Qatar Rock Carvings
Petrolgylphs in Qatar
Fascinating rock carvings or Petroglyphs lie on the coast of Qatar, around the area of Jabal Al Jassasiya. Their origins continue to mystify archeologists to this day. Frances Gillespie takes an in-depth look at the carvings, their origins and their possible meanings.
Copyright: David Gillespie
Around the coasts of Qatar are low limestone hills [jebel] bearing numbers of petroglyphs, ranging from detailed depictions of boats to the enigmatic formations known as cup-marks. Some of these small, circular depressions are single; others are massed together in a wide variety of formations: lines of cups, sometimes straight and sometimes curved, or clustered together in 'rosettes' with anything from six to sixteen cups surrounding a central depression. The southernmost of these hills is Jabal Al Wakra [now enclosed by a security fence and inaccessible to visitors] to the south of Doha.
At Jabal Al Jassasiya, an hour's drive to the north, can be seen the greatest number of carvings anywhere in the country. Here, a long line of scattered limestone outcrops stand near a lonely shore, surrounded by barren desert. However, the range of potsherds and other objects found near the rocks indicate that Al Jassasiya was not always so isolated a site as it is today.
A short distance north lies Jebel Fuwairit, also with numerous cup-marks, and isolated carvings occur on small, scattered limestone mounds around the northern coast leading down to the second major petroglyph site, a line of limestone jebel outcrops between Fraiha Al Gharbiya and Zubara in the north-west.
Copyright: David Gillespie
Board Game | Drawbacks | Alternative Theories
In some parts of Arabia it went by the name of Al Huwais, and in Qatar it was known as Al Haloosa or Al Huwaila. The number of holes and rows of holes and the number of counters used vary considerably from country to country, but the basic principle of the game is the same throughout.
Small pebbles or seeds, used as counters, are distributed among the holes by two players, seated on either side of the board. They may 'capture' their opponent's counters if the holes into which they drop their own counters contain only two or three. The game is simple but is played at speed and requires considerable skill in calculating ahead. The player who captures the greatest number of counters is the winner.
In addition to the game boards on the jebel are the 'rosettes', with numbers of shallow holes arranged in a circle around a central hole. This is said to be a game known as Al Aila in Qatar and Um Al Judaira in Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman. At Jabel Al Jassasiya a total of 333 game boards and 71 rosettes were recorded.
If we accept that the parallel rows of cup-marks at these sites and others are, in fact, variations of the mancala game, then a number of problems occur. Foremost is the sheer number of boards. Why would anyone go to the trouble of carving out a new board each time he wanted to play? The game can be played just as easily on the sand, in instantly-created scoops, as on a solid surface. Then there is the apparently random number of holes, ranging from as few as two rows of three holes to two rows of 14, and even three and four rows of holes of variations.
At Al Jassasiya and Al Fraiha some of the so-called game boards are carved on the sloping surfaces of the rock, where the cups could not possibly have retained any seeds, shells or pebbles used as counters. Some are so close to each other that there would not have been room for players to gather round them at the same time. And in some of the parallel rows of holes, particularly those with three and four rows, the individual holes are too small to hold any counters larger than a grain of rice.
So if the rows of cup-marks are not games, what are they? It has been suggested that the cup formations were used for the sorting and storage of pearls, but it seems improbable that such precious, easily lost objects would have been exposed to a rough, windswept rock surface. Another theory is that the series of rows of holes were systems for computing time and tides.
Large circular pits cut into the jebel at Al Jassasiya and Al Fraiha have been compared with fire-pits found throughout the Gulf region. In Iran they are associated with the fire-cults of pre-Islamic times.
At both sites foot marks are carved into the rock, sometimes a simple narrow oval or pair of oval shapes but, in one example at Jebel Al Jassasiya, complete with toes.
The making of foot and hand marks on rock and the painting of hand prints in caves is of extreme antiquity. Experts have dated hand prints discovered a few years ago in a cave near Cassis in southern France to 25,000 BC.
Copyright: David Gillespie
Some of the bas-relief ship designs which are such a prominent feature at Jebel Al Jassasiya are simple representations of sailing vessels, but others incorporate lines and cup marks superimposed upon the outline of the ship.
One, of a many-oared boat, with a rope and anchor at one end and trailing what may be a fishing net at the other, has been compared with the constellation of Orion, and the suggestion is that the cup marks represent stars. Another appears to resemble the constellations of Canis Venitici and Ursa Major.
One type of ship carving is made in bas relief, where the boats are shown in plan. The others are depicted in linear profile and the lines appear to have been pricked' onto the soft rock surface with a metal tool.
Many of the boats are fish-shaped with pointed sterns, and cross-seats, thwarts and the stepping for the mast are depicted. Some boats trail large anchors, either the metal European anchor (bawara) or the ancient Arabian form (sinn): a round or triangular stone attached to a rope, with a hole in the centre through which a beam of wood was fixed. These stone and wood anchors were in use into the 20th century.
The ancient method of steering a boat was with a steering oar and some of the boats have these at the stern; others have details which could be interpreted as a rudder. Some have a roughly carved appendage which could represent a fishing net. Many have oars, depicted as straight lines at right angles to the hull. There are mostly six, eight or ten pairs of oars to each boat, although some have a seemingly random arrangement, with more oars on one side than the other.
Some authorities believe that these petroglyphs represent boats on the pearl banks, where oars were used to manoeuvre about the banks and were left unshipped as support for the divers. It has also been suggested that they might be oared fishing boats for inshore use.
The big two-pronged metal anchor was first introduced into this area by the Portuguese in the 16th century, but smaller four-pronged grapnels are known to have been in use some 200 years earlier. So all that can be said is that the boats with metal anchors cannot be older then 700 years, at the most. And even that is not certain, because on one of the ships the rope and anchor appears to have been added at a later date, judging by the different patination of the carving.
On an isolated group of rocks at Al Jussasiya are 17 detailed line-cut drawings, in which grooves have been pricked out using a pointed metal tool and a hammer.
They are interesting because of the number of recognisable types of sailing vessels. The artists were careful to include such details as would enable a ship, when seen at a distance as a silhouette, to be identified.
One, a battil, has the characteristic fiddle-head projection at the bow and a high stern (fashin). In addition seven round-bladed oars are shown along one side and the ship carries both a triangular and a lateen sail, which may have been used in combination for certain wind conditions.
The battil was a large, fast vessel, extensively employed in the pearling fleets but also useful as a warship. When a battil was on the pearling banks, the oars were used to manoeuvre it around. Photographs of the Qatar pearling fleet taken in 1929 show banks of oars with diamond-shaped blades.
Another illustration may be of a baqqarah. A characteristic of the baqqarah is its projecting stern frame which enclosed the rudder stock. The stern post had a raised part at the back and is decorated.
On this vessel, as in some of the others, the lantern holder at the back of the ship is shown. The hulls of both battil and baqqarah are divided by vertical lines to indicate the size and loading capacity of the ship - just the kind of information which would have been of importance to a sea-faring people.
We can only speculate as to why such a large number of ship carvings occur at Al Jassasiya. Boat carvings occur on petroglyph sites world-wide, and it is tempting to consider the bas-relief carvings at Al Jassasiya not merely as a record of the fishing activities central to the existence of the people of Qatar, but as expressions of a belief shared by many ancient peoples. It may be that these strange, rather disturbing pictures, which crawl across the surface of the rock like scorpions, represent the echoes of a folk memory reaching far back into pre-historic times.
Copyright: David Gillespie
Frances Gillespie has contributed to several publications related to Qatar, is the author of Discovering Qatar and also writes regular feature articles for a national newspaper on the cultural heritage and natural history of the country. She is a former chairperson of the Qatar Natural History Group, and is still active on the committee.