Valuing the Heritage of Saudi Arabia

How difficult would it be to ascertain the value of art, inscribed on stones that span 10,000 years of history? Or of an 11-km long wall surrounding the ancient city of Tayma with a history stretching back to 1200 BCE? Even to attempt such an exercise would be juvenile. A task not only formidable but simply impossible to accomplish.

For it is heritage; it is a legacy whose value cannot be measured. It is a wealth that Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Islam and the land of the two Holy Mosques, has in plenty, just like oil. Antiquities discovered in the Kingdom demonstrate that the Arabian Peninsula is one of the oldest areas of human settlement in the world. At least, 1.2 million years old if not more. By fifth millennium BCE, connections with Mesopotamia, Syria and the civilizations of the Mediterranean region had been established, leading to an oasis-based economy with large trade centers.

This rich history has translated into a vast endowment of heritage in Saudi Arabia. Consider Historic Jeddah. Now a part of UNESCO’s World Heritage List, it is the only surviving urban ensemble of the Red Sea cultural world. Believed to date back to the pre-Islamic era, its turning point came when Caliph Uthman ibn Affan made it the port city for Makkah Almukarama in 605 AD to facilitate regional commerce as well as to receive Hajj and Umrah pilgrims. The site includes monuments reflecting a distinctive architectural tradition, such as the Old Jeddah wall, its historical markets (Souks), open squares such as Al Sham and Al Yemen and several historic mosques including the Al Pasha mosque and the Al Hanafi mosque.

Saudi Arabia has three more sites on the UNESCO list – Al Hijr, Rock Art in the Hail province, and At-Turaif District in ad-Dir’iyah.

Rock Art in the Hail region got listed in 2015 and includes the largest archaeological sites in the Kingdom – Jabel Umm Sinman at Jubbah and the Jabal al-Manjor and Raat at Shuwaymis. At the foot of the Umm Sinman hill range there once existed a lake which provided fresh water for people and animals in the southern part of the Great Narfoud Desert. The site, therefore, is rich in numerous petroglyphs and inscriptions of human and animal figures on the rock face – reflecting 10,000 years of history and the prosperous and fertile life people lead in the prehistoric times.

Lying north-west of Saudi Arabia, between the cities of Medina and Tabuk is Al Hijr. References in the Quran suggest that the site was inhabited as early as the third millennium BCE by the Thamudic tribes. The Nabateans probably settled here in the first century BCE. The site features 111 monumental rock-cut tombs with decorated facades dating from the first century BCE to the first century AD. It also features some 50 inscriptions of the pre-Nabataean period, cave drawings and water wells–proving beyond doubt Nabataeans’ architectural accomplishment as well as hydraulic expertise. One gets to see architectural influences of Assyrian, Egyptian, Phoenician, Hellenistic and the epigraphic presence of several ancient languages such as Lihyanite, Thamudic, Nabataean, Greek and Latin.

And then there is At-Turaif District in ad-Dir’iyah – the first capital of the Saudi Dynasty. Founded in the 15th century, the property has remnants of palaces as well as dwellings set on the banks of the ad-Dir’iyah oasis. Branching in between its curves are irrigation channels feeding the agricultural villages. The area abounds in natural features such as gullies, gorges and fertile areas of pasture – representing a unique case study of settlement design, architecture and environment.

With four sites already on the World Heritage list, Saudi Arabia is now working in earnest to more than double that number by 2030. The tentative list with UNESCO includes Darb Zubayda (Pilgrim Road from Kufa to Makkah), Egyptian Hajj Road, Al-Faw Pre-Islamic City in Central Arabia (Qariah), Al-Ahsa Oasis Cultural Heritage Landscape amongst others.

The heritage conservation agenda is close to the leadership’s heart. A Royal Decree was recently issued on the Islamic history sites in Makkah and Al Madinah while another Decree approved the Caring of the Kingdom’s Cultural Heritage project. It is also mention worthy that the Saudi Council of Ministers recently passed the New Antiquities, Museums and Urban Heritage Law, providing the legal basis for the protection of Historic Jeddah.

The immense pride the Kingdom takes in the historical and cultural legacy of its Saudi, Arab, and Islamic heritage is indeed well placed. ‘Vision 2030’, the Kingdom’s blueprint for the future, acknowledges that it is heritage that has given its society the cultural richness and diversity it is known for today… It recognizes the importance of preserving this sophisticated heritage in order to promote national unity and consolidate true Islamic and Arab values. The endeavour is to strengthen, preserve and highlight its national identity so that it can guide its future generations. There are plans to devise cultural events and build world-class museums to create a living witness to its ancient heritage – showcasing its prominent place on the map of civilizations.

The tourism and national heritage sectors of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is witnessing unprecedented movement with the support of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman bin Abdul Aziz. Several initiatives are underway with the government’s support. The Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH) is striving to support all archaeological sites in the Kingdom. Recently, the Al Seraiha Mosque in Historic Diriyah was opened after restoration under the Historic Mosques Caring Program. Funded by late King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, the restoration was carried out by SCTH in cooperation with the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Endowment, Dawa and Guidance and Al Turath Heritage Foundation.

The Saudi Hospitality Heritage Company, also created as part of this larger objective, works to highlight the cultural dimension of Saudi Arabia through the ages by establishing and managing heritage tourist accommodation facilities and traditional hospitality facilities.

Equal importance is being accorded to urban heritage. The National Center for Urban Heritage has been set up to maintain and develop diverse elements of urban heritage, including the heritage towns, villages, buildings, traditional industries as well as monuments and work on their deployment culturally and economically.

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