The archaeology of Islamic period Khaybar, northwest Saudi Arabia

One of the foci of the Khaybar Longue Durée Archaeological Project, the study of a major oasis in northwest Arabia, characterised by fertile spring-fed wadis, filled with date gardens, cutting through the basalt geology of the volcanic Harrat Khaybar (fig. 1), is the investigation of its Islamic past. Here we look at some methodological issues encountered in our work, as well as providing an overview of some of the main results.

Fig. 1: Map of the Royal Commission for AlUla Khaybar jurisdiction (outlined in black) in northwestern Arabia, and principal locations mentioned, © Khaybar LDAP S. McPhillips and K. Guadagnini.

Whereas pre-Islamic archaeology in Khaybar is concentrated on the surrounding basalt plateau (Charloux et al. 2024; Barge et al. 2022; Kennedy et al. 2021), Islamic remains, while found in the basalt, are more abundant in the core of the oasis. Visible on the floor of the oasis they consist of a dense network of walls and structures on the sedimented wadi floors, including sites occupied through to the beginning of the 1980s. This, when we set out to characterise the settlement and landscape history of the oasis, posed methodological challenges. Little was known about them or their material culture, though their importance had been noted in earlier large-scale regional surveys (Gilmore et al 1982, Al-Rashid 2003). Another challenge was the enormity of the area under consideration, ca. 56 km 2! Rather than sample the entire zone systematically, we built up profiles of different landscape types, relying on remote sensing to select areas for targeted ground survey. We then opened test pits at selected sites. Fortunately, a good number of these soundings produced stratified sequences, material culture that could provide chronological indications, or charcoal samples suitable for radiocarbon dating, all of which allowed us to build up an understanding of the nature of occupation.

Khaybar has a high profile in Arabic historiography, largely owing to its conquest by the prophet Muhammad and his armies in the battle of 7 AH /628 CE, a crucial military victory which opened up the rest of the northern Hijaz to Muslim conquest. The battle is described in relation to a series of forts, or possibly districts, which fell to the victors one by one, culminating in a successful siege of the most important of these, Hisn al-Qamus (summarised in Munt 2021). The seven historical forts, mentioned in later accounts of the battle have been associated with a series of ruined settlements visible today, the most iconic of which are situated on the summit of flat basalt outcrops or mesas.

We began work in the village of Makidah (fig. 2a), where surface finds included ceramics, dated to between the 9th and 13th centuries, imported from Fustat (Islamic Cairo) and the Levant. Excavation, however, revealed no evidence of site occupation prior to the late 19th–early 20th centuries CE. Domestic structures, which still stand up to 3-storeys high, have stone foundations built directly on the underlying bedrock. The exterior facades of houses were used as an outer defensive wall to fortify the village, as well as internally subdividing the village into gated neighbourhoods (fig. 2b). A walled entrance-way, accessed by a steep ramp, provides access to the area, and was, most likely, the entry to the Ottoman garrison described in the travel accounts of the 1880s, and certainly the structure photographed in the 1950s by Philby (Doughty: 1888: 93, Huber 1884: 527, Philby 1957: 46, Pl. 9). Doughty and Huber both portray a community of modest means, the archaeological record, on the other hand, produced a rich material culture. This included abundant faunal remains, imported tobacco pipes and porcelain, and, most significantly, showed that an expansion of the main oasis town, Bishr, was underway at this time. In the centre of Bishr, soundings revealed structures probably in use from the 9th to 12th centuries. On the eastern perimeter of Bishr, soundings in the ruins of the congregational mosque provided further insight into the Islamic past of the oasis, indicating a long use of this building through Islamic periods. This will be presented in a forthcoming publication.

Fig. 2a: Aerial image of the core of the village of Makidah, showing one of the soundings, KH2022g0004, © Khaybar LDAP, K. Guadagnini.
Fig. 2b: Makidah, showing neighbourhood units, © Khaybar LDAP, E. Reganon and S. McPhillips.

Despite modest results from these two pre-modern settlements in the oasis core, we have been able to establish an overview of how settlement in the oasis evolved through Islamic periods. Two sites, with remains of stone architecture, on the edge of the Harrat Khaybar, have revealed occupation from the period when Khaybar came under Islamic rule. By the late 8th century, and into the 9th century, important new trends can be detected in settlement patterns and land use. Agricultural activity expanded into the oasis periphery, requiring the use of well-fed irrigation systems, systems also present in the area in the modern period. In the Al-Hurdah district, to the north, Guillaume Chung-To has documented a series of structures, potentially khans or caravanserais, and an agricultural settlement (Fig. 3) (Chung-To 2023): surface and excavated finds of ceramics and glass, along with radiocarbon results, indicate that these date from at least the 9th century, and continued to be occupied up to the 12th century.

Fig. 3:  Agricultural settlement in Al Hurdah, © Khaybar LDAP, K. Guadagnini  

Other shifts in settlement pattern occur at approximately the same time in the oasis core, the most significant being the foundation of a partly-walled settlement containing monumental buildings, covering at least five hectares. In contrast to the visually prominent “fort” sites in Khaybar, Kharāyib al-Sihlah is located in a low-lying plain. In the twentieth century local people took the raw materials for making mudbricks from this location, a practice which perhaps explains the presence of incongruous archaeological surface finds at other sites characterised by mudbrick or pisé architecture. The position of this new Abbasid period settlement is strategic, sitting at the heart of the oasis, and at the narrowest point between two of its main wadis. Located within a kilometre of Bishr, this was, most likely, the main town in Khaybar when Kharāyib al-Sihlah was founded.

One of the challenges we faced when attempting to characterise the Islamic landscape history of the oasis core was the sheer mass of surviving structures in the landscape. On the oasis floors a complex web of stone, mudbrick and pisé walls defined the parcellation of date palm gardens. On the basalt escarpments above, another category of walled structure covered a large area of the harra, absorbing or overlying earlier architectural remains (figs. 4 and 5): oral history and 19th century travel accounts revealed these as mirbad (plural marābid), the term used in the Madinah province to describe date-processing enclosures. Large clusters of open-air date-drying stone enclosures are, to our knowledge, found only in Khaybar and a handful of other oases in the Harrat Khaybar, to the south and east, which share a similar basalt geology and an agricultural economy centred on date production. Each complex encompasses enclosed date drying and pressing areas, cooking spaces, open parallel walled shelters and circular enclosures, which were used as tent supports. Many but not all of the complexes also contain open air mosques and probable animal pens.

The marābid are an archaeological manifestation of the sharing of spaces and resources by two distinct communities living in this region. Nomadic pastoralist Bedouin and sedentary oasis dwellers not only shared ownership of the landholdings and the date harvest, but also lived adjacent to each other – the former in temporary settlements – during the important annual Khaybar fairs held at the end of summer. The project has undertaken a detailed cartographic study of the phenomenon, and the documentation of selected units, and it is hoped that future work will help refine the chronology of their use, and further define the range of characteristics that distinguish the complexes from one another.

The Khaybar Longue Durée Archaeological Project has taken important first steps to establish a diachronic overview of Islamic settlement in the oasis, revealing significant, previously unknown, aspects of its history, and highlighting its future research potential.

Fig. 4: Aerial image of a marābid “cluster” on the basalt harra adjacent to the Wadi Zaidiyah, © Khaybar LDAP, K. Guadagnini
Fig. 5: Marābid distribution in the Khaybar study area, © Khaybar LDAP, S. McPhillips

The Khaybar Longue Durée Archaeological Project is co-directed by Guillaume Charloux, CNRS Orient & Méditerranée UMR 8167, and Rémy Crassard (CNRS, Archéorient UMR 5133), with co-director Munirah AlMushawh (Royal Commission for AlUla) (Charloux et al. 2024; Charloux et al. 2022). The project is supported by the Royal Commission for AlUla and the French Agency for AlUla Development.

Research collaborators

  • K. Guadagnini, Geomatics (CNRS UMR Orient Méditerranée, Paris)
  • B. Depreux (CNRS UMR Archéorient) and S. Colin, Geoarchaeology (Hadès)
  • E. Chambraux, Archaeobotany (Doctorante MNHN-CNRS UMR – Archéozoologie, Archéobotanique, Sociétés, Pratiques, Environnements).
  • H. Monchot, zooarchaeology (CNRS UMR Orient Mediterranée).
  • E. Regagnon, cartography (CNRS UMR Archéorient – Jalès)
  • S. Al-Shilali, Khaybar-based historian (Associate of the Royal Commission for AlUla)
  • C. Faiers, F. Guermont and H. Lewis, archaeologists (independent consultants)


Barge, O., Albukaai, D., Boelke, M., Guadagnini, K., Régagnon, E., & Crassard, R. 2022. New Arabian desert kites and potential proto-kites extend the global distribution of hunting mega-traps. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports42, 103403.

Charloux, G., Shabo, S., Chung-To, G., Depreux, B., Guermont, F., Guadagnini, K., Terrasse, T., Bussy, M., Alshilali, S., Albukaai, D. and Crassard, R. 2024. The ramparts of Khaybar. Multiproxy investigation for reconstructing a Bronze Age walled oasis in Northwest Arabia. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 53, 104355.

Charloux, G., Crassard, R., Almushawh, M., Albukaai, D., Chung-To, G., Depreux, B., Guadagnini, K., Hapiot, L., Hilbert, Y.H., McPhillips, S. and Norris, J. 2022. Khaybar through time. First results of the Khaybar Longue Durée Archaeological Project (2020− 2021) in the light of historical sources. In Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 51, 57-84.

Chung-To, G. 2003. Al-Ḥurḍah, an Early Islamic settlement horizon in the oasis of Khaybar.” In Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies, 52, 71-87.

Doughty, C.M. 1888. Travels in Arabia Deserta. Jonathan Cape, London (Vol. 2).

Gilmore, M., Ibrahim, M., and al-Jawad, A. 1982. Preliminary Report on the Northwestern and Northern Region Survey 1981 (1401). ATLAL, 6, 9-24.

Huber C. 1884. Voyage dans l’Arabie Centrale Hamâd, Šammar, Qaçîm, Hedjâz: 1878-1882. Bulletin de la Société de Géographie, 468-530, and maps.

Kennedy, M.A., McMahon, J., Thomas, H., Boyer, D.D., Repper, R., Dalton, M. AlKhaldi, K. 2021. Dating the pendant burials of north-west Arabia: First radiometric results from the Khaybar Oasis, Saudi Arabia. Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 32, 183–197.

King, G.R.D. 1986. The Historical Mosques of Saudi Arabia. Longman, London and New York.

Munt, H. 2021. Khaybar, in: Encyclopaedia of Islam, THREE, K. Fleet, G. Krämer, D. Matringe, J. Nawas, D.J. Stewart (eds.). Brill, Leiden, 118-121.

Philby, S. J. 1957. The Land of Midian. Ernest Benn, London.

Al-Rāshid, S. 2003. Athār Mintaqat al-Madīna al-Munawwara. Riyadh.


Stephen McPhillips is an archaeologist working in landscapes and the rural world in Islamic periods. He is currently working for the CNRS Khaybar Longue durée Archaeological Project, UMR 8167-Orient Méditerranée, Paris

Guillaume Chung-To is a PhD candidate at the University of Paris 1 with a scholarship from the Khaybar project, working on the archaeology of the transition between late pre-Islamic and Early Islamic period Arabia and has excavated at several sites in Saudi Arabia (Thāj, al-Badʿ, ʿAsham, Khaybar).

Citer ce billet
Stephen McPhillips and Guillaume Chung-To (2024, 12 avril). The archaeology of Islamic period Khaybar, northwest Saudi Arabia. ArchéOrient - Le Blog. Consulté le 30 mai 2024, à l’adresse

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