Mustatil Temples in Arabia 6000-4000 BCE

The proto-agricultural herders of Arabia probably did not speak Akkadian. Yet like the Sumerians they had a similar religious culture to the Neolithic farmers but one more focused on life-powers instead of motion powers due to their herding life-style. This life-power bias would continue to influence the whole region (including Israel) into historic times.

Aerial photo of mustatil IDIHA-F-0011081 which is one of the most thorougly excavated ones to date. The pits are the excavations. Mustatils were temples having a large courtyard and a base. The base contained the temple's main ritual chamber in the center and this chamber was surrounded by 1 or more storage rooms. The courtyard was used for feasting and perhaps slaughtering animals. Internal dividing walls, ranging in number from one to three have also been identified in the courtyards of some examples. The outlying associated structures are likely workshops.

An Early Stone Temple Mustatil in Arabia

Since the 1970s, monumental structures now called mustatil have been documented across Saudi Arabia. Concentrated in northern Arabia, over 1600 mustatils have been identified through remote sensing, aerial photography, and ground survey. Ranging from 20-600m in length, these monumental structures were constructed from locally available stone, such as sandstone desert pavement or basalt.  

The excavated contents of the chambers of this mustatil indicates one was the focus of ritual activity. These chambers were closed to sky making them cave-like (Thomas and all 2021). To date, limited radiocarbon evidence has been presented for these structures, with available assays indicating a Middle Holocene, Late Neolithic date  of between 8600–4000 BCE. 

The animal remains from this mustatil  indicate this culture was based upon  hunting alongside cattle and goat herding. The presence of cattle herding  indicates the land had greater rainfall than today because cattle need to be watered every two-to-three days. Yet the hunting of gazelle indicates a semi-arid landscape. This again suggest the wetter Holocene Humid Period.

Animal remains numbering 260 were recovered inside the two chambers of this mustatil (ritual and storage rooms) of this mustatil which included 89 remains of domestic cattle (Bos taurus), 128 remains of Bos sp., five remains of domestic goat (Capra hircus), 19 remains of undetermined caprines, one remain of gazelle (Gazella sp.), and five remains of undetermined small ruminants.

The divine life power focus of these temple complexes is indicated by their orientation. Mustatils were orientated towards water sources like wadis and intermittent lakes (playa). They are not orientated with any motion powered celestial feature. Neolithic farmers needed to watched the night skies in order to know the time when to plant crops. This orientation pattern was determined by an aerial survey after heavy rains on the Harrat Khaybar plateau. Likewise, this mustatil (IDIHA-F-0011081) appears to be orientated towards an intermittent lake 700m due east.

Mustatil locations in Saudi Arabia

Location of site discussed here in red (site number: IDIHA-0008222).


Kennedy M, Strolin L, McMahon J, Franklin D, Flavel A, Noble J, et al. (2023) Cult, herding, and ‘pilgrimage’ in the Late Neolithic of north-west Arabia: Excavations at a mustatil east of AlUla. PLoS ONE 18(3): e0281904.
Thomas H, Kennedy M, Dalton M, McMahon J, Boyer D, Repper R. (2021) The Mustatils: Cult and Monumentality in Neolithic north-western Arabia. Antiquity. 95 (381) 605–626.

Mustatil Temple Ritual Chamber

The main (central) chamber of mustatil IDIHA-F-0011081 with three up-right stones (A-C) after excavation down to its original floor. The flat stones in center of image were under the final floor level which was composed of  a red sand (the color of life powers). They may have been the original upright stones now which for some reason were retired. The largest up-right stone (A) measures 0.8 x 0.43 x 0.1 meters so it was not very large by later standards. 
Within this red sand in front of stone A were two roughly circular hearths and poorly preserved animal remains (including teeth and bone fragments). These hearths were degraded and could not be sampled for carbon-14 dating. Animal coprolites were found in the sand indicating a seasonal abandonment.
This temple was not abandoned but was officially closed as indicated by the blocked doorway (white stones) visible on the left of the photo.

Mustatils Orientated Towards a Wadi

This wadi would have been a small river when this Mustatil was  built.

Mustatil Orientated Towards Intermittant Lake (Playa)

This would have been a permanent and larger sized lake when this Mustatil was  built. The original lake's outline can be seen by its sandy shoreline.

Location of Ritual Chamber Among a Stone Debris Field

No roofing debris was found during the ritual chamber's excavation indicating its roof was a temporary tent covering. That it had a roof is indicated by having wall along all 4 sides despite being constructed next to a small natural stone cliff at its back.

Animal Remain Locations

The ritual chamber had 4 to 6 layers in which the soil layer was renewed.