Al Jassasiya: Mysterious symbols carved in the desert of Qatar

(CNN) – Some shot off the soft rock like sunbathing reptiles. Others are mysterious depressions like an ancient board game played around the world. And some are very confusing.

On a desolate and windswept corner of Qatar’s northeast coast, amid the sand dunes of the barren desert, lies Al Jassasiya, the Gulf country’s largest and most important rock art site.

Here, centuries ago, people used a series of low-lying limestone outcrops as a canvas on which they carved symbols, textures, and objects they observed in their environment. .

Altogether, archaeologists have found a total of about 900 rock carvings, or “petals”, at Al Jassasiya. They are mostly mysterious cup marks arranged in various patterns, including rows and asterisks, but are also eye-catching images of sailing ships, often seen from above but also described in linear form, together with other symbols and markings.

“Although the carving art at Al Jassasiya is very unique and cannot be found anywhere else,” Ferhan Sakal, head of excavations and site manager at the Qatar Museum, told CNN. seen from a bird’s perspective.

“These carvings show a high level of creativity and observation skills [on the part of] the artists who made them,” he said. [of] abstract thinking, because they cannot see the dhow (a traditional ship) from above. “


Experts believe that the rock carvings at Al Jassasiya are unique to the site.

Experts believe that the rock carvings at Al Jassasiya are unique to the site.

Polite Dimitris Sideridis

There are about 12 notable petroglyphs in Qatar, located mostly along the country’s coast – although some of the carvings can even be seen in the center of Doha’s Al Bidda Par, overlooking Doha. Corniche, a popular seaside promenade.

Al Jassasiya, about an hour north of modern Qatar’s capital and near the ancient pear-growing port of Al Huwaila, was discovered in 1957. Over six weeks in late 1973 and early 1974, a group of Danes led by archaeologist Holger Kapel and his son Hans. Kapel did a study that carefully cataloged the entire site with pictures and drawings.

Of all the individual shapes and layouts recorded, more than a third consisted of cup marks of various configurations, shapes and sizes.

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

Others have disputed this theory, pointing to the fact that some holes in Al Jassasiya are too small to accommodate any stones, while others can be found on steep slopes – an option. impracticality may result in counters falling out.

Other suggestions include the shape of the cup being used in some way for divination; or for sorting and storing pearls; or as systems for calculating time and tides.

Game theory

This area contains about 900 carvings.

This area contains about 900 carvings.

Polite Dimitris Sideridis

So, what are they really for and what do they mean?

“It’s very difficult to answer,” admits Sakal, who also doesn’t support board-game theory. “We have no direct clue about the motifs used in Al Jassasiya,” he said.

“In my opinion, they probably have a ritual meaning and function, which is so old that it can’t be explained ethnographically.”

But how old? “We really don’t know,” admits Sakal, explaining that petroglyphs – and rock art in general – have been difficult so far.

He added: “There are myths about the era, from the Neolithic to the late Islamic period. “Personally, I don’t think all the carvings were made 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 several hundred years old, but the researchers concluded that more research is needed. further research, including the development of new techniques specifically for limestone carving.

While experts certainly can’t say when and by whom Al Jassasiya’s petroglyphs were created, they all agree that the carvings are the most fascinating – and most unusual at the location is of the boats.

Theories vary according to the age of the petroglyphs.

Theories vary according to the age of the petroglyphs.

Polite Dimitris Sideridis

These creations provide important information about the types of vessels used in the thriving fishing and fishing industries (for centuries the mainstay of Qatar’s economy), as well as other factors their difference.

Most boats seen from above are fish-shaped with pointed tails and rows of oars, carved with a pointed metal tool.

They contain a number of details, such as ribs and cross-sections capable of showing the placement of masts and bollards.

In some cases, a long line from the stern depicts a line ending in either a traditional Arabian anchor (a triangular rock anchor with two holes) or a European style (a metal anchor with a long shank and two curved arms, first used in the region about seven centuries ago).

Journey to the other world

Mystery prevails over the purpose of some carvings.

Mystery prevails over the purpose of some carvings.

Polite Dimitris Sideridis

Frances Gillespie and Faisal Abdulla Al-Naimi write in “Hidden in the Sands: Uncove of Qatar’s Past” in several boats. ”

“This is what they will look like when the boats are anchored on the pearl bank and the oars are left in place for divers to hang on and rest when they come up.”

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

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

“Both the Babylonians and the ancient Egyptians believed that the dead went to the afterlife on a ship. Greek mythology speaks of the ferryman Charon who carried the souls of the dead across the River Styx to the underworld. Possibly the oldest shipboard carving is an echo of a folk memory far back in prehistoric times.”

Whatever the reason, visitors should remember to bring water and wear a hat and sunscreen when wandering among the carvings to reflect on their meaning.

The fenced site doesn’t have any shaded areas, so the best times to visit are at dawn and dusk. Al Jassasiya is located just south of the famous Azerbaijan Beach, so an excursion there can also be combined with a relaxing day by the sea.


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