A previously-underwater wonder

Driving over enormous sand dunes and past towering rocky plateaus in the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert does not remind a normal person of the sea. But on a camping trip to the Empty Quarter (the south eastern section of the Arabian Peninsula dominated by rolling orange sand dunes and the occasional Bedouin community) the ocean was on my mind. While there is plenty of evidence against the case that I am a normal person, I had a reason to be thinking about salt water in this dry, sandy environment.

I flew into south eastern Saudi Arabia to see and experience the Empty Quarter (outlined in yellow). [Source: http://www.rigzone.com/news/image_detail.asp?img_id=1867%5D

As a weekend excursion away from lab work and internet access, a group of us researchers, students, and staff from KAUST made our way to the Empty Quarter for a few days of dune bashing and camping in the desert. After 2 flights and a late-night SUV drive through the sand, we made it to our camp site and caught a few hours of sleep under the stars before waking up to Arabic coffee and heading out to explore the area. Loading back into the SUVs, we waited as our Saudi guides/drivers slowly let just enough air hiss out of our tires to prepare them for gripping the sandy terrain. After straightening their long white thobes and red and white checkered headscarves, our guides buckled themselves into the driver seats and caravanned us to the place that would remind me that you can never truly escape the ocean.

Passing the camels and tall rocky plateaus that flanked the sides of the desert highway, which the drivers mainly avoided in favor of winding around desiccated bushes in the sands, we came to a gated chain-link fence that separated us from what our guide said was the first excavated site in Saudi Arabia. Archaeologists from King Saud University began excavation on the ancient city of Al Faw in the 1970’s, and since then have unearthed the markets, tombs, and other residential/religious structures of the city. Al Faw was significant for its location along the trade route that once ran from the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula to Mesopotamia, but as we began walking amongst the roofless mud-brick walls, another (much older) part of the landscape’s history revealed itself.

Climbing around the market in the old city of Al Faw. In the background, plateaus rise out of the flat landscape.


Poking out of the crumbling structures were small, white fragments that contrasted with the dusty, redish-brown sediments of the walls. I bent down to look closer, and saw the spiraling form of delicate white seashells lodged into the bricks used to construct this ancient desert city. Finding marine gastropod shells in the desert surprised me until I remembered the fact that much of today’s land masses used to be underwater. Embarrassed that I momentarily forgot this crucial bit of our planet’s history, I tried (and failed) to not sound excited as I called others in our group over to see the sea shells that had been dug out of the desert sands to construct this excavated community. In the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert, I reverted to the same little girl that I was growing up on the beaches of California, squatting down in the sand to pick up a seashell and imploring her always patient companions to look at yet another discarded mollusk home.

A large and a tiny gastropod shell sticking out of an exposed side of one of the walls of the residential area of Al Faw.
A line of seashells still contained within the material used to construct the ancient city.

When you learn a piece of information like “much of the today’s land area used to be under the ocean”, it is sometimes easy to push to the back of your mind as not terribly relevant. It’s something that I have always heard about in school and accepted, but seeing evidence of it in a place where so many layers of history are interacting with each other (ancient Arabian architecture meets prehistoric geological change meets random 2016 tourist in the desert) really brought it to life for me. I feel very lucky that throughout my life I have received a good natural science education, because it has given me the opportunity to make connections and see so many amazing ways in which the natural world functions.

After seeing the site, we climbed back into our SUVs and spent the next two days making our way through the desert. Aside from the drinking water we carried, an unexpected 30 minutes of rain one night, and a river we found in the canyon lands on our way back to the capital city of Riyad, I could not say that this trip featured much in the way of water. But it would seem that no matter where I go, I always manage to connect with a bit of the sea.

The sand dunes at our Empty Quarter campsite during the sunset.
The sand dunes at our Empty Quarter campsite during the sunset.





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