National Geographic : 1948 Apr
In Search of Arabia's Past BY PETER BRUCE CORNWALL* TODAY no other part of Saudi Arabia's desert kingdom is so progressive, so Westernized, and of such immediate world importance as the Province of Hasa, a long, narrow strip of bleak land bordering the Persian Gulf. Under its rocky surface American engineers have tapped an immense oil deposit at Dam mam Dome and have also proved three other rich fields.t Some 4,000 Americans are now living in Hasa. A great refinery has been set up at Ras-at-Tannura (Plate X). Cottages, club houses, even a swimming pool, have been constructed. A network of roads carries hundreds of trucks and motorcars, necessary to the work ing of this expanding industry, which is bring ing wealth to Arabians and much-needed oil to Europe and America. But all of this growth is recent. One hot day in September, 1933, American geologists came ashore and set up a small camp, headquarters for exploration that soon brought about one of the greatest oil develop ments in history. Before that time Hasa was a secluded, for gotten land. A few Europeans had passed through on camels, a few others had landed briefly. Yet the history and topography of Hasa were little known. And no one knew what archeological treasures the region might possess (map, page 495). As they went about their work, American oilmen came upon many thousands of round burial mounds. They picked up coins, beads, fragments of bronze weapons; they heard of statues and inscriptions, and saw evidences of many old, contrasting civilizations. First to Delve into Hasa's Antiquities In late 1940, I was suddenly given the rare opportunity to begin exploring Hasa. Thus I became the first archeologist to record its antiquities. Crossing the Pacific and Asia by air, I arrived at oil-rich Bahrein Island only a few days after it had been bombed by Italian aviators in a daring attempt to knock out the island's great oil refinery. It was an odd time for a scientist to appear in the Persian Gulf. But the Bahrein authori ties proved sympathetic, and before crossing to the mainland I commenced work by open ing a number of the island's famous burial mounds. These round tumuli may number close to 50,000. They cover much of the northern quarter of Bahrein and range in height from a few feet to 82 feet. The largest, some 100 feet in diameter at the base, look like small pyramids. Since American geologists reported that many acres of ground on the near-by Arabian mainland were covered with similar tumuli, it seemed possible that the mounds in both localities were relics of the same people. The Bahrein Government generously put at my disposal an overseer with a gang of laborers to handle the pick and basket work. They were cheerful, willing men, often en couraging each other by shouts of "Yallah!" (O God!), or joining in a droning chant. This custom of singing while at work is common in Arab lands, and Bahreini boatmen of the Shiite sect use for a chant the names of the grandsons of the Prophet, "Husain!" with a rising tone, "Hasan!" with a falling one. Rings and Make-up Kits of Long Ago I soon discovered that although most Bah rein tumuli belonged to the Bronze Age, at the northern end of the island were a few score elongated mounds dating from the Per sian period and later. In these I came upon plaster and rock cists containing skeletons, clay bowls, bronze finger rings, necklaces of beads, little make-up pots for women, and small alabaster jars. And just under the surface of a street in Manama, Bahrein's chief town, I uncovered a strange council chamber holding nine seats in a circle (page 515). The seats are un-Arab in appearance.and seem to reflect Greek or Roman influence. The mystic number nine enjoyed special vene ration in classical days. Who doesn't recall the nine Muses, or Lars Porsena's oath "by the nine gods"? After more than a month's digging I crossed the shallow strait that separates Bahrein Island from Hasa. Then, with headquarters at Dhahran, the oil company's comfortable air-conditioned settlement, I set about making * Dr. Cornwall has specialized at Oxford and Har vard Universities in Arabian history and archeology. His field work in Saudi Arabia was under the auspices of Standard Oil Company of California, the Univer sity of California, and Harvard University. t See in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, "Guest in Saudi Arabia," by Maynard Owen Williams, October, 1945, and "Bahrein: Port of Pearls and Petroleum," by Dr. Williams, February, 1946.