Flat Al-Stanley Visits the White Volcanoes, Saudi Arabia










Day 1

We headed north along Route 15 and at about 11AM we arrived at the Khaybar Dam.

Khaybar Dam
Khaybar Dam

“It is unclear when the Khaybar Dam was originally built. There is evidence that it is pre-Islamic. There are actually several dams at this site. On the left is the dam known as Sadd Qasr al-Bint. Locals say it may have been built by the Queen of Sheeba, reminiscent of the Marib Damin Yemen. This particular dam is around 135 meters long and 20 meters high. The water from the dams at Khaybar was used to irrigate large plots of date palms. These dates became famous throughout the Arabian Peninsula. In time a large village was established. It was mostly inhabited by Jewish people. During the Muslim expansion under the Prophet Mohammed, Khaybar became an important center, and the Battle for Khaybar is often mentioned in the Hadith records. (http://nabataea.net/khaybarhadith.html)” http://nabataea.net/khabardam.html

Famous Khaybar Date Palms

A bit of history: For many centuries, the oasis at Khaybar was an important caravan stopping place. The center developed around a series of ancient dams that was built to hold back run-off water from the rain. Around the water catchments date palms grew, and soon Khaybar became an important date producing center. Khaybar was an important town along the Incense Road from Ubar in modern day Yemen to Gaza(Jenysos) http://nabataea.net/kaybar.html

By lunchtime on Saturday we passed a large hill and suddenly we were sitting on the rim of the collapsed section of the Umm Jirsan lava tube getting ready to spend an hour exploring the longest lava tube in Saudi Arabia.

Harrat Khaybar is a lava field ~12,000 km2 in area, located north of Medina in western Saudi Arabia. Its lavas and volcanoes are mildly alkaline and the age of its flows ranges from five million years old to historic.

In 2007, explorers found and mapped Umm Jirsan Lava Tube System, consisting of three passages separated by two collapses. This system has a typical ceiling height of 8 to12 m and some passages as wide as 45 m. With a total length of 1481.2 m, it is the largest surveyed cave system in Saudi Arabia and the longest lava-tube system in the entire Arabian Peninsula. It is expected that much longer systems will be discovered in Harrat Khaybar because Umm Jirsan is only one of some 40 strings of collapses mapped by helicopter in the 1980s.

Caches of human and animal bones were found lying on the surface of meter-deep sediment in Umm Jirsan Cave, including a human skull fragment carbon dated at 4040±30 years BP and an unidentified animal bone 2285±30 years old. http://www.vulcanospeleology.org/articles/khaybar.pdf

Barren landscape - it rained recently

Umm Jirsan - main collapse looking east

Wolves, foxes, swifts and snakes inhabit or use the cave. Caches of human and animal bones are found in many places, lying on the surface of the floor sediment. Carbon dating revealed that various human skull parts are from 150 to 4040±30 years old and the oldest animal bone dates 2285±30 years BP.

Umm Jirsan is one of at least 40 strings of collapses appearing on the most accurate geological map of Harrat Khaybar. Some of these strings are over 15 km long, suggesting that other, much longer lava tubes may be found in this area. http://www.vulcanospeleology.org/articles/jirsan.pdf

The tracks were barely a vehicle’s width and treacherous, speed rarely got higher than 10km/hr, surrounded on all sides by sharp volcanic rock threatening to rip the bottom out of the car or give us a puncture. The tracks were made worse by track erosion and water damage sustained during the recent rains.

The cars at the rim of Umm Jirsan
The Road to Umm Jirsan










The Western Lava Tube
The Western Lava Tube
The Eastern Lava Tube










With the volcano in front of us and the sun setting on the second day of our trip, we pitched camp in a small, tree-lined, sandy wadi between the Labat Abu Hishayyimah lava flow and the western base of the volcano, in the shadow of Jebel As Sunfurah. An exploratory hike over the lava flow, before dinner, indicated that we were on the north side of the kilometre wide flow and the track we needed was on the southern edge.

Jebel Abyad from the campsite
Campsite at base of Jebel Abyad










Day 2

Location of Volcanoes (Google Maps)
Harrats of Saudi Arabia

As soon as the sun was up, we headed west and then south around the Labat Abu Hishayyimah lava flow hoping to pick up the track, indicated on the map, running along the north edge of the Labat Al Halqah lava flow. As we reached Huzaym Ad Dihad we could see the tracks heading to the volcano and with 5 minutes of our designated hour left, we turned north towards Jebel Abyad (the White Volcano).  The GPS track is a continuous snake through the lava – not a straight line can be seen.

Almost there!

As noted by John Pint “…Now, the problem with navigating over lava is that you can’t just aim for a landmark and drive towards it. No, you have to get there via somebody else’s path which eventually leads you off on a diagonal. Then you have to tack back the other way, slowly zigzagging toward your goal.” http://www.saudicaves.com/bnw/index.htm

We arrived at the base of Jebel Abyad just before lunchtime on Sunday, under blue skies and bright sunshine. 4km by GPS from our campsite and about 25km by track! Ian went for a walk further down the track from the “car park”, while the rest of us got kitted up for the hike to the top of the volcano, looking for the track up. The incline from the base to the rim was about 33% and there were places where we needed to use hands because it was so steep!



Flat Stanley on the rim of Jebel Abyad (Jebel Qidr in background)
Flat Stanley and the cones in the centre of Jebel Abyad

After a minute or three to catch our breath at the top of the climb, take the requisite photos and admire the fantastic views from the volcano’s rim, we set off to walk the circumference. This took us about an hour and we had birdseye views of Jebel Al Aqir, Jebel Bayda and Jebel Qidr, not to mention the huge lava flow between Bayda and Qidr.




Jabal Abyad, Saudi Arabia — The light-colored dome in the right background is composed of a felsic rock called comendite. Its name, Jabal Abyad, means white mountain. The lower portion of Jabal Abyad contains a previously unknown site of obsidian used to make Paleolithic tools. The dome in the foreground is composed of a more mafic rock type, called hawaiite. The flanks of the hawaiite dome are marked by neolithic stone walls. The basaltic lava in the foreground flowed over these stone monuments, indicating that the flow is younger than the neolithic walls. http://www.geology.sdsu.edu/how_volcanoes_work/Thumblinks/abyad_page.html

Flat Stanley on top of Jebel Abyad looking at Jebel Bayda

The Black and White volcanoes of Saudi Arabia deserve a high place on the list of the world’s most spectacular natural wonders, but few people have ever heard of them and very, very few indeed have ever laid eyes upon them. The two white volcanoes, standing side by side, surrounded by Harrat Khaybar, a vast ocean of jagged lava located in western Saudi Arabia, north of Medina. Jebel (also spelled Jabal) Abyad is the one on the right and at 2093 meters, is the highest volcano in the Khaybar lava field. It is a dome of rare white-to-cream-colored lava that was squeezed up out of the bowels of the earth like toothpaste. Just west of it, on the left, shaped like a giant doughnut the color of French Vanilla ice cream, lies Bayda, an ash cone 1913m high, which was formed by an explosive eruption of gas beneath the molten rock. The words abyad and bayda both mean white in Arabic and are the masculine and feminine forms of the adjective, perhaps reflecting early viewers’ interpretations of their shapes. Both are mainly composed of a rare, beige lava or ash known as comendite.

Flat Stanley on top of Jebel Abyad looking towards Jebel Qidr


The Black Widow
In stark contrast, only two kilometers to the north, a third volcano rises 2022 meters into the air. Jebel Qidr, as graceful and symmetrical as Mount Fuji, consists of hard, licorice-black basalt. Its last (and fairly recent) eruption spewed out a tar-colored flow that partially engulfs the two creamy-white volcanoes, earning Qidr the nickname “The Black Widow” as she seems to have been caught in the act of ensnaring her neighbors. The line of demarcation is so abrupt, you can actually stand with one foot on Qidr’s brittle, black basalt and the other in Bayda’s powdery white comendite. http://www.saudicaves.com/bnw/index.htm

Grey clouds threatened and it was agreed that we needed to head back to the road before the rain came. Off we went at 10 km/hr back along the track that we had come in on.


We went back to the petrol station in Thamad that had been our offroad starting point, filled our tanks and set off on the second part of the trip: to find Neolithic stone structures that we had discovered on Google Earth. Literature was scarce, but we were able to discover that the stone formations were dated at about 2,000 BC, making them 4,000 years old.

Our next stop of the day was the keystone tombs just south of Khaybar. Located on a rock plain at the top of a ridge, we found the keystone tombs, a circle with a tail (likely a “pendant tomb”), large cairns, a long wall and several other structures whose original shape was indiscernable. Just as the sun set on we set up came behind some trees, away from the road, at the bottom of the ridge. After a hearty dinner, we all went to bed at about 8PM.



Keystone Tomb, south of Khaybar
Keystone tomb, south of Khaybar

“Pendant tombs” are circular burial enclosures at the end of a line of small cairns. These have turned up in both the Harrat Khaybar and Al-Hayit areas. In a few instances, they have a second enclosure at the other end (“double pendant tombs”). They often turn up in large groups, forming what appear to be entire cemeteries, or parts of them, and they are to be counted in the hundreds, perhaps even in the thousands.


The “keyhole tombs” and the “gates,” both novelties of the Harrat Khaybar, structures that are striking because of their unexpected, unique forms and their astonishing numbers. The keyhole tombs usually consist of a circular enclosure at the head of stone walls that form an isosceles triangle. There are numerous variations in size and in the relationships of circles and courtyards. http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/200904/desktop.archeology.htm

Keyhole Tombs on Google Earth

Day 3

By 7:30AM we were packed up and just getting into our vehicles when the driver from one of the trucks from the midnight visit pulled up to the campsite and asked us in for breakfast and coffee. After a few thank-yous and apologies that we couldn’t visit longer because we needed to be in Tabuk by 4PM, he went on his way and we headed off down the road. To be followed and cut off by another truck, whose occupant was the man who owned the farm that we had camped on the night before. He said good morning to me and was pleased to meet the rest of the group who had been ‘sleeping’ when he had visited the night before. We were enthusiastically invited back to his farm for breakfast and coffee and at the risk of insulting him (which I think we might have done by mistake) we made our excuses and thanked him again for the hospitality the night before and headed off to find the old city of Khaybar and the stone circles.

Old Khaybar City (from Panoramia)
The Citadel, Khaybar (from Panoramia)

The Prophet Mohamed had stayed here (see above) during his conquest of the Jews who had inhabited the town of Khaybar. We knew that we likely wouldn’t be able to visit the citadel, but hoped to see it from a distance, close enough for photos at least.

As we were getting out of the vehicles and getting ready to explore the old city, a police jeep came up an old winding street.   ‘Iqama!(ID card) Istimara!’ (vehicle registration)and ‘Mamnoue!’(forbidden) was all he said. We complied and in my simple Arabic  said that we wanted to see the old city for half an hour, take pictures and be on our way.  We were told, politely, to follow him to the station. However, about a kilometer down the road into new Khaybar town he pulled over and approached the vehicles again. He gave us back our iqamas and istimaras and told us again ‘mamnoue’ and drove off, leaving us to make our own way. Glad that we had once again escaped an escort, we went down the road looking for stone circles and other shapes.

The first shape was a ‘kite’.   Once there we noted that the whole area was covered in rocks and there was very little vegetation. The ‘houses’ at the peaks of the ‘kite’, as proposed in one article found on the internet, seemed too small to be anything but a hunting hide. We could only assume that the very low line of rocks we saw had been a bit higher during the use of these structures. (There is one structure from the same era west of Riyadh and is in better condition. Those walls were about 2ft high.)

Kites and Wheels (Google Maps)


The most striking are the so-called “kites,” the remnants of long stone walls most likely built by groups of hunters to trap game; the walls outline the shape of a child’s kite. But the kites are huge: The “body” is a wall enclosing a corral-like space often 100 or more meters (328′) across. The “tails,” two or more walls running out from the head, are typically each a few hundred meters long, but they can be as long as two or three kilometers (1.2–1.8 mi). On the ground, however, kites are almost impossible to find, because the walls, built of basalt boulders, are only about a meter (3′) wide and their surviving height is seldom over half a meter, making them nearly invisible on a landscape already thickly strewn with the same rock.

From above, however, they stand out clearly, and their entire shape can be seen, as well as the wider patterns of neighboring kites and other structures. Hundreds of these kites—and there may ultimately be thousands—are already widely recorded as far north as Syria.

Kites and Pendants (Google Maps)


The novelty of the kites in the Harrat Khaybar region, however, is that, with few exceptions, they appear in two shapes not found elsewhere: “barbed arrows” and “square pockets.” In addition, unlike the gentle, almost freehand curves that characterize the lines of most previously known kites, many of the Khaybar kites are precisely drawn, with ruler-straight lines that often meet at acute angles.

As for the purpose of the kites, the archeological consensus has long been that they were animal traps, and that the stone walls we see may have supported wooden fence posts or piles of brush. Gazelle and, to a lesser extent, oryx and onager could be driven into the widely spaced walls at the mouth of the kite and herded through the gradually narrowing space into the “head,” where more hunters awaited them for killing or capture. At Harrat Khaybar, it appears the builders may have used the “barbs” as sub-traps, or traps-within-the-trap. Although there have been dissenting scholars arguing for the use of kites as enclosures for livestock husbandry, that explanation is not convincing to most. Nonetheless, there are no definitive answers, only hypotheses. http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/200904/desktop.archeology.htm

Kites are basically triangular shapes with one end opened. It consists of two converging more or less straight walls, that create funnel shape which ends with narrow passage to a sort of coral enclosure. Typically there are two three or more circular enclosures on the edge of this corral. Kites can be and often are much more complex in shapes. And sizes vary. From smaller few hundred meters in length to huge kites that can span over several kilometres in length. Typical more complex shape of kite would incorporate 5 or more circular enclosures joint with curve shaped walls. And more than one leading wall, creating the funnel to herd the game in the ending enclosure. http://alsahra.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/khaybar-desert-kites.pdf

Jordanian fieldwork has concluded that kites and at least some of the associated structures date back to around the fifth millennium BC, to a time characterized by a wetter, lusher environment with far more vegetation, perennial water and the kind of abundant wildlife so richly depicted in the rock art. Whether that is also true, even broadly, of the Khaybar kites is too soon to tell, for their more sophisticated forms and rather sharper appearance may imply less decay and thus a younger age.

Kites seen on Google Earth








As for the cemeteries, many of the keyhole and gate types are entirely new forms, but the pendants have parallels in Jordan, where a recent discovery of a necropolis from between the late Neolithic and the early Bronze ages, with hundreds of tombs and ritual structures dating back an estimated 9000 years, includes pendant tombs like those in Saudi Arabia. http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/200904/desktop.archeology.htm

We took half an hour to walk around the area, which contained a second ‘kite’ on the other side of a low hill. At the bottom of the ridge I found a clearly marked path, strewn with rocks that had fallen from the structures along the top of the ridge. In all, there were 2 ‘kites’, a cairn with a tail (pendant tomb??) and several other larger structures that could have been old habitations.

We carried on further down the track in search of stone circles. The track was bumpy but driveable; the rocks smoother and less sharp than the basalt and lava fields of the day before. We found several small stone circles and noted that there were 5 or 6 clearly marked graves near them. Online articles noted that there were graves in the middle of some ‘kites’, as well as the stone circles. The authors were unsure about the dates for these two anomalies, but it was generally felt that the circles and other stone structures came first and then the graves were made by another culture.

At this point, the 2nd car in our convoy decided that he needed to head home and we agreed to go back to the road after 3 days of hard driving. The 3rd day of our offroad trip ended and further exploration of these fascinating stone structures stopped.

Other shapes that we had intended to find were:

Neolithic cairns (likely a pendant tomb)

1. “wheels” often located close to kites. They come in a variety of forms, most simply a near-perfect circle of 20 to 50 meters’ (65–165′) diameter in which six or more spokes create wedge-shaped chambers around a central hub. Others have a succession of small cairns running round the outside of the rim. In the windows visible over Saudi Arabia, these wheels are rare. Their purpose may be funerary, but that is no more than a conjecture. http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/200904/desktop.archeology.htm

2. “post” and “rails” looking like simple gates laid flat: a “post” at either end with two (but occasionally three to five) “rails” in between. They can vary a great deal in size, from five or 10 meters long (16–32′) to a hundred meters (320′) or more. The key element is surely the posts, which appear to be dense heaps of boulders, and which may again be burial places. http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/200904/desktop.archeology.htm

Hunting Relic (stone circle with tail)

3. “comets” which are stone circles with a long tail, likely used for hunting, had two ormore walls running out from the head, are typically each a few hundred meters long, but they can be as long as two or three kilometers (1.2–1.8 mi) http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/200904/desktop.archeology.htm; http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/200602/volcanic.arabia.htm

The English-language daily newspaper Arab News has speculated that a cluster of stone rings 60 km north of the Red Sea port of Jedda may be ancient grave sites. The walls were too low to have served as sheep or goat pens, the newspaper reasoned. Mr. Ron Worl, of the US Geological Survey [12], … concluded that the stone rings could be the desert equivalent of rock carvings, ancient signposts that point the way to freshwater springs or caravan routes. Several of the “tails” led to water or old desert paths” [11-13].

After his survey with satellite, the author of [11] noted that only basic shapes were used and that these structures are not distributed evenly or at random. They appear most often along what must have been travel routes, usually found at prominent points of sorts (see for instance, Figure 3).

Stone Circles/Villages (Google Maps)

In [11], the different shapes of these Neolithic structures are listed: stone circles, often perfectly round with a cairn at the centre, stone circles with triangles, triangles and mounds of two kinds, round with flat top or with a depression or hole in the middle. In fact, as observed in [11], some mounds may be small volcano vents or cones, because from satellite imagery only, it is hard to tell whether they are man-made or geological features. Other structures have the shape of needles, lines or tails. There are enclosures, sometimes with round structures or irregulars: according to [11], these enclosures were very old dwelling and/or livestock areas. http://www.archaeogate.org/classica/article.php?id=1327


All in all, it was a good trip. We got to set 2 new Earthcaches, got to see the old city for a brief minute, and avoided getting a police escort!

More photos are online at http://theadventuresofmenu.shutterfly.com [Disclaimer:  while Flat Stanley is not in all of these photos, he was with us the entire trip, albeit in the backseat.]

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