modern capital of Qatar and near the ancient pearl port of Al Huwaila, was discovered in 1957. For six weeks, in late 1973 and early 1974, a Danish team led by the archaeologist Holger Kapel and his son Hans Kapel conducted a study that painstakingly cataloged the entire site in photographs and drawings.

Of all the documented individual figures and compositions, more than a third consist of cup marks in various configurations, shapes, and sizes.

The most prominent pattern involves two parallel rows of seven holes, leading some to believe that these were used to play mancala, a board game popular in many parts of the world since ancient times in which two contestants throw odd and even numbers. of small stones in the depressions.

Others have questioned this theory, pointing to the fact that some of the holes in Al Jassasiya are too small to contain any of the stones, while others can be found on slopes, an impractical choice that would have caused the counters to fall.

Other suggestions include cup formations that are used in some way for divination; or to classify and store pearls; or as systems for calculating time and tides.

Game theory

The area contains about 900 carvings.

The area contains about 900 carvings.

Courtesy of Dimitris Sideridis

So what were they really for and what do they mean?

“It is very difficult to answer,” acknowledged Sakal, who is not on the side of board game theory either. “We have no direct leads on the motives used in Al Jassasiya,” he said.

“In my opinion, they can have a ritual meaning and function, which is very old, so it cannot be explained ethnographically.”

But how old? “We really don’t know,” Sakal admitted, explaining that petroglyphs and rock art in general are a great challenge to date.

“There are wild age hypotheses, ranging from the Neolithic to late Islamic times,” he added. “Personally, I think not all the carvings were done at the same time.”

A decade ago, a scientific study of nine different petroglyphs at Al Jassasiya found no evidence that they were more than a few hundred years old, but the researchers concluded that more studies are needed, including the development of new techniques specific to limestone carvings. .

While experts surely cannot say when the Al Jassasiya petroglyphs were created and by whom, everyone agrees that the most fascinating and unusual carvings on the site are those of ships.

Theories vary about the age of the petroglyphs.

Theories vary about the age of the petroglyphs.

Courtesy of Dimitris Sideridis

These creations provide important information on the types of vessels used in the thriving pearl fishing and fishing industries (the mainstays of Qatar’s economy for centuries), as well as their various elements.

Most boats viewed from above are usually shaped like a fish with a pointed stern and rows of oars, carved with a pointed metal tool.

They contain various details, such as crossed ribs and holes that probably show the placement of masts and buttresses.

In some cases, a long line from the stern shows a rope ending in a traditional Arabic anchor (triangular stone anchor with two holes) or European (a metal anchor with a long handle and two curved arms, which was first used time in the region). about seven centuries ago).

Journey to the afterlife

The mystery prevails over the purpose of some of the carvings.

The mystery prevails over the purpose of some of the carvings.

Courtesy of Dimitris Sideridis

“On some of the boats, the oars are not parallel, as they should be when used for rowing, but point to different places,” wrote Frances Gillespie and Faisal Abdulla Al-Naimi in “Hidden in the sands: uncovering the past of Qatar “. ”

“This is what they would have looked like when the boats were anchored in the pearl banks and the oars were left in place for the divers to hold onto and rest each time they went up.”

Experts say they can only speculate as to why there is such a high concentration of ship carvings in Al Jassasiya, compared to other coastal petroglyphic sites in Qatar.

“Ships played an important role in the beliefs of ancient people, who saw them as a symbolic means of transit from this world to the next,” noted Gillespie and Al-Naimi.

“Both the Babylonians and the ancient Egyptians believed that the dead reached the afterlife in a boat. Greek myths spoke of the ferryman Charon who carried the souls of the dead across the River Styx to the underworld. It may be that the carvings of ships older are echoes of a popular memory dating back to prehistoric times. “

Whatever the reason, visitors should remember to bring water with them and wear a hat and sunscreen when wandering among the sculptures to reflect on their significance.

The fenced site has no shady areas, so the best times to visit are at sunrise and sunset. Al Jassasiya is located just south of the popular Azerbaijan beach, so an excursion there can also be combined with a relaxing day by the sea.

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