Natural wonders of Saudi Arabia: Al-Ahsa Oasis

    28 Jul 2021

    Are you excited dreaming about an earthly paradise in the heart of Saudi Arabia? Let’s get acquainted with story about this amazing place.

    The challenge for the casual visitor to Al-Ahsa is, quite literally, to see the forest for the trees.

    There are, after all, more than 2.5 million palm trees in the world’s largest and almost certainly oldest oasis. And, with the UNESCO World Heritage site composed of no fewer than 12 separate elements, scattered over a total area of 85 square kilometers, at first glance this “serial cultural landscape,” which “preserves material traces representative of all the stages of the oasis history, since its origins in the Neolithic to the present,” defies quick and easy appreciation.

    For Panaiotis Kruklidis, an Italian architect specializing in cultural heritage who, in 2015 and 2016, was part of the team of experts drafted in to prepare the nomination document that saw the site listed in 2018, the key was to seek a higher perspective.

    “We certainly understood the details of the oasis, the organization of its individual plots, but we still couldn’t grasp its overall magnificent size,” he recalled.

    “We only discovered it on the day when we decided to climb Jabal Al-Qarah, the hill in the center of the oasis that was probably sacred to the first inhabitants of the place, who had settled among its caves.”

    From this vantage point, “it was finally possible to admire the greatness of the oasis as a whole.”

    With maps and notebooks in hand and gazing down on the vast geometry of palm groves, gardens and waterways, the team was “able to follow the intricate water system, the lifeblood for every element of the oasis, made up of springs, channels of clean water and drainage.” For Kruklidis, the patterns evoked “the natural geometry of leaves, made up of main and secondary veins.”

    Then, Kruklidis and his colleagues set about exploring the oasis at ground level and quickly discovered the beauty of a place in which some scholars believe the date palm was first farmed by human beings.

    Al-Ahsa is associated with the Dilmun civilization that flourished in the third millennium B.C in what is now eastern Saudi Arabia. It has also been identified by some archaeologists as the possible site of the near-mythical Sumerian paradise — the garden of the gods where, some 4,800 years ago, the legendary hero King Gilgamesh of Uruk sought the tree of life. The archaeological remains of Uruk, another World Heritage Site, are situated east of the Euphrates River in what is today southern Iraq, some 750 kilometers northwest of Al-Ahsa.

    “We decided to ‘get lost’ in the great oasis and entered a private garden, which stood out for the considerable height of its palm trees,” recalled Kruklidis. The first thing they noticed was “the care with which a passionate farmer had maintained his garden. The ancient knowledge of traditional methods, handed down from generation to generation, reflected the charm of myth and time.”

    Evening was approaching and the low light that filtered through the palms, casting long shadows and dancing on the surface of the water, began to throw details into sharp relief. Kruklidis, part of whose role was to document key elements of the oasis with drawings, was struck by “the variety of colors of the fruit on the trees, the background of a fragile and fragrant green and the light playing on the water, recalling the labyrinthine waterways and fountains of a distant and almost mythical period.

    “It was like seeing the garden of the gods, still standing in Dilmun’s time.”

    Kruklidis had no difficulty believing that “it was probably from here that the idea, the image, of the terrestrial paradise, as we know it, developed.”

    Heritage conservation expert Simone Ricca, who worked on the nomination documents for four of Saudi Arabia’s five UNESCO sites, including Al-Ahsa, said the oasis is “the most complex site to conceptually understand and to grasp.”

    Listed by UNESCO as “an evolving cultural landscape,” it is “the product of the interaction between man and nature. Oases are not a natural feature, they are manmade, so they are a perfect example of this concept of a cultural landscape.”

    The palm groves at Al-Ahsa are, according to the UNESCO nomination document, “among the largest at the global scale.” They also preserve the historical characterstics of systems based on “traditional techniques remained unchanged…for thousands of years.” (Saudi Ministry of Tourism)

    Occupied for at least 8,000 years, Al-Ahsa has seen and survived the rise and fall of great powers over the ages, enduring and outliving all comers, including the Chaldeans, the Achaemenids, Alexander the Great and the Roman and Ottoman empires.

    Importantly, and unlike many UNESCO sites that are little more than fragmentary ruins frozen in time, Al-Ahsa has been continuously occupied and continues to thrive and evolve.

    “Even the new drainage and water-management systems that have been created since the 1980s are part of this evolving concept,” said Ricca.

    “What is amazing is that we still have two and a half million palm trees there, and we also have almost 2 million people living in Al-Ahsa.

    “This interaction is intellectually challenging and interesting. For the tourist, it might not be visually so obvious to grasp, but it is central to this concept of the evolving cultural landscape.”

    The UNESCO property includes three oases fed by a system of dozens of ancient springs and wells, three castles, the traditional palm-grove village of Al-Oyoun, the historic Qasariyah Market, the Jawatha Mosque, two protected archaeological sites and the 21-square-kilometer mangrove-fringed Al-Asfar Lake, a large and historic body of water into which the waters from the Eastern Oasis drain via an 18-kilometer canal. Al-Asfar has become a unique natural ecosystem and in 2019 was declared a national nature reserve by Saudi Arabia.

    The largest of the 12 components is the Eastern Oasis, a roughly crescent-shaped concentration of dense palm groves and gardens over 38 square kilometers, extending 9 kilometers from north to south and 12 kilometers east to west and watered by an intricate network of canals. At its center is the rocky outcrop known as Jabal Al-Qarah, the summit of which affords stunning views of the surrounding sea of green. To the northwest is the 20-square-kilometer Northern Oasis, which shelters a number of historic villages.

    Al-Ahsa lies between the rock desert of Al-Ghawar to the west and the sand dunes of the Al-Jafurah desert to the east. It owed its settlement in antiquity and its continued existence today to the plentiful water provided by the springs of Al-Ghawar, a region that in modern times has provided Saudi Arabia with another natural bounty. Just as Al-Ahsa is the largest oasis in the world, so Al-Ghawar is the world’s largest oil field.

    For centuries, the oasis of Al-Ahsa has been under threat from the shifting sands of the Al-Jafurah desert, pressing in from the north, east and south. According to the UNESCO nomination document, “the sands surrounding the oasis, due to the periodically strong north, north-west and southern winds, are mobile and have been encroaching upon the cultivated land and endangering the oasis for many centuries.”

    For the past thousand years, humans have had to fight to preserve the oasis, part of which nevertheless “has been covered by an active sand dune field advancing southward, along a 12 km large front.” This dune has “notably covered earlier settlements and gardens north of Al-Qarah, in the area of Jawatha, an important historic settlement of Al-Ahsa Oasis at the dawn of Islam.”

    Witness is borne to the historic threat poised to humankind’s dogged but always tentative foothold on existence in the desert oasis by excavations at the Jawatha archaeological site to the north of the Eastern Oasis.

    Today, the site is covered entirely with sand, beneath which evidence has been found of ancient agricultural activity, irrigation techniques, long-lost settlements,, and the course of a vanished river.

    Pottery finds from the Ubaid period, dating back roughly 7,000 years, also suggest the Al-Ahsa region may have been among the first in eastern Arabia to have been settled by humans.

    Other pottery remains discovered at the site, from Dilmun shards dating from about 2,700 years ago and Greek and Roman ceramics to early Islamic pottery, testify to Al-Ahsa’s long and profitable existence as a significant trading center.

    Even in antiquity, as the UNESCO nomination document notes, Al-Ahsa was known as “the most famous and largest oasis in the world,” celebrated by Greek, Roman, and medieval Arab scholars and travelers.

    According to “Geographica,” an account of the then-known world by the Greek historian Strabo published in 7 B.C., ancient Al-Ahsa was connected to Mesopotamia – modern-day Iraq – by trade in spices, aromatics, and dates. The inhabitants, he wrote, carried their cargoes “on rafts to Babylonia, and thence sail up the Euphrates with them, and then convey them by land to all parts of the country.”

    Alive and well today, thanks to large-scale anti-desertification initiatives and the re-organization of water distribution techniques, including creating a new network of canals since the late 1960s, Al-Ahsa is living history.

    In the words of the nomination document that won Al-Ahsa recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the ongoing story of the evolution of the oasis, whose origins coincide with the very beginnings of agriculture, “explains how very ancient human communities were born and worked, and it enables us to understand the techniques, procedures, and principles permitting the establishment of harmonious and balanced relationships between human presence and land management.”

    Al-Ahsa continues to supply dates to a global market. But perhaps its most valuable fruit is the example set for both the present and the future by its thousands of years of stubborn and ingenious existence in the face of great environmental odds.

    Today, in the words of the UNESCO citation, “all over the planet, entire ecosystems are at risk of collapse. Oases can show us how to better handle the interaction with the environment by improving its resources without depleting them. Climate change, the collapse of ecosystems, cataclysms, the end of civilization are conditions that the people of the desert have already faced many times.”

    Al-Ahsa, it says, “is an extraordinary example of evolution through time of an oasis landscape,” and one that has invaluable lessons for life on earth – and beyond.

    The techniques honed over centuries, “for the creation of fertile soils – for agricultural production, water management, recycling, energy-saving, survival in the desert — constitute an example of good practices for the entire planet, providing knowledge applicable to the new frontiers of human diffusion to the extreme environment –  including extraterrestrial ones.”

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