Looking south down Wadi Hafir
The entrance to Wadi at-Tfief at the north end of Wadi Hafir. G. Corbett and G. Bevan in the distance
Wadi Khayneh panorama: On the left is the entrance from Wadi Hafir in the east, on the right is the southern branch.
Facing west towards Wadi Hafir from Tel'at Rashid
Boulder field along west side of Wadi Hafir
The Muqawwar cascading pools at the head of Wadi at Tfief.
The Qattar Hafir spring.
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The Wadi Hafir
The steep-sided Wādī Ḥafīr gorge is a long and narrow canyon that stretches approximately 18 km from the Rās an-Naqab escarpment towards the Qā‘ ad-Dīsī mudflat in the center of the Ḥismā Basin in southern Jordan (fig. 1). The Ḥafīr is flanked on the west by Jabal Wayziyya and on the east by Jabal Rabigh, two rather broad and flat sandstone mesas, or inselbergs, which form part of the distinctive and erosion-resistance geological shelf between the Rās an-Naqab escarpment and the desert floor of the Ḥismā. Between these two gently-eastward-sloping tabletop mesas, the deeply-incised Ḥafīr cuts into the escarpment like a dagger, beginning in the south as a 2 km wide sandy plain at 860m asl but then narrowing dramatically to the north as it gradually rises in elevation and relief towards the escarpment and its head at Rās Khawr al-Jam (elev. 1400m asl). A number of tributary wadis of varying size enter the main wadi from the adjacent inselbergs, the largest being Wādī aṭ-Ṭfeif (fig. 2) and Wādī Khāyneh (fig. 3) from Jabal Wayziyya, and Tel‘at Rashid (fig. 4) from Jabal Rabigh.
While the floor of the Ḥafīr alternates between patches of sand and undulating, rocky terrain, the canyon’s slopes, along with its tributaries, are littered with hundreds of thousands of blackened sandstone boulders that have broken off or eroded down from the walls of the canyon and flanking mesas over the millennia. Along much of the wadi, these boulders occur in fairly regular bands of talus that have accumulated at the base of the adjacent jabals. Erosion and drainage along the wadi’s tributaries, however, have resulted in extensive though heavily-dissected alluvial fans that litter their drainage areas with irregularly-shaped “boulder fields” (fig. 5). These sandstone boulders, which range in size from less than a meter to as much as 5–10 m long, are often covered with a heavy coat of shiny black desert varnish or patina, thereby transforming the rocks into ideal canvases for would-be artists and authors. Likewise, the more gradual relief of the tributaries’ alluvial fans made these areas fairly accessible to past human populations, as evidenced not only by the amount of rock art and inscriptions found in these areas, but also by the regular occurrence of built features, including stone circles, clearings, and low walls.
The Ḥismā region is subject to a hot, dry climate throughout most of the year, with a much shorter but colder and wetter climate from December to March. On average, the Ḥismā receives less than 50–80 mm of rain per year and nearly all of that rain falls during a handful of torrential winter downpours that produce powerful flash floods. Locally, the topography of the Ḥafīr and its adjacent flat-topped mesas allows for the potential capture and exploitation of these winter flood waters. A prime example is the Muqawwar cascades located at the head of the Wādī aṭ-Ṭfeif (fig. 6). Here, an extensive network of seasonal drainages flowing both from the escarpment and atop Jabal Wayziyya converge at a single point before making their final descent into Wādī aṭ-Ṭfeif. The cascades are marked by a series of natural collection pools formed in the bedrock, the last and largest of which was intentionally widened and deepened in antiquity. Elsewhere in the Ḥafīr, rain waters collect in small, ephemeral pools along the natural drainage of the wadi, especially in areas of more gradual relief. The Ḥafīr has only one perennial water source, Qaṭṭar Ḥafīr (fig. 7), a drip-spring located at the northern end of the wadi.