Clive Gracey –
It is not widely known that the Sultanate of Oman is generously endowed with prehistoric rock art. Much of it is to be found etched or pecked onto large boulders and the smooth sides of the main drainage systems emanating from Al-Hajar mountain range, such as Wadi Tanuf, Wadi Bani Kharus and Wadi As-Satan.
Dating these images is problematic, though experts believe that such rock art was produced almost continuously from as early as the Omani Bronze Age (Third Millennium BCE) right through to the centuries preceding the arrival of Islam in Oman in the early 7th century CE.
The iconography of these petroglyphs includes not only a variety of human or quasi-human forms, but also many of the wild animals that populated pre-historic Oman, including ibex, wild goats, steers and even ostriches. It is unlikely that ancient Oman’s inhabitants expended so much time and effort creating their art just for the fun or to beautify their wadis. But how can we know what their intentions were when there is no written record to inform us?
The simple answer is, we can’t, and archaeologists who specialize in the study of Omani rock art seem reluctant to speculate on their meanings. Any interpretation of these ancient images would be guesswork, they say, and so would be contrary to the scientific underpinnings of modern archaeological methodology. So when I, unfettered by such scientific shackles, appear on the scene and suggest to these eminent academics that ancient man might have produced such petroglyphs as idol worship, or as hunting charms, or as warning signs to intruders, or as didactic aids to educate their children, I am greeted with disapproving snorts.
Frankly, I wonder what is the point of studying pre-historic rock art if one is not allowed to ask the fundamental question – What does it mean? So what if answers to this question will always be conjecture? Call me a wooly-headed nincompoop if you want, but I firmly believe that imaginative enquiry into Omani rock art is just as valid as the scientific kind and, in my view, a whole lot more fun!
Some years ago, I came across an unpublished paper on the rock art of Oman that contained a very interesting photograph of a rock carving of an elephant. The author of the paper mentioned she had found in the Wadi Adei, which runs from Al-Amerat and debouches at Qurum. I did not have access to a photocopier at the time, but I made a pencil sketch in my notebook, which I reproduce here.
Along parts of its length, Wadi Adei is liberally adorned with rock carvings of people dancing, people hunting and, rather disturbingly, people apparently engaged in infanticide. There are also many images of animals, such as bulls, dogs, wild goats, ibex and horses. Unfortunately, there is even some modern graffiti etched into the stone, including one which says, “Clive was here, 1962”! But try as I might, I have not yet been able to find the carving of the elephant.
Nevertheless, let us assume that the elephant is still lurking somewhere in Wadi Adei and has not been erased by recent road construction. What is it doing there?
There is fossil evidence that ancestors of the African elephant may have roamed Arabia in the far distant past, before the peninsula detached itself from the African Shield sometime between 25 million and 12 million years ago. That, though, was long, long before early man began making his rock art in Oman’s wadis. Which begs the question – Are there any other known and more recent instances when elephants were present in Oman and could have been recorded in rock by an ancient artist?
I can think of one. It relates to the arrival in South-East Arabia of the first wave of Arab migration from South Arabia led by Malik bin Fahm Al-Azdi, which is thought to have occurred in the 2nd century CE.
According to the Omani chroniclers, Malik bin Fahm found much of Mazoon, as Oman was then known, under the occupation of the Parthian Persians. Wishing to settle his people in this rich and fertile land, Malik sent a request to the Persian governor at Sohar for a grant of land. When his petition was refused, Malik and his forces did battle with the Persians at Salut, south of Bahla.
In the vanguard of the Persian army were war elephants, which caused massive casualties to the Omani forces until Malik ordered his archers to fire their arrows at the flanks and trunks of the giant beasts. Crazed, the elephants turned and rampaged back through the ranks of the Persian infantry, turning the tide of battle in favour of Malik and his troops. Not long after, Malik bin Fahm and his army drove the Persians from Oman.
Now I know that archaeologists will accuse me of being profoundly un-scientific in my reasoning, but isn’t it entirely possible that the mysterious elephant in Wadi Adei was carved expressly for the purpose of recording and transmitting the battle of Salut to future generations? Isn’t it easy to imagine generations of enthralled children seated around the picture of the strange beast as bards recounted the heroic exploits of Malik and his followers? How else would the account of Malik bin Fahm and the expulsion of the Persians have been passed on in a pre-literate society until finally written down by early historians hundreds of years later if not by this method?
My search for the elephant of Wadi Adei will continue and you, dear readers, are welcome to aid me in my quest.