Over the past decade, Australian archeologist Dr. David Kennedy has used Google Earth to map almost 400 stone walls in west central Saudi Arabia. These walls could have been built by an ancient wandering tribe whose purpose and process is not yet known. (Credit: Satellite photo by CNES/Airbus, via Google Earth)

‘And your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness. According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, a year for each day, you shall bear your iniquity forty years, and you shall know my displeasure.’ – Numbers 14: 33-34 (ESV)

Did the nomadic Children of Israel spend 40 years in the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula, or did they spend at least part of those four decades wandering to and fro in the Arabian Peninsula? Some argue for the latter.

When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh and stayed in the land of Midian. And he sat down by a well. – Exodus 2:15 (ESV)

This thinking is largely based on the idea that Mount Sinai should actually be located in northwest Saudi Arabia, which was the ancient land of Midian where Moses spent 40 years. A number of scholars such as the late Frank Moore Cross from Harvard and Sir Colin Humphreys from Cambridge have espoused this view for the location of the mountain, along with a group of Exodus explorers.

Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. – Exodus 3:1 (ESV)

With the aid of Google Earth, University of Western Australia researcher Dr. David Kennedy has catalogued almost 400 stone walls that are hard to detect when you are standing right next to them; nevertheless, they can be clearly viewed via today’s satellite imagery.

“You can’t see them very well from the ground level,” says Dr. Kennedy in an interview with New York Times’ writer Nicholas St. Fleuer. “But when you get up a few hundred feet, or with a satellite even higher, they stand out beautifully.” The Times published “Hundreds of Mysterious Stone ‘Gates’ Found in Saudi Arabian Desert” in its Oct. 19, 2017 Science section.

This enhanced satellite image offers a more clear view of the gates which populate lava flowers in west-central Saudi Arabia. Who built them and why? (Wiley/Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy/Douglas Kennedy, via The Independent, UK)

Dubbed “gates” because many look like cattle gates from high above the earth, these walls present themselves in a variety of shapes ranging from rectangular to a capital “I” with stone piles at both ends. The latter shape discourages any thought that these were enclosures meant to contain animals. Many of these stone walls are only three feet high.

The length of the walls varies from 13 meters (about 43 feet) to 518 meters (about 1,699 feet)—the breadth of the walls ranges from a line of stones to sections measuring 30 feet wide.

Other ancient stone structures in the Middle East have been spotted from above in recent years. The present-day Bedouins call these structures “works of the old men”. Some stone structures, shaped like children’s kites, were perhaps used to herd animals or trap flocks of birds. But the purpose of the “gates” has so far eluded researchers.

These gates, which to-date have been explored almost entirely from the air, may be anywhere from 2,000 to 9,000 years old, according to Dr. Kennedy. The archeologist hopes boots-on-the-ground exploration will result in a more accurate dating of the ancient stone structures.

The existence of the “gates” was first noticed by members of the general public as they used Google Earth to swoop down on uninhabited areas of the Arabian Peninsula. A neurologist and amateur archeologist, Dr. Abdullah Al-Sa’eed, became interested in these stone walls after visiting a lava dome in west-central Saudi Arabia in 2004. He returned to that spot in 2008, using Google’s mapping tools, and was astonished to see dozens and dozens of gates populating other domes in the area. He took photographs and contacted professional archeologists, including Dr. Kennedy, who took up the chase.

Views from the ground at one of the gates. (Grant Scroggie, via The Independent, UK)

Since then, Dr. Kennedy says he has mapped almost 400 “gates” on or around lava flows in the volcanic region of Harrat Khaybar in west central Saudi Arabia. He speculates that these domes were active, producing basalt lava flows during the time when the gates were constructed. Some of the gates have been inundated by the lava flows.

Then, too, the ecology of the Arabian Peninsula may have been very different thousands of years ago. Some speculate it may have been more tropical than it is today.

“We tend to think of Saudi Arabia as desert, but in practice there’s a huge archeological treasure trove out there and it needs to be identified and mapped,” Kennedy told the Times. He is the author of a paper on the “gates” scheduled to appear in the November issue of the journal of Arabian Archeology and Epigraphy.

So, did the ancient Israelites wander in the Arabian Peninsula, as some have suggested. Might these “gates” offer a clue from biblical times that a nomadic people such as this actually existed? Only time and boots on the ground will tell.

According to the Times, Stephen Kempe, retired professor of physical geology at Technische Universität Darmstadt in Germany, also believes the climate and ecology of Saudi Arabia was most likely much different from today. Despite the temptation to speculate, however, we must wait for further exploration to learn about the specific purposes and processes by which these stone gates were constructed.

“The mind of people in the past is not that easily read,” Kempe tells to the New York Times.

In any case, the recent discovery of hundreds of stone structures in a region previously thought uninhabitable represents yet one more piece of evidence for human history in this corner of the world.

Keep Thinking.