Treasures revealed under Saudi sands

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Updated 02 October 2013
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Treasures revealed under Saudi sands

Visualizing Saudi Arabia with vast amounts of oil and gas under its desert sands is easy; but thousands of years ago before the country struck black gold, caravans of camels crisscrossed the region trading incense – for silks, spices and ivory, bringing prosperity to the land while also introducing different cultures from distant kingdoms.
Centuries later when Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) brought Islam, pilgrimage roads led to Makkah and gradually replaced the well-traveled incense roads.
Secrets remained buried under the desert sands from these trade and pilgrim caravans until recently — when treasures, preserved for millenniums under the brutal Saudi sun, were discovered.
Roads of Arabia,’ is a thought-provoking exhibit of Saudi Arabia’s past, organized by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA).
On display at The Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — one of five North American venues to host Roads — following its premier at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. are relics are from various regions of the Kingdom. The exhibition that runs through Nov. 3.
Roads of Arabia, is chock-full of unexpected treasures; including jewelry, ceramics, stone and bronze sculptures and even Hajis’ tombstones.
About 320 bjects, some nearly 7,000 years old, were excavated from several archaeological sites throughout the Arabian Peninsula. Many have never before been publicly displayed, and most have never been seen outside of Saudi Arabia before 2010; when Roads first opened in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
Tales of the discoveries boggle the mind. The treasures at Al-Magar were found when a camel herder fell upon a large prehistoric menagerie of animal statues, including a saluki dog, a camel, a goat, eagle and ostrich — all dating back to the Neolithic period, around 7000 BC.
It was the construction of a causeway linking Tarut Island to the mainland, that enabled workers to find a hoard of relics that included soapstone jars, snake-covered bowls, leopard-like cats, lion-headed eagles and other mythic figures.
(This led some archaeologists to believe that Tarut was likely the capital of the early Dilmun civilization, dating around the middle of the third millennium BC — or 4500 years ago.)
Outside the city of Thaj, archaeologists discovered the first century grave of a young royal. In her tomb lay gold, pearls and precious stones, including a Hellenistic gold funerary mask, which led scholars to suggest that Thaj may be the lost city of Gehrra.
What intrigues archaeologists about Thaj, is that the burial was inspired by ancient Hellenistic practices, even though the tomb was found in the northeastern desert of Arabia.
Qaryat Al-Faw is equally remarkable. Known as a wealthy “paradise” city and located in the southwest corner of the Kingdom, massive and finely detailed statues of giant men were exhumed. Found nearby was a millennium-old funeral bed, one of only four known to exist in the world.
“We hope to enlighten people about this terra incognito,” said Dr. Sandra Olsen, Carnegie’s director of the Center for World Cultures. “Many think of Arabia as being extremely remote, but in ancient times it was a bridge, a crossroads and a center.”
Olsen, whose work includes examination of ancient Saudi petroglyphs – or rock art – was crucial in bringing ‘Roads’ to Pittsburgh.
“Maybe I’m a little prejudiced but to my mind, this is the most wondrous exhibit,” Dr. Olsen told reporters. “For hundreds of thousands of years, the Arabian Peninsula was a key to the history of the world.”
Prince Sultan bin Salman, president of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, shares Dr. Olsen’s enthusiasm. In Pittsburgh, during the exhibit’s inauguration, he told reporters: “This is a new window to see a country that has never been thought of or seen in the arena of heritage, development of civilization and culture.
“To understand Saudi Arabia, its future, and its role in the world, is also to understand that it was not a country that was invented with the discovery of the first oil well,” said Prince Sultan, who is perhaps best known to Americans for his 1985 flight on the space shuttle Discovery.
Dr. Ali Al-Ghabban, vice president of antiquities and museums at the SCTA and co-curator of Roads, also sees the exhibit as an education tool:
“Most Westerners believe that Saudi Arabia is only a desert land with oil fields, and don’t know that Saudi Arabia was a bridge between the East and West,” Dr. Al-Ghabban told journalists. “We played this role in the fourth millennium BCE, and we continue to play it. We would like to show everyone — foreigners and Saudis — how we have participated in the history of humanity, not only in the Islamic period, but even before Islam.”
Several of the excavated objects in the exhibit prompt questions rather than answers. The camel herder’s discovery of a stone horse statue near Al-Magar, for example, has created quite a stir.
“Archaeologists suggest there are reins on the horse,” Dr. Massumeh Farhad, chief curator of Islamic Art, told reporters during the ‘Roads’ press preview at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery earlier this year. “This is important because this means the sculpture is of a domesticated horse. Scholars have long debated where horses were first domesticated; most believe it was in Central Asia.
“But now, if this discovery is correct, it means the horse was domesticated in Arabia before Central Asia.” That’s 2,000 years earlier than anyone else in the world.
Another of the exhibit’s many surprises are the imposing 8-foot-tall red sandstone statues of men, embodying Lihyanite kings dating back to the 4th-to-3rd century B.C.
‘Roads of Arabia,’ is divided geographically and historically in three parts. First are the artifacts from the network of oases that linked caravan trails to metropolitan cities enabling the cross-cultural exchange of ancient trade routes.
The second section focuses on the impact of Islam after the 7th century, pilgrimage trails that lead from major cities such as Damascus, Cairo and Baghdad to Makkah.
Highlights of this section include some 20 finely inscribed tombstones from the now-destroyed Al-Ma’lat cemetery- a tribute to the Hajis from more than 50 nations who perished during their long pilgrimages to Makkah.
These tombstones also display some of the earliest examples of Arabic script, which Dr. Farhad described as “critical and invaluable for scholars.”
Another treasure in the exhibit is a pair of wooden doors that once guarded the entrance to the Holy Kaaba. The handsome preserved, gilded doors are covered with silver leaf and inscriptions. Donated by Ottoman Sultan Murad IV, who reigned in the 17th century, the doors stood in place until they were replaced in 1947.
The exhibit’s third section introduces artifacts that focus on the founding of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. “It offers a glimpse into Saudi Arabia before its transformation from oil revenues,” said Dr. Julian Raby, director of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries.
Maps, travel books, photographs and even several personal effects used by King Saud, Saudi Arabia’s first monarch, are on display.
Roads of Arabia can be viewed online at the exhibition’s website, www.roadsofarabia.com, it features highlights and history through photo slideshows, interactive maps and videos.
The exhibit will be at Pittsburgh until Nov. 3; then travels to Houston, San Francisco and Boston.

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World Cup 2018: A Muslim-friendly travel guide

Updated 13 June 2018
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World Cup 2018: A Muslim-friendly travel guide

Moscow

Both Tunisia and Iran are based in the vibrant 800-year-old Russian capital, renowned for its golden domes and stunning orthodox architecture. It is home to the famous Russian ballet and a wealth of art, culture and iconic scenery, including the breathtaking Red Square. A truly multicultural capital, Moscow is home to a sizeable Muslim community, which first began to settle here around the time of the Golden Horde. If you want to explore some of the capital’s Islamic heritage, visit the historic Muslim area, Zamoskvorechie, and head for the ‘Historical Mosque,’ built in 1823 by Muslim tatars. Reopened in 1993 after a lengthy closure under communism, the mosque has recently undergone a major refurbishment. Along with the 10k-capacity Moscow Cathedral Mosque (pictured), it is the capital’s most significant Muslim building.
Halal Food: You’ll find plenty on offer, from highly rated restaurants including Mr. Livanets (Lebanese), Dyushes (Azerbaijani), and Gandhara (Asian) to halal food carts.
Mosque: The Moscow Cathedral Mosque on Pereulok Vypolzov.
Qibla: South.

Saint Petersburg

Saudi Arabia’s national team will be based in this bastion of Russian imperialism, known as the Russian ‘Venice’ for its stunning network of canals, neo-Renaissance architecture and its plethora of culture, arts and all things splendid. Visitors can enjoy a wealth of museums, galleries, open promenades and the finest dining in the northern hemisphere — talking of which, sun lovers will be delighted to know that during the World Cup the sun will barely dip below the horizon. Muslim visitors should not miss the St. Petersburg Mosque’s sumptuous Central Asian architecture and mesmeric blue tiles (pictured) — a design inspired by Tamerlane’s tomb in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
Halal Food: Limited, in comparison to Moscow, but both Eastern European restaurant Navruz and Oh! Mumbai (Indian) have received generally positive online reviews.
Mosque: St. Petersburg Mosque on Kronverkskiy Prospekt.
Qibla: South-east.

Grozny

Egypt’s ‘Pharaohs’ should feel right at home in the Chechen capital, which is home to a huge Muslim population (its coat of arms features a mosque), making it one of the most halal-friendly destinations on our list. The mosque in question is the city’s flagship monument and main tourist attraction, the Ottoman-style Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque. Modelled on Istanbul’s Sultanahmet Mosque and sited in a serene location on the west bank of the Sunzha River, it is part of an ‘Islamic’ complex also housing the Russian Islamic University, Kunta Hajji, and is the spiritual headquarters for the Muslims of the Chechen Republic. Much of Grozny is still being rebuilt after being virtually destroyed in two wars with Russia in the 1990s and 2000s, much of it through investment from the UAE.
Halal Food: Chechnya is majority-Muslim, so you’ll be spoiled for choice, from fast-food chain Ilis to high-end restaurants in five-star hotels.
Mosque: Akhmad Kadyrov on Prospekt Putina.
Qibla: South-west.

Voronezh

Morocco are based in quiet (at least until the tournament starts), picturesque Voronezh. The city is littered with lush green spaces and stunning churches. It’s home to a large orthodox Christian community, as well as small Jewish and still-smaller Muslim ones. The city’s beautiful 114-year-old synagogue on Ulitsa Svobody is a popular tourist attraction. Those looking for more ‘familiar’ heritage should head to the Kramskoy Museum of Fine Arts on Revolyutsii Avenue, home to an impressive collection of ancient Egyptian works of art on stone and sarcophagi.
Halal Food: Very sparse. The Asian restaurant Bahor bills itself as offering the “only halal food in Voronezh,” and there are reportedly a couple of grocery stores selling halal meat, one in the city’s central market.
Mosque: While no official mosque has yet been built in Voronezh, Muslims do gather to pray. According to Halalguide.me, there is an informal mosque on Ulitsa Gvardeyskaya.
Qibla: South.

Essentuki

Essentuki, which will host Nigeria in its Pontos Plaza Hotel (pictured), is famous for its health spas and mineral water, so the 'Super Eagles' should at least be able to relax after their games. Muslim visitors may want to drop by Kurortny Park, where the drinking gallery was inspired by Islamic Moorish design.
Halal Food: Hard to find. There is a kebab house that may be able to provide halal options. Otherwise, head to the area around the mosque in nearby Pyatigorsk.
Mosque: The nearest mosque is 25 minutes drive west in Pyatigorsk, on Skvoznoy Pereulok.
Qibla: Southwest.

Kaluga

It’s all about space exploration in the city where Senegal will be based. Space travel pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky taught in Kaluga in his early years. The town’s main attraction — unsurprisingly — is the Tsiolkovsky State Museum of the History of Cosmonautics, reportedly the world’s first space museum. Second billing goes to the rocket scientist’s quaint old wooden family home.
Halal Food: Very hard to find. Asian restaurant Chaikhana and Russian eatery Solyanka (pictured) appear to cater to alternative dietary requirements, and may be worth a call.
Mosque: The town’s main mosque is a converted building off Ulitsa Annenki.
Qibla: South.