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13 April 2024

Arabia's heirlooms face the bulldozers

By James Reinl

(AL BAYAN)    


The Iron Age inhabitants of Fujairah were unlikely to predict their intricate etchings of leopards, stars and horsemen on Hajr Mountain boulders could become a source of controversy. But that was long before the growth spurt of the modern UAE, which has seen developers send diggers to the east coast to collect rocks for cement mix and building reclaimed islands.

While the Fujairah authorities say they are doing their best to preserve the legacy of ancient Arabia, a lone archaeologist claims they are failing in their duty and has launched a crusade to save the artefacts.

Since the early 1990s, Dr Michele Ziolkowski (pictured above) has been off-roading through wadis to photograph, trace and document the location of hundreds of examples of what archaeologists refer to as ‘petroglyphs’.

“There are just so many sites out there and I am trying to record as much as I can,” says the Australian. “The problem is that I have returned to many of the located sites and discovered they have been bulldozed.

“It’s really sad. In many cases, all we have left of a piece of rock art is a GPS co-ordinate, a photograph and a few notes. It would be a shame to lose such a vast and impressive corpus of material culture before we have had the chance to study it in detail.

“The motifs and compositions on the rocks are mysterious and intriguing. The great triumph would be to gain an insight into the chronology and decipher ‘meaning’ from these extraordinary artefacts.”

Ziolkowski, wife of a prominent Emirati, began her mission in Wadi Hayl in 1995 during an archaeological survey organised through her academic institute, the University of Sydney.

“We were in the mountains one day and someone said: ‘Look at that’. There were two camel motifs on a rock. Then, we started looking around and we realised there were other examples all around,” she says.

“We had been there for a whole week and hadn’t spotted any of them. But, when we realised what we were looking for, we couldn’t stop making them out. It’s hard to explain, but, once your eyes are tuned in, you see them everywhere.

“Nowadays, I can be driving through the mountains and see them on boulders far away from the road.”

The survey team left, but Ziolkowski remained alone in the wadi for the rest of the season, driving around and recording sites. Within weeks she had identified 65 rock art sites in Wadi Hayl – a figure that has grown over the years to 130.

The 37-year-old is not the first archaeologist to record Fujairah’s rock art – Beatrice de Cardi noted sites in the 1960s and Bertram Thomas found others in the early 20th century – but nobody has matched Ziolkowski’s efforts. Some rocks have been etched with multiple images of everything from snakes and leopards to footprints, horsemen and warriors. Ziolkowski suggests there must be “thousands” of examples in the emirate.

The nature of etchings makes it difficult to identify their age, although comparisons with symbols that can be dated suggest Fujairah’s rock art goes back to the third millennium BC. Most of the petroglyphs hail from the Iron Age, from 1,250-300BC, while more recent examples feature Quranic inscriptions, which were etched after the arrival of Islam in the 7th century.

Ziolkowski says the illustrators of antiquity carved their creations to mark walking trails, identify water sources or indicate land ownership and tribal territories. Some theorists suggest rock art is steeped in religious or ritual significance. Others argue that it is an early form of script.

But while the images were hewn in stone, nothing lasts for ever. The last two decades have seen Fujairah open up to development and export raw materials that are key to the UAE building boom.

Ziolkowski says highways and towerblocks have seen many sites bulldozed, while trucks regularly arrive from other emirates to collect gabbro rocks for grinding down into cement mix or building Nakheel’s reclaimed The Palm islands.

The mother-of-one has collated a list of sites that have been lost to development, including rock crushing work at Wadi Laban; petroglyphs being destroyed by bulldozers in Wadi Thayb; rock art being lost in Wadi Mai during the widening of a dirt track; and the destruction of Wadi Daftah’s site during construction of the road to Khor Fakkan. But perhaps the most worrying example of petroglyph destruction took place during the restoration of Bidyah Mosque – lauded as the oldest mosque in the UAE even though its true age is disputed.

“During the restoration work a number of them were bulldozed. One of them in particular was actually pushed off the mountain,” says Ziolkowski, adding the mostly expatriate labourers working in Fujairah know little about the location or importance of archaeological sites.

“One of the big problems is that the staff at Fujairah Museum do not know where most of the sites are and are not motivated enough to do anything about it,” says Ziolkowski. “Also, I think there is not much communication going on between the various departments and, as a result, sites are being lost.”

Salah Ali, head of archaeology at Fujairah Museum, refutes the allegations and says all the emirate’s archaeological sites are protected by fences.

“Our department is doing the best we can to preserve these sites and there is a great deal of co-operation between our department and all the other departments, such as Fujairah Municipality,” says Ali. However, he also says many of the petroglyphs are “small examples” and adds “you cannot save everything”, blaming villagers and unauthorised rock collectors for damaging sites.

Emirates Business visited a number of Ziolkowski’s sites and found none had any protective fencing.

Maral Khaled, a geologist at the Environmental Department of Fujairah Municipality, says museum officials have never provided a list of the emirate’s archaeological sites that could be used to crosscheck against planned roads and developments.

“It is the responsibility of Fujairah Museum to preserve the sites and contact the authorities to do something,” says Khaled. “But, since they haven’t done anything, you cannot blame the municipality or the Public Works Department for not being notified.”

The Palm island developer Nakheel acknowledges sourcing rocks from Fujairah but only after receiving the green light from the concerned local authorities.

“Nakheel sources its rocks from a number of suppliers in the region, including quarries in Hatta, Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah,” says a company spokesman. “We only use licensed quarries who have received all appropriate approvals from the local authorities.”

Undaunted by what she sees as a lack of official interest, the zealous Ziolkowski continues her mission to drive through Fujairah’s wadis and record data about her beloved boulder etchings.“While we are not doing enough to preserve these sites, we could be doing ourselves a disservice. Fujairah is witnessing a major growth in tourism, and archaeological sites are one of the things tourists would like to see,” she says.