Najaf’s historic building gets a new lease on life

Updated 07 January 2013
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Najaf’s historic building gets a new lease on life

IT served as an Ottoman headquarters, a prison, an ice factory and a mill before falling into neglect. Now Najaf's historic and much loved Khan Al-Shilan is getting a new lease of life — as a museum.
Local authorities in Najaf plan to turn the structure into a museum featuring antiquities and archaeological pieces, as well as statues of rebels and some of the actual weapons they used in a 1920 Iraqi uprising against the British, during which captured soldiers were held at Khan Al-Shilan.
In addition to its long history, Khan Al-Shilan is significant due to the remains of drawings and dates left by the captive British soldiers, which are still visible on its walls.
According to Hassan Al-Hakim, a history professor at Kufa University, Khan Al-Shilan was originally intended to be a rest house for tourists visiting Najaf, which is home to the tomb of Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the fourth caliph of Islam.
But it was used as an Ottoman military headquarters before the defeat of the empire in World War I, and then as a local government administrative building.
When the British occupied Iraq, they dispatched forces from Baghdad who took control of Najaf, and Khan Al-Shilan.
But when Iraqis launched their 1920 uprising, Khan Al-Shilan temporarily reverted to local control and was used as a prison to hold British troops captured in several battles.
In 1933, the first electrical generator in the city was installed at Khan Al-Shilan, providing power for the old city, Hakim said.
Khan Al-Shilan was later used as a site to grind wheat, and then as an ice factory, he said. It was rented out in the late 1990s and parts of it were destroyed, while others were used for rubbish disposal.
Khan Al-Shilan measures about 1,500 sq. meters (16,000 sq. feet) and features three cellars, as well as rooms arrayed around its courtyard.
Its walls and entrance are decorated with Islamic designs. Ahmed Kaabi, a 50-year-old who lives near Khan Al-Shilan, said that "our memories are linked to it and we consider this place one of the symbols of Najaf."
The plan "to turn the Khan into a museum is a good project, despite the delay, because this place is very dear to us," Kaabi said.
After more than half a century of neglect, "This building tells a lot of the history of Najaf," said Hamza Al-Khalidi, the director of Khan Al-Shilan. It is of "major importance with respect to the heritage of Najaf."
Local authorities decided to turn Khan Al-Shilan into a museum as part of the city's role as the Arab world's Islamic Capital of Culture for 2012.
But when the problem-plagued culture capital project was scrapped, the Najaf Archaeological and Heritage Directorate took over, and Khan Al-Shilan is still slated to become a museum in 2013.
Najaf, the center of Islamic scholarship worldwide, holds archaeological sites dating from a number of different periods.
But like many such sites in Iraq, not all are well cared-for, including the remains of the celebrated ancient city of Hira, which lie neglected and moldering a stone's throw from the Najaf airport because funds for excavation have dried up.
Khan Al-Shilan has also suffered from a lack of attention.
It "was subjected to negligence since the departure of the British occupation until the last two years, in a way that affected the building and general structure," said Mahdi Al-Saigh, a member of the Popular Heritage Committee in Najaf.
He called for the "formation of a commission to take care of Najaf's heritage, much of which has been lost."
"We have a complete list of the heritage sites and houses in Najaf and the surrounding areas," and request that the places be cared for, Saigh said.


Saudi Arabia looks to the future — by stepping 5,000 years into the past

Updated 22 April 2018
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Saudi Arabia looks to the future — by stepping 5,000 years into the past

  • Kingdom developing tourism sector as part of economic diversification strategy
  • Vision 2030 foresees 1.2 million new tourist jobs by 2030

It is the leading global event for Middle Eastern tourism and it opens on Sunday in Dubai. The Arabian Travel Market attracts the big players of the industry and the wannabes. It showcases 2,800 products to more than 28,000 potential buyers and generates deals worth more than $2.5 billion.

No wonder the world wants to be there, from spas to safaris, from Armenia to Zanzibar and all points between in both the globe and the alphabet.

But this year, one destination is set to attract more attention than any other: Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom’s tourism industry has hitherto centered primarily on the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah; last year’s Hajj attracted around 2.35 million pilgrims, with about 1.75 million of those coming from abroad.

When it comes to non-religious tourism however, it is in the unique position of creating that industry more or less from scratch, which is an enviable place to be.

“It means we are able to learn from the mistakes of others and we can take the best from everywhere,” said Amr Al-Madani, CEO of the Royal Commission for Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia’s archaeological treasure house and home to the Unesco-listed Madain Saleh.

“And we are determined to offer the best in every way,” he added.

Al-Madani recently returned from presenting the plans for Al-Ula at a high-profile gala at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris, an occasion that coincided with the visit of Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the driving force behind Vision2030, the ambitious program designed to revamp not only the national economy but Saudi society as a whole.

Once regarded as practically off-limits to visitors and particularly Westerners (although that was never true), Saudi Arabia is throwing open the gates, as part of plans to diversify its economy and create jobs for its citizens.

The Kingdom’s Vision 2030 economic development plan, designed to create new revenue streams to lower its reliance on oil, envisages the creation of 1.2 million new jobs in the tourism sector by 2030.

Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority in February said it planned to invest $64 billion in its entertainment sector in the coming 10 years. This investment will include the development of a countrywide network of cinemas, following the lifting of a ban last year.

As well as opening up the 5,000-year-old wonders of Al-Ula, there are plans to develop 34,000 square kilometers of Red Sea coastline and 50 outlying islands into luxury beach resorts.

The scheme has already attracted Sir Richard Branson, founder and boss of the Virgin Group, as its first international investor. He is involved in developing the islands — which he described as “breathtakingly beautiful” — as luxury destinations, and has also visited Madain Saleh.

“This is an incredibly exciting time in the country’s history and I’ve always felt that there is inothing like getting a first-hand impression,” he said after his visit.

He praised the Crown Prince for his vision, telling Arab News, “If you want to succeed you should have an idea and a plan to implement it and just do it. He is doing that and his heart is in the right place.”

Though he is overseeing the development of the Al-Ula sites, Amr Al-Madani said one plan was to offer two-center holidays: “Some days exploring the archaeology and the nature in Al-Ula and then a few days relaxing at the beach,” he said.

As well as unspoilt beaches, the Red Sea coast also enjoys the best climate in Saudi Arabia with pleasant sea breezes offsetting the heat.

The Red Sea project is expected to generate 35,000 jobs.

The Royal Commission has already recruited the first 200 future employees who will work in Al-Ula. The group — half boys, half girls — are all high school-leavers or university students from the region. They have already begun three months of training in Riyadh, learning languages and undergoing assessment by psychologists and careers advisers and will later be dispatched to several locations in Britain and the US to continue learning.

Al-Madani said Al-Ula should be ready to receive its first tourists in three to five years, eventually accommodating a million to 1.5 million a year.