Some of them are comparable in size to the famous Nazca Lines in Peru.
In late 2017, it was announced that 400 elongated, stone-built structures, some the size of football fields, had been seen within Saudi Arabia’s inhospitable Harrat Khaybar, one of several volcanic fields (harrats) scattered throughout the Arabian Peninsula. The identification of these so-called “gates,” some of which may be up to 9,000 years old, generated significant media coverage. According to the New York Times, “Google Earth has unlocked the gates to ancient mysteries around the world,” with these recently discovered structures, largely classified via satellite imagery, being the latest example of the power of archaeology from above.
These gates, however, are just one chapter of a far grander tale, one involving wild animals, climate change, volcanic eruptions, and a society of people whose identities are still highly elusive. “What’s really fascinating to me,” says Michael Petraglia, professor of human evolution and prehistory at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, “is that structures like these occur throughout the Middle East.” In other words, the gates aren’t the only notable ancient constructions of this ilk in the region. These other enormous stone structures, comparable in size to the famous Nazca lines in the Andes, are known as “kites.”
Thanks to aerial surveys, satellite imagery, and reports by those on the ground, researchers know that there are thousands of kites throughout the Arabian Peninsula, and even as far afield as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Over time, it has emerged that the origin story of the kites stretches across many thousands of years of ancient human history, but three major questions remain: What were they used for, how old are they, and who built them?
Although these structures have been spoken of for some time by people who still live in the region, one of the first known written descriptions of them comes courtesy of the British Royal Air Force’s Flight-Lieutenant Percy Maitland, who serendipitously saw them a few years after the end of the First World War.
By the 1920s, much of the Middle East had been carved up in an agreement between the British and the French. While attempting to fend off revolts and revolutions in Iraq and Egypt, the RAF continued to fly between Baghdad and Cairo, to both chart the region and to deliver the post.
In an aerial surveillance report from 1927, Maitland describes seeing stone walls, both in lines and in radiating, more circular patterns, around 120 miles east of the Dead Sea in old lava fields. The nomadic Bedouin, he says, call them “The Works of the Old Men.” Maitland says that the structures are “very complicated and difficult to understand.” He mentions that the Arabs attribute them to Christians, which implies they are pre-Islam. “They certainly have the appearance of being of great antiquity,” he writes. The RAF came to call these structures “kites, because that’s what they looked like from above.
Over time, archaeologists began probing these kites up close. It became clear that they came in all shapes and sizes, and are often found with artifacts, ranging from cattle-depicting rock art to stone tools. Some feature cairns, which are potentially funereal structures. Describing many of them as “substantial,” Petraglia explains that there’s been a lot of time and effort dedicated to them. “There’s a real community-level feel to all these kites,” he says.