The Archaeology Fund





South Arabia

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 The ancient Sumerians living in southern Iraq, from the beginning of writing ca. 3000 B.C., described a semi-mythical region which lay to the south of them and from which they had originated in the dawn of time. Called Dilmun in the earliest texts (Uruk IV period),[ BA-012] the sea world and the lands along it took on a mythical perspective. The Sumerians described the land there as free of pain and sorrow with people of the region achieving immortality. They recorded their ideas in such accounts as Enki and the World Order, Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living and The Sumerian Genesis. Sumerian economic texts took a more sober and business-like approach in describing the region, noting the origins of precious stones, copper, amazing plants and animals, as well as timber and building stone [IC-007]. By 2200 B.C. the land of Dilmun was described together with more distant locations such as Magan and Meluhha. In most cases, these locations were reached by specials ships [IC-079] and sailors.

 Where were these lands and what role did modern geology and archaeology play in locating them? The concept of “Paradise Land” known already from Assyrian copies discovered in the mid-nineteenth century, had an immediate impact on Biblical scholarship as researchers quickly realized that the Genesis 2 accounts of creation utilized words (Eden, Adam, rivers), phrases (creation of man from clay), and descriptions (Four rivers including the Tigris and Euphrates) which were to parallel to a remarkable degree the much earlier Sumerian land of Dilmun. By the mid-twentieth century, most scholars suggested that Dilmun lay in the Persian Gulf region and more specifically with the lands on the Arabian side such as Kuwait, Bahrain, and Eastern Saudi Arabia.

 Most dramatically, excavations at the Sumerian city of Eridu [IC-019], where the Sumerians stated they had come ashore to establish first, revealed material sequences stretching back to 5500 B.C. This early prehistoric period called the Ubaid, was recognized by its distinctive ceramic vessels painted in vivid black color and beautiful designs. By 1970, such pottery had been reported from Bahrain, Iran, Eastern Saudi Arabia and eventually Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. Thus, one could hypothesize a link between the earliest inhabitants of southern Mesopotamia and Ubaid sites along the periphery of the Gulf. It was left to the German researchers aboard the ship Meteor in 1969, to conduct detailed work in the Persian Gulf and corroborate ideas that the Gulf had lain dry during and just after the last major glaciation, ca.60,000- 10,000 B.C. Rivers and streams flowing into the dry Gulf from adjoining areas could be traced along its entirety. Hence, the earliest inhabitants lived along such oases (“gardens”) in a long dry plain (eden/edin). The slow infilling of the marine waters drowned these river systems and associated oases and dune fields along their path. Today, therefore, we see only the later surviving settlements along the high stands of the marine infilling in Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Emirates. By 5000 B.C. the infilling had pushed even three m. higher than present and created a shoreline in southern Iraq that was quite distant from the present day one. Such being the case, present day sea-levels were achieved only after 2000 B.C. for the region [IC-083]. These facts suggested that the Sumerians and their predecessors had lived along the now vanished rivers and springs until forced to move northward into the Sumerian plain and Eridu, thus creating civilization.

 The Persian Gulf region then, was a link first by riverine travel and later by marine sailing between our incense lands to the south and goods moving from India (Meluhha) and northern Oman and Persia (called Magan). Much of the documented early trade firmly ties Northern Oman and India to the Dilmun region. Only more recently, have we found links between our incense lands of Southern Arabia and the Dilmun region. An incense burner excavated in northern Oman and dating to the Bronze Age (ca. 2200 B.C.) contained residue identified as frankincense. A copal bead from East Africa (see link) has been recovered in the same period from Eshnunna a Sumerian/Akkadian city far up the Tigris on the Diyala tributary. Thus, Dilmun acted as a large scale entrepot, a type of Hong Kong, attracting goods from seaborne trade linking East frica, southern Arabia and India. Much of Arabia also participated in the early trade because of a wetter climate until 2000 B.C. [IC-010, IC-032, IC-033] The ICTZ,[ IC-070] located much further to north, ([IT-022]link) facilitated overland trade along prominent river systems even through the now formidable Rub al Khali [IC-067]. Such climatic and geographical conditions tied the southern Arabian incense lands and Eastern Arabia directly to the ancient Sumerians until 2000 B.C.

Cuneiform texts from southern Mesopotamia begin to mention eastern Arabia as early as 3200 BC (Uruk IV). Known as Dilmun, the region acted as an entrepot for goods coming from India, southern and western Arabia. Frankincense and myrrh must have been included in these products. The tablet shown here is probably from the Sumerian city of Uruk and belongs to the Uruk III period (ca. 2900 B.C.). The mention of Dilmun on the reverse may be associated with grain rations.

Sites such as Tarut in Eastern Saudi Arabia acted as entrepots for trade coming from greater distances. Lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, was carried to Mesopotamia via overland trade routes or by merchnats engaged in maritime shipping from Meluhha (The Indus Valley civilization). The archaeological distribution of Dilmun seals illustrates this maritime trade in the Gulf in the early second millennium B.C.

Ancient ship construction can still be seen at the dockyards of Sur in northern Oman. Wood is primarily imported from India and the ancient techniques of shell first construction have been integrated in modern ship construction of the region.

Eridu is considered one of the oldest and southernmost of the Sumerian towns. Built on the shoreline of an ancient north Arabian lake, the city acted as a prime entrepot in the prehistoric Ubaid and Protoliterate periods (5500-2900 B.C.). By the Early Dynastic period (2900-2500 B.C.), the city had become largely a cultic shrine. During its heyday, Eridu had access to both Gulf and interior Arabian markets.

The incense trade to southern Mesopotamia either followed overland routes across Eastern Arabia or maritime routes in the Persian Gulf. In both cases, they converged on the lower Mesopotamia delta.

The Neolithic and Bronze Age trade routes across the peninsula can be hypothesized based on the archaeological evidence and the later historic Iron Age and Islamic period routes (see above). (after Zarins 1999 and 2001).

The southern Rub al Khali today appears impassable. With a knowledge of the locations of permanent wells however, routes across the sand desert are known.