Exploration of Desert Caves in Central Saudi Arabia, with a Discussion of the Geology of Saudi Arabian Caves

SGS-DF-2001-1 John J. Pint and Mahmoud A. Al-Shanti, in collaboration with Peter R. Johnson
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The earliest explorers of Saudi Arabia’s desert caves were local people, whose daily lives represented a struggle for survival in a very harsh environment. For them, the caves promised a possible respite from heat, cold, and blowing sand. Many times, a brackish pool hidden at the bottom of a deep pit was their only source of water.  Modern cave explorers crawl into dark voids beneath the sands for other reasons. Some are attracted by the strange and often breathtaking environment, totally unlike the stark desert above.  Others are taken by the sheer challenge of risking life and limb on a thin nylon rope to penetrate an inky-black world where one small mistake can result in death. All of these explorers relish the possibility of reaching large caverns where no human being has been before.  For the most part, the photographs in this book represent cave exploration in Saudi Arabia during the last twenty years. This activity was triggered by a study of old maps showing a great number of natural water wells clustered around a small settlement named Ma’aqala, located just east of the Dahna desert atop a great bed of limestone and dolomite known as the Umm er Radhuma formation.  Cavers requested permission to explore these cavities from the emir of Ma’aqala who assigned a knowledgeable old-timer to guide the visitors to the caves. He led them to a hard-pan area filled with holes, within walking distance of the red sand dunes of the Dahna. They explored these cavities methodically, frequently finding all the horizontal passages blocked by sand, with no sign of the decorative limestone formations they had hoped to see.  The situation seemed less than encouraging until the day they came upon a small hole no wider than a dinner plate. Warm, humid air was blowing from this hole so strongly that it seemed worth the effort to enlarge it with a chisel.  When the opening was finally big enough to admit a human visitor, the cavers squeezed into the hole, their feet feeling for each rung of the cable ladder swinging to and fro in the darkness. They descended into a bell-shaped room that led to a labyrinth of horizontal passages. Here they found stalactites, stalagmites, columns and other calcite and gypsum formations of great beauty and variety.  Every time they thought they had reached the end of the cave, which they named Dahl Sultan, they found new passages leading in unexpected directions. They realized that Saudi Arabia has limestone caves of great size, beauty and complexity and their enthusiasm knew no bounds. As more and more remarkable caves were located, word reached the scientific community, inspiring geologists, biologists and hydrologists to investigate. Following these early explorations, the first author joined the Saudi Geological Survey (SGS) and an SGS subproject was established to explore and examine the caves in the Umm er Radhuma and elsewhere, in a systematic manner. No matter what remains to be discovered, however, the early cavers will not forget the wonderful sights that met them when they first succeeded in entering Dahl Sultan, and this book, in part, commemorates their achievement.


Pint, J.J., and Al-Shanti, M.A., 2001, Exploration of desert caves in central Saudi Arabia, with a discussion of the geology of Saudi Arabian caves by Johnson, P.R.,: Saudi Geological Survey Data-File Report SGS-DF-2001-1, 53 p.