CUSTODIAN OF GREAT CIVILISATIONS
Long before Lawrence of Arabia or Wilfred Thesiger ever made it to the Arabian Peninsula, many other civilisations had already left their mark on the kingdom. Strategically located as the hub of many ancient trade and pilgrim routes, the peninsula played a significant role in the development of civilisation, with evidence of human population stretching over a million years into the remote past. In the 21st century, as a major player in world politics and a member of the G20, Saudi Arabia is fully aware that in order to build the future, it must preserve its past.
A chain of events has followed the Royal Proclamation decreed in 2008, which gave orders to identify, protect and maintain Islamic sites in the Kingdom. A program for the rehabilitation of ancient mosques was started by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs in partnership with the Al-Turath foundation. In April last year, Saudi Arabia held the first international conference on Urban Heritage in Islamic Countries, hosting hundreds of participants representing more than forty countries. Only a few months later, Prince Sultan bin Salman inaugurated the exhibition 'Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia' at the Louvre in Paris. The 350 artifacts on are shown display brought together for the first time in history, making it the largest and most important historical exhibition on Saudi Arabia ever organised.
Indeed, apart from being the cradle of Islam and home of the twin holy cities of Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia also has a long and magnificent pre-Islamic heritage, which has been largely neglected in the past. “Saudi Arabia has always been known as the seat of Islam; it's been known for its oil wealth and its economy; [more recently] it's been known (…) for its political presence around the world and for its efforts to initiate dialogue between the religions. But Saudi Arabia has never been known for its ancient history. (…) The stabilising role Saudi Arabia plays in the world economy (...) is really built upon thousands of years of civilization,” commented Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Saud, Chairman of the SCTA in an exclusive interview with CNN last July.
A crossroads of ancient trade routes
Although there has been little previous interest in pre-Islamic heritage, archaeological remains actually date all the way back to the neighbouring civilisations of Mesopotamia, Iran and Egypt and the classic Greek or Roman civilisations. From at least the third millennium BC onwards, there were economic and cultural exchanges between the Gulf region and Mesopotamia. Later, Saudi Arabia became the crossroads of the incense route that travelled from Yemen to Gaza and Petra, and from there to all the exquisite palaces of the known world. Saudi Arabia was also a stop on the famous spice route that has connected China and India to the Mediterranean since Roman times. The strategic location of the peninsula favoured the creation of a number of wealthy cities, such as Qaryat Al-Faw, Thaj or the mysterious Gerrha with its legend of gold and ivory palaces. Some of the objects found in these locations have a markedly Hellenistic style, including a mask, currently on display at the 'Roads of Arabia' exhibition, which closely resembles that of Agamemnon.
In the north of the country the city of Tayma became a major trade center after it took over the function of capital of the Lihyanite kingdom from nearby Al–Ulah. In the 4th century BC the Nabateans took the reins of the region. Originally based in the well-known city of Petra in Jordan, the Nabateans moved their capital to Madain Saleh in Saudi Arabia around the 100 CE, when Petra was conquered by the Romans.
Madain Saleh, known as Hegra in the Nabatean age, is for many the most impressive heritage site of Saudi Arabia - not only for its beauty, but for its history. There is proof of the presence there of Nabonidus, the last king of the last Babylonian empire in the first century CE, who retreated to the region to 'meditate', leaving his son in Babylon to rule. In the 2nd century CE, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius conquered the city, integrating it in the Roman Empire.
Into that melting pot of cultures eastern and western, meeting point of traders and armies, Islam arrived in the 6th century CE. Gradually, the caravans filled with precious materials, spices and incense were substituted by pilgrims on their way to Mecca. As the cradle of Islam, Saudi Arabia is not only the owner of unique valuable Islamic sites and pieces of art, but also the keeper of the legacy left behind by millions of pilgrims on their way through the peninsula. Indeed, Saudi Arabia itself is a living museum and its most precious heritage stands as entire cities, some of them very well preserved. Such is the case of the desert mud and stone architecture of the first Saudi capital, Al-Diriyya, capital of the first Saudi state (1744-1818). Although it is actually one of the best preserved villages in the kingdom, it is currently undergoing a thorough renovation. Given its national importance, it might soon be proposed as a world heritage site.
Preserving the past
Prince Sultan bin Salman and the SCTA have embarked on an unprecedented effort to preserve ancient remains and restore the country's architectural heritage, transforming the constructions into public spaces, whether cafes, museums or libraries, showcasing the country's rich past.
“We believe it is essential to foster an atmosphere of understanding and pride of our heritage within the country as a critical component of our national identity, establishing new museums, both of general interest and thematic, including the Qur'an Museum in Medina, and restoring historic buildings associated with the Saudi state, that will be converted into cultural and educational centres for our communities,” Prince Sultan said in a recent speech.
Millions are being invested in cultural education in an effort to reignite the interest of youngsters in traditional arts and crafts. Teachers and students are being introduced to museums and heritage sites. Historic town centres, villages and markets are being restored either by the government or by private initiatives financed through soft loans and other incentives. Fourteen teams of archaeologists from local universities, assisted by international experts, are exploring ancient sites around the country. The King Abdul Aziz Foundation and Library, the King Fahd Library and the Al-Turath Foundation are collecting ancient manuscripts, artefacts and pictures to add to the archives of the kingdom's history.
At the landmark 2010 International Conference on Urban Heritage in Islamic Countries, Saudi Arabia announced a national five-year program for the preservation and restoration of urban heritage involving local communities, supported by the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs, the provincial governorates and other concerned authorities. “We must ensure through national public policy that we preserve our ancient Islamic urban heritage as it is a guide and an accumulated history, the seat and place of origin of the revelation of our Islamic religion. We therefore take great pride and honour to preserve our Islamic urban heritage not only for our generation, but for future generations, and last but not least as a source of learning and inspiration for our Islamic religion,” said Prince Sultan to the audience at the conference. “We have laid out the key foundation for the people’s acceptance of urban heritage in collaboration with the public and private sectors in order to make a real shift towards rooting urban heritage’s values in their minds,” he added.
All of these actions are designed to strengthen the sense of unity, ownership and belonging, especially among the young Saudi population in a period of fast growth and development. In the long run, it is also conceived as the creation of a national asset that will later boost a sustainable tourism sector. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has been investing heavily in tourism infrastructure, in an effort to make the country one of the most exciting tourist destinations in the region. As the tourism industry grows, it will generate employment and revenues, thereby itself becoming a means of economic diversification. “Saudi Arabia has been moving on all tracks, in all directions to position itself and to correct the misconceptions. Correcting the misconceptions is not a marketing thing for us. It is really a future thing for us. We in Saudi Arabia are playing a huge role today in the world, a very positive role and this role is in fact becoming even greater as we move into the G20 countries, as we move in to the dialogue of religions, as we move into the role Saudi Arabia plays in resolving regional issues. Saudi Arabia today is the cornerstone of political and economic happenings in the Middle East but also a player in the future of this world,” commented Prince Sultan.
Roads of Arabia: the heritage trail
On July 13th, 2010, 'Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia', a landmark exhibition of Saudi Arabia's most precious ancient artefacts, opened its doors at the Louvre Museum in Paris. It has already attracted more than 10 million visitors rushing to see pieces of art that had never left the kingdom before. A gold-plated Ottoman-era door to the Holy Kaaba and a large rock stone with a more than 6,000 years old Arabic inscription are just two of 350 rare pieces on display. The itinerary exhibition will continue to travel Europe, the USA and East Asia.
Illustrating the different historic periods and civilisations of the Arabian Peninsula, the show highlights the role of the country as the cradle of Islam, but also carries a number of valuable pre-Islamic artefacts. A stone age tool of around one million years of age is the oldest artefact on display. Part of the exhibition is also dedicated to the three Saudi states, focusing on the age of King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, the founder of modern day Saudi Arabia. The exhibition is part of a cultural exchange program between the SCTA and the Louvre Museum, which in 2005 exhibited its own Islamic art collection in the National Museum of Saudi Arabia.
As prince Sultan told CNN: “Many of the great civilizations emanated from Arabia. Islam, a great religion today, has emanated from this part of the world too. So when Islam came to Arabia, it didn't come to an empty land or a void. It didn't come on a blank sheet of paper. It came on the shoulders of great civilizations and that was intentional I believe. Islam came to the crossroads of trade routes that crossed Arabia from south to north and east to west, and Mecca was the place where Islam happened. The word of Islam spread from Mecca. Arabia has always been present in world history and the world economy at a certain point in time was literally run from Arabia.”
EXTRAORDINARY ARCHAELOGICAL SITES IN THE KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA
Madain Saleh (200 BCE-106 CE)
A great Nabatean city similar to Petra in Jordan, and located only a few hundred kilometres from it. Offering extraordinary tomb facades that are a vivid testimony of the greatness of the Nabatean culture, it was the first UNESCO World Heritage site of Saudi Arabia.
City of Taima (1200 BCE)
The capital of the Babylonian Empire during the reign of King Nabonidus, the City of Taima was an ancient oasis on trade routes, famous for its defensive walls.
Rock Engravings in Jubbah (7000-BCE to the present)
The rock engravings of Jubbah, unique in the country, are located In the Nafud dunes of northern Saudi Arabia. The government is contemplating submitting the Jubbah site to UNESCO for consideration as a World Heritage site.
Qaryat Al-Fau (300 BCE-400 CE)
An archaeological site rich in pre-Islamic bronze sculptures discovered and excavated by archaeologists from King Saud University.
Darb Zubaydah (7th Century BCE)
A great monument of the early Islamic period, built under the Abbasid Caliphate on the pilgrim road linking Kuffa to Mekka, it is one of the most impressive Islamic antiquities left in the country.
The town of Al-Diriyya (1744-1818)
The historic capital of the kingdom, it is one of the largest surviving settlements in the country to preserve the traditional desert mud and stone architecture. Al-Dir'iyya is now being restored and has been proposed as a world heritage site.
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