site located in southwestern Saudi Arabia at the escarpment of Wadi al-Dawasir and the Tuwaiq Mountains on the ancient transpeninsular trade routes linking the South Arabian states not only with Arabian trade centers but with neighboring countries. The site is located at the mouth of a dry channel, al-Fau (“the gap”), from which the village acquired its name. Sabaean inscriptions refer to it as Qaryat or Qaryat Dhat Kahl, a deity whose life-sized figure is found on the mountain adjoining al-Fau.
The site was discovered accidentally by officials of the Saudi Arabian Oil Company in the 1940s. In 1952 H. St. John Philby, Jacques Ryckmans, and P. Lippens visited the site and wrote about its archaeological importance. Albert Jamme, with the collaboration of Saudi Arabia's Department of Archaeology and Museums, In 1969 made a study of the Sabaean rock inscriptions on the Tuwaiq Mountains flanking al-Fau. In 1971 Abd al-Rahman al-Ansary surveyed the site and undertook excavations the following year.
Twenty seasons of excavations were conducted from 1972 to 1994 that unearthed a full-fledged settlement with unique features and an enormous number of artifacts. The work revealed an advanced stage of civilization that had flourished between about 300 BCE and 300 CE. Stratigraphy revealed two phases at the site: the Minaean period and the Kindite period. The former lasted from the third century BCE to the beginning of the first century CE, and the latter from the first half of the first century BCE to the end of third century. For a certain amount of time, the two overlapped and co-existed.
The site's geographic location was the main factor contributing to the rise and flourishing of civilization at al-Fau. This is manifested in the large variety of small finds and architectural remains, recovered through excavation: coins; pottery and stone vessels; glass; jewelry; metal objects, including figurines; textiles; ivory and bone objects; inscriptions; and frescoes. The architectural remains include a double-storied market, or suq (30.25 × 25.20 m), which is so far unique in Arabia, with well-planned shops, a courtyard, corridors leading to the shops, staircases, wells, and lavatories (see figure 1). Built of stone and mud brick, its wide doors are capped with semicircular lintels.
Al-Fau's five temples are also unique: they are the only ones discovered to date within Saudi Arabia. They are devoted to the gods Shams, Sin, Wud, Abat, and al-Hawar, and seem to belong to different periods. The figurines found inside and outside the temples resemble those from Syria, Egypt, and the Mediterranean basin, suggesting foreign links and influences in religion and civilization at al-Fau (see figure 2). The lower portion of an alabaster statuette was recovered from the Wud temple along with an incense burner for burning aromatics for the god. [See Incense.] From a room adjoining the Wud temple were recovered bronze figurines of Herakles and Hippocrates. The blending of different architectural elements is evident in the general plan of the temples, which are rectangular and similar to those found in contemporary South Arabian states as well as at the Awratian temple at Altin Tepe in Anatolia. All the inscriptions, are in South Arabian. [See South Arabian.]
The site's social organization is demonstrated by the variety of burial tombs. Three groups of tombs for three categories of people were distinguished: kings, nobility, and the general population. The tombs are underground, permanent stone structures with arches over the doorways and stairs. Rectangular sections, or chambers, to accommodate several people, suggest that these were family tombs. The tombs are like underground houses. A Sabaean inscription on one tombstone reads “The tomb of Mu῾awiyah ibn Rabia al/al-Qahtani king of Qahtan and Mudhhyg built by…./His servant Haf'am ibn Beran of al-tl….” Gold jewelry was recovered from one of the tombs. [See Tombs; Grave Goods.]
Its municipal planners assigned particular areas for the different town functions—the king's palace, the market, religious shrines, public buildings, tombs, and so forth. A residential area with well-planned houses, streets, lanes, hotels, rest-houses, water channels, a water-storage tank, overns, hearths, and lavatories gives a vivid picture of the life and society in the town in pre-Islamic Arabia. By all standards, apparent from the artifacts, its society was learned and advanced.
A variety of pottery (coarse, fine, and glazed) for different domestic purposes has been used in dating the town. Some sherds, inscribed in South Arabian, bear the name of the god Kahl or the name of the Ḥimyarite king. [See Ḥimyar.] Nabatean sherds found at al-Fau suggest commercial relations with the Nabateans who ruled in north-western Arabia. [See Nabateans.] Soft-stone vessels with geometric designs similar to those found in the Arabian Gulf states were recovered from the houses at al-Fau. They probably were locally made, for the raw material was available nearby, in Saudi Arabia, at ad-Dawadmi, aṭ-Ṭa'if, and Hajlah-Abha, among other sites.
The Kinda kingdom minted its own silver and bronze coins in various denominations for domestic consumption and for commercial transactions with traders passing through it. The coins depict their god Kahl and bear the monogram of Kahl in South Arabian. Their nature and mode of manufacture suggest the profound influence of the South Arabian states.
Wall paintings found in the settlement depict daily life, socioeconomic conditions, manners, customs, costumes, and leisure activities. Among the scenes depicted are a hunt, chasing game, royalty on horseback, and a man holding on to a camel. Animals, fruits, and naked people are also depicted. The paintings also carry rather short inscriptions in South Arabian.
- Ansary, Abdul Rahman T. al-. “Inscriptions from Qaryat al-Fau” (in Arabic). Bulletin of the Faculty of Arts, University of Riyadh 3 (1973–1974).
- Ansary, Abdul Rahman T. al-. “New Light on the State of Kinda from the Antiquities and Inscriptions of Qaryat al-Fau” (in Arabic). In Sources for the History of Arabia: Proceedings of the First International Symposium on Studies in the History of Arabia, 23rd–28th April 1977, edited by Abdul Rahman T. al-Ansary et al., pp. 3–11. Studies in the History of Arabia, vol. 1. Riyadh, 1979.
- Ansary, Abdul Rahman T. al-. Qaryat al-Fau: A Portrait of Pre-Islamic Civilization in Saudi Arabia. New York, 1982.
- Jamme, Albert. “Sabaean Rock Inscriptions from Qaryat al-Fau.” Miscellanées d'Ancient Arabe 4 (1973): 2–96.
- Lippens, Philippe. Expedition en Arabia Centrale. Paris, 1956.
- Philby, H. St. John. “Two Notes from Central Arabia.” Geographical Journal 113 (1949): 86–93.
Abdul Rahman T. al-Ansary