When Arabia Was Awash in Rivers and Lakes

When Arabia Was Awash in Rivers and Lakes

The above graphic is a map of rivers that once existed on the arabian peninsula, in a time when it was populated by crocodiles, hippos, elephants, and a lush array of foliage to support such an ecosystem.  Most recently the peninsula had this type of climate between 10,000 and 6000-5500 BCE.  scientists have also identified lakes that existed in the current Empty Quarter.   The timing for 6000-5500 BCE  is curious, because it corresponds with the time that agriculture was showing up, but I’ll get into that later.   Aside from the wetter periods in prehistoric times, it’s likely that rivers existed much more recently than 7000 years ago.  Here are two maps from  the 1570’s, one by Ruscelli Ptolemy, depicting rivers flowing through Yemen, East into the Arabian Gulf,  as well as into the Hijaz (Source is Leen Helmlink’s site).  And while the maps would not be considered accurate by today’s standards, just the reports that rivers were here that recently is intriguing.

Ptolemy Map Arabia

A 1570s map from Ptolemy with rivers crisscrossing Arabia.

A 1570s map from Ptolemy with rivers crisscrossing Arabia.


For a moment I would like to go back to the first map, though:

Paleo Rivers that flowed through Arabia.

Source: “The Prehistory of The Arabian Peninsula: Deserts, Dispersals, and Demography” by Growcutt & Petraglia. Evolutionary Anthropology 21:113–125 (2012)

Do you notice the pattern here?  Almost all the rivers have their sources in the mountains, with most of them sourced in the hijaz and the Hajar Mountains.  There are some that flowed out of the Empty Quarter, which would have found their source in lakes, but all the rest stem from the mountains.  Notice the enormous alluvial fan (somewhat like a delta) entering the sea in modern-day Kuwait.  This was an enormous amount of water!

There are two points I am trying to make here:

  1.  Just because a place is a desert now does not mean that it has always been a desert, nor does it mean that it will stay one permanently.
  2. Any work seeking to restore rivers in a desert must focus work first of all in the mountains, because of their impact on rainfall and because they are the high point of any watershed.

In the next post I will discuss the major weather cycles that have affected the dry/wet cycles in the penninsula, as well as why currently, if the patterns held true, Arabia should be getting more rain now than it actually is.

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