Located in northwest Saudi Arabia, Midian has long been a land of biblical legend. In the 1800s, Western travelers and explorers described Midian as the desert wilderness that Moses and the Israelites crossed during their Exodus travels en route to the Promised Land. It was also the desert where Moses met and married Zipporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest (variously named Jethro, Reuel, or Hobab), and was initiated into their desert religion (Exodus 2–4). The so-called Midianite Hypothesis, first popularized in the 19th century but now questioned by most scholars, held that Moses was introduced to the god Yahweh in the land of Midian and the neighboring Hejaz mountains, where some have located Mt. Sinai.a
When I applied to excavate the site of Qurayyah, a vast urban oasis settlement in the far northwest of Saudi Arabia, I knew I would have to confront the “Midianite” question: Is there any archaeological evidence for the biblical Midianites? Some have viewed Qurayyah as the capital of the fabled Midianite kingdom. Others have ascribed a beautiful painted pottery found in abundance at the site—now known as Qurayyah Painted Ware (see sidebar)—to the Midianites.1
The Bible gives only a vague idea of who inhabited Midian in antiquity. For the biblical authors writing in the first millennium BCE, some Midianites were merchants who operated commercial camel caravans (Genesis 37:28), while others were viewed as enemies of the Israelites (Numbers 25:16–17). Still other times the Midianites were identified as descendants of Ishmael, the son of Abraham and his Egyptian slave Hagar (Genesis 16). Unfortunately, these contrasting views do not allow us to create a coherent historical picture of the Midianites. Instead, we focus in this article on what archaeology can reveal about the reality of ancient life in the desert land of Midian, which continued to be called Madyan well into the Islamic period.
In 2014, our team from the University of Vienna, together with colleagues from Saudi Arabia’s Heritage Commission of the Ministry of Culture, began a multiyear project to study Qurayyah’s history and archaeology. Our excavations, now in their eighth season, have far exceeded our expectations and given us extra-ordinary insights into the legendary land of Midian and this important urban oasis that was flourishing several thousand years before the Bible was even written.2
First, although the biblical writers may have considered this desert to be a vast “wilderness,” Midian and much of North Arabia was characterized by large urban oases, mega-sites like Qurayyah—but also Tayma and Dadan (the oasis of Al-Ula) farther to the south—that had extensive connections with Egypt, the Levant, and Mesopotamia. As we’ll see, Qurayyah was well integrated into the broader ancient Near East through trade and cultural connections, although the city’s inhabitants maintained their own unique identity, as expressed through distinctive pottery, art, and material culture.
Second, Qurayyah’s settlement history is significantly older and longer lasting than previously thought. Our excavations revealed occupation from as far back as the late fourth millennium BCE that continued largely uninterrupted until the time of the Nabateans, Romans, and Byzantines in the first millennium CE. Here we provide an overview of the site and the key discoveries.
Qurayyah, about 30 miles south of Jordan’s southern border, was a large oasis located in the broad dried prehistoric lakes (playas) and valleys east of the high peaks of the northern Hejaz mountains. The site is surrounded by the high, flat-topped hills (mesas) of the Hisma plateau and the stark, picturesque desert landscape that extends north into Jordan’s Wadi Rum. Lacking natural springs or easily exploitable wells, Qurayyah owed its existence to the nearby Wadi Ghubai, a 15-mile-long valley that carried seasonal runoff from the higher mountains and rocky outcrops to the west. This runoff water was harnessed and channeled to the site using dams, diversion walls, and canals, creating a vibrant oasis. The expansive and carefully planned site, which extends more than 750 acres, consisted of several parts: a towering rock plateau, a walled residential area, an industrial and funerary district, and a large agricultural zone with irrigated fields and orchards.
Qurayyah’s majestic rock plateau is the site’s most prominent feature. Rising nearly 175 feet above the desert floor, the central mesa features dramatic, steep sides with outcroppings of resplendent white chalk that make it visible from miles away.
Since the Early Bronze Age (late fourth millennium BCE) and most likely earlier, the plateau was the focus of ceremonial, ritual, and funerary activities. Our excavations on the plateau’s summit found a magnificent circular grave that was the resting place of more than a dozen individuals, mostly women and children. They appear to have been elites, as they were interred with hundreds of beads and several unique pendants, some crafted from mother-of-pearl, ivory, and semiprecious stones, including lapis lazuli. They were also buried with pottery, including painted wares with basket-like decoration known from Early Bronze Age Jerusalem, Jericho, and Megiddo. These findings show that from its beginning, Qurayyah was closely connected to the southern Levant and part of long-distance trade networks.
Evidence of the area’s ceremonial significance prior to the Early Bronze Age was found on a nearby mesa located directly across the Wadi Ghubai. On its summit stood a 6.5-foot-tall stela of a figure wearing a diadem and a double-bladed dagger hanging from a thick belt. Although similar stelae have been found across North Arabia and as far north as Transjordan, the Qurayyah stela is the tallest yet discovered, and the diadem provides an unmistakable sign of the figure’s high rank or even divine status.
Beginning in the third millennium, Qurayyah’s ceremonial landscape transformed into a large urban oasis. This was achieved through the construction of a large dam that controlled the Wadi Ghubai’s destructive floodwaters and protected the first settlement that was built at the base of the rock plateau. The dam also allowed Qurayyah’s inhabitants to create an elaborate system to capture surface runoff for both drinking water and irrigation of nearby fields.
This period saw the entire site—the rock plateau, residential area, and vast expanse of fields—enclosed by a wall that extended more than 8 miles in length. The creation of such a bounded, well-defined urban landscape in the desert is unique within the ancient Near East; there are no similar examples found in contemporary Mesopotamia, Egypt, or the Levant. Qurayyah’s desert population, it seems, found new and innovative ways to exploit their arid environment to the fullest. This included developing new metallurgical industries in the last centuries of the third millennium, evidenced by the remains of copper smelting and metal production found on the summit of the plateau.
At the foot of the plateau, we excavated two long rectangular buildings used to bury dozens of individuals from the end of the Early Bronze Age to the late Middle Bronze Age (c. 21st–17th centuries BCE). The two buildings feature local North Arabian wares and thousands of stone, faience, bone, and shell beads. We also found several daggers, a long sword, and a spearhead. Intriguingly, nearly identical cooking pots and daggers were discovered in burials from Middle Bronze Age Jericho and Bethlehem, again suggesting the interconnectedness of funerary practices between the southern Levant and northwestern Arabia.
Analysis of the bones revealed a broad range of ages and dietary habits, while the presence of bronze crucibles, together with high levels of lead identified in some teeth, suggest at least some of the deceased were metalworkers, perhaps the same people who were involved in the metallurgical activities discovered on the rock plateau.
Another funerary compound was excavated just west of the city’s residential area. Dating from the 13th to 10th centuries BCE, this large multichambered complex, which measures nearly 40,000 square feet, contained the remains of several dozen individuals. In addition to a broad range of Qurayyah Painted Ware vessels, the burials had Egyptian scarabs, iron arrowheads, bracelets, bronze rings, and hundreds of carnelian, stone, faience, and shell beads.
Most remarkable, however, was the discovery of a stone relief with a depiction of the ancient Semitic god Ṣalm, whose name simply means “image.” Ṣalm was widely worshiped across North Arabia (especially at the oasis of Tayma), while the biblical writers mention a Midianite king named Ṣalmunna (meaning “Ṣalm protects [from harm]”) (Judges 8:5).3 In the relief, Ṣalm is shown with a stylized, triangular-shaped bull’s head, horns, and beard, with an upturned ibex visible to the right and an upturned incense burner above his head. Also visible on the relief are a wavy line (perhaps representing water or a snake) and a stylized human figure with upraised arms, perhaps in prayer. This extraordinary piece, which once adorned a sanctuary associated with the burial complex, testifies to the skill and artistry of Qurayyah’s masons and the common artistic and symbolic repertoire they shared with the city’s potters and craftspeople.
The cultural and political situation in North Arabia began to change dramatically in the first millennium BCE. Many of the region’s urban oases, most notably Qurayyah, Tayma, and Dadan, which had formerly shared similar types of pottery and material culture, each began producing its own distinctive wares. In Tayma and Dadan, new alphabetic scripts were introduced to write various local dialects of ancient North Arabian, languages that eventually became precursors to Arabic. Politically, this era saw the arrival of the last Babylonian king, Nabonidus (r. 556–539 BCE), who took up residence in Tayma during the last ten years of his reign. Subsequently, the powerful local kingdoms of the Dadanites and Lihyanites emerged in the region. By the first century BCE, the area had come under the control of the Nabateans, who had their capital at the famous rock-cut city of Petra in Jordan but established an important southern outpost at Hegra, modern Medain Saleh about 200 miles south of Qurayyah.
Through all this change, Qurayyah continued to be an important regional oasis. In the city’s residential area, we excavated two Iron Age houses, one of which may have served as a jewelry-making facility based on the discovery of various precious materials, including ostrich eggs, beads, and iron and alabaster pieces. Moreover, the excavations showed that Qurayyah’s pottery, though still heavily painted, saw significant changes in colors, styles, and motifs. Particularly prominent are depictions of the camel, which had clearly grown in economic and symbolic importance for the peoples of ancient North Arabia during this period. Finally, in these houses we found an Egyptian amulet and several square-shaped incense burners, a clear indication of the growing importance of the South Arabian trade in frankincense, myrrh, and other spices that were brought by caravan from ancient Yemen.
Qurayyah continued to be settled through the Hellenistic, Nabatean, Roman, and Byzantine periods (third century BCE–sixth century CE), although its grandeur and importance waned considerably. The site features a number of prominent Roman and Nabatean building remains, and there is also a large water reservoir in the middle of the site’s agricultural area. Qurayyah was likely one of the stops on the Nabatean caravan route through the Hisma, as evidenced by burial caves at the foot of the plateau where individuals were buried in a manner similar to Nabatean burials found at Hegra.
Our excavations at Qurayyah, although not yet revealing the identity of the biblical Midianites, have nonetheless shown the sophistication, ingenuity, and resilience of the ancient North Arabian people who harnessed their desert landscape to its full potential. They created a walled urban oasis that flourished in the middle of the desert for more than three millennia, while at the same time developing their own cultural and religious traditions that were distinctive yet deeply connected and engaged with the peoples of the southern Levant and the wider Near East.
Located in northwest Saudi Arabia, Midian has long been a land of biblical legend. In the 1800s, Western travelers and explorers described Midian as the desert wilderness that Moses and the Israelites crossed during their Exodus travels en route to the Promised Land. It was also the desert where Moses met and married Zipporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest (variously named Jethro, Reuel, or Hobab), and was initiated into their desert religion (Exodus 2–4). The so-called Midianite Hypothesis, first popularized in the 19th century but now questioned by most scholars, held that Moses was introduced to the god Yahweh […]