Photos by Anik Laferriere

While on a 2011 research trip to north-western Saudi Arabia, College of the Humanities BA Religion student, Anik Laferriere was exploring a remote part of the Hzismā sand desert, home to the mystical and isolated temple of al-Ruwāfa, when she stumbled on something extraordinary…

Anik Laferriere

Anik Laferriere in the Hzismā sand desert

Ruwāfa is a small, well preserved second-century structure that is a one-off in the vastness of the Arabian desert. Despite being in close proximity to water supplies (but little else), there is no evidence of any substantial human settlement at the site. Why this temple was built in such a seemingly impractical area has been a point of debate amongst researchers for a very long time. Astoundingly, the obscure location of this temple is only one contributing aspect of its greater exceptionality. What makes Ruwāfa even more remarkable are five Greek and Nabataean inscriptions that describe the structure as being constructed during the reign of emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, making the temple a famous attestation of Roman interaction in the Middle East.

While inspecting the site in 2011, Laferriere tripped over a discarded stone. As she collected her belongings, she instinctively took a fleeting look at the culprit of her impromptu sit-down on the desert’s sandy floor. In this glance, she noticed an unrecognizable Greek inscription on the stone at fault. Naturally, she shouted to her trusted colleague, mentor, and current research-travelling companion, Professor Greg Fisher from Carleton’s College of Humanities to come have a look.

Laferriere and Fisher analyzed the stone, and were quick to acknowledge and note its unusual markings. Little did they know, this stone would be the key to unlocking a missing piece of an archeological puzzle that has been baffling al-Ruwāfa researchers for more than a half-century.

Desert landscape

The desert landscape at Ruwafa

It was not until Fisher was editing a contribution for his new book Arabs and Empires Before Islam from one of the world’s foremost epigraphy experts, Michael C.A. Macdonald, did he realize that he and Laferriere may have very literally stumbled on a profound re-discovery.

In the draft of his contribution to Fisher’s book, Macdonald wrote about an inscribed stone, now lost, that was last seen in 1956/7, when it was copied by the celebrated British explorer, St. John Philby. In Macdonald’s research, he included a note that Philby had drawn the stone, but that its current location was a mystery, and assumed by many to have been eternally misplaced.

When Fisher read this, he immediately recalled that he had seen an inscribed stone at Ruwāfa that matched Macdonald’s description.

The discovery of the ‘lost stone’ was very exciting!

“The discovery of the ‘lost stone’ was very exciting, as a completely new edition of the Ruwāfa inscriptions was prepared for my forthcoming edited book, Arabs and Empires Before Islam. Michael Macdonald had only the drawing made by Philby in 1957 before we realized that in my stash of photos, was something quite exciting,” said Fisher.

Lost stone

The lost stone with Greek inscriptions

This meant that it was likely that Fisher and Laferriere were the first two people to realize the whereabouts of the stone in decades.

“The serendipity of the discovery seems incredible to me,” said Laferriere. “We were unaware at the time that it held any significance whatsoever, except as an example of Roman presence in the area. When we found out that this particular inscription had been missing for about 50 years, we could not believe our luck!”

Thanks to the meticulous assistance of Macdonald, it was confirmed in 2014 that the impression inscription found by Laferriere and Fisher was indeed Philby’s lost stone.

Referred as “Inscription III,” it is the third of five Greek and Nabataean Ruwāfa inscriptions that serve as attestation to Roman interest in Saudi Arabia. The set of inscriptions refer to the erection of the temple of al-Ruwāfa by a group of people called Thamud, the name of a nomadic tribe who are first recorded as having encountered the Assyrians in the latter part of the eighth century BCE, and the Roman emperors Marcus Aurelius (161-80), and Lucius Verus (co-emperor until 169).

The long-lost third inscription makes mention of Verus, meaning that the text of the inscription was carved while he was still living, prior to 169.

All inscriptions, save Inscription III, are currently displayed in the Riyadh museum. Needless to say, the newly rediscovered Inscription has initiated many new questions about the site, the historical significance it holds, and how it will shape our present understanding of early Roman political and diplomatic interest in the Arabian Peninsula.

Fisher’s forthcoming book, which is slated for release with Oxford University Press in the spring of 2015, will address these inquisitions, including a new reading of the group of inscriptions by Macdonald, accompanied by new drawings of the temple. Arabs and Empires Before Islam will function as the most up-to-date version of this important inscription and will offer readers a much more complete version of this testament to Roman interest in Arabia than has ever been made available previously.

Fisher hopes that this rather miraculous event will remind burgeoning researchers that unearthing the past is not always a particularly predictable venture.

“From the perspective of a teacher, the discovery shows students that while the material is most certainly ancient, new discoveries can and do happen all the time – and sometimes, quite by accident,” said Prof. Fisher.

al-Ruwāfa Temple

al-Ruwāfa Temple

Prof. Fisher is set to release a new book, Arabs and Empires Before Islam, which collates nearly 250 translated extracts from an extensive array of ancient sources which, from a variety of different perspectives, illuminate the history of the Arabs before the emergence of Islam. Drawn from a broad period between the eighth century BC and the Middle Ages, the sources include texts written in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Persian, and Arabic, inscriptions in a variety of languages and alphabets, and discussions of archaeological sites from across the Near East. More than 20 international experts from the fields of archaeology, classics and ancient history, linguistics and philology, epigraphy, and art history, provide detailed commentary and analysis on this diverse selection of material.

Richly-illustrated with 16 colour plates, 15 maps, and over 70 in-text images, the volume provides a comprehensive, wide-ranging, and up-to-date examination of what ancient sources had to say about the politics, culture, and religion of the Arabs in the pre-Islamic period. It offers a full consideration of the traces which the Arabs have left in the epigraphic, literary, and archaeological records, and sheds light on their relationship with their often more-powerful neighbours: the states and empires of the ancient Near East. Arabs and Empires Before Islam gathers together a host of material never before collected into a single volume — some of which appears in English translation for the very first time — and provides a single point of reference for a vibrant and dynamic area of research.


Arabs and Empires Before Islam will be available in 2015. Learn more.

Monday, July 20, 2015 in , , , ,
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