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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Philippines’ tourist island Boracay shuts down for rehabilitation

Updated 12 min 6 sec ago
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Philippines’ tourist island Boracay shuts down for rehabilitation

  • Boracay is just one of more than 7,300 islands in the Philippines, but it draws 2 million visitors annually
  • Some residents complain that officials have turned a blind eye and say those tasked with solving Boracay’s problems were complicit in creating them

BORACAY: With postcard-perfect views of the Philippines’ most treasured island behind them, laborers hammer away at the walls of the Boracay West Cove resort, demolishing them one chunk at a time.
The resort is being reduced to piles of rock and steel rods, the first in a wave of demolitions of illegal structures on the tourist island of Boracay on the orders of the Philippines’ no-nonsense president, Rodrigo Duterte.
Boracay is just one of more than 7,300 islands in the Philippines, but it draws 2 million visitors annually, just under a third of the country’s total tourist arrivals last year.
But with an estimated 1,800 businesses competing for space and clamoring for a share of the annual $1 billion that Boracay generates, mass tourism is pushing this tiny 10-square-kilometer island to the brink of collapse.
“What Duterte wants, Duterte gets,” said Phillip Penafor, a local government worker overseeing the demolition of the West Cove, which was built on protected forest land.
Duterte weighed in unexpectedly in February, raging that Boracay’s famous turquoise waters smelled “of sh*t,” and warning of an environmental disaster from unchecked growth and a failing sewage system that made it a “cesspool.”
On April 4, he ordered the closure of the island to outsiders for six months from Thursday to undergo a process of rehabilitation, for which a complete plan has yet to be drafted.
Tourists and non-residents will be denied entry and boats will be barred from going within 3 kilometers of the island. A few dozen police, including riot and SWAT teams, have been doing exercises on the beach to prepare for resistance that residents say is highly unlikely.

 

 The local government has started demolishing some of the 900 illegal structures on the island and preparing to widen a 7-kilometer spine road clogged with trucks, motorbikes and vans.
Their priority is expanding an overburdened sewage system, and dismantling a network of pipes created illegally by businesses and resorts to divert their waste into storm water drains, through which it all ends up in the sea.
The government expects the closure to cost the economy about 2 billion pesos ($38.1 million) and is preparing a “calamity fund” of a similar amount to help an estimated 30,000 people whose livelihoods are affected.
Despite that, Duterte’s abrupt push to fix Boracay is being broadly welcomed by residents and even businesses, although they would have liked more time to adjust.
“It’s good for our future. The problem is, we’re not really prepared for this,” said Ciceron Cawaling, the longtime mayor of the nearby town of Malay, which oversees Boracay.
“We were caught by surprise by his declaration. This all arose in a matter of seconds.”
Located off the northern tip of central Panay island, Boracay was once an idyllic destination for divers and backpackers lured by its tranquility and powdery white sands.
But the island has seen explosive growth in recent years, partly the result of surging numbers of tourists from Asia, particularly China and South Korea.
Local authorities have struggled to cope with that growth, lacking manpower and resources to enforce laws and carry out inspections to curb environmental violations.

Some residents complain that officials have turned a blind eye and say those tasked with solving Boracay’s problems were complicit in creating them. The local government denies that.
The entire White Beach on the island’s west coast is lined with resorts, restaurants and shops offering souvenirs, tattoos, massages and watersports, some three or four buildings deep.
Visitors go parasailing and ride speedboats, and gather in crowds for sunset selfies on the beach, where dozens of moored boats obstruct views of the water.
Even before Duterte’s intervention, the local government was taking some steps toward a makeover for Boracay. In November, it hired a well-known urban planner, Felino Palafox, whose firm has handled 1,200 projects in 28 countries.
Palafox is proposing the introduction, after the six-month rehabilitation, of regulations and modern infrastructure to manage tourism and make Boracay environmentally sustainable.
His plan includes having only electric vehicles, building a wide road with a tram and a 7-kilometer pedestrian footpath, and setting back buildings from the beach. Building heights would be restricted and businesses would be given incentives to install solar panels and plant trees.
The plan is being considered by the local and national government but no decision has been made yet.
Palafox said he was consulted about Boracay in the 1990s and again in 2006, but his advice was ignored. He’s confident that with Duterte in charge, this time will be different.
“It’s still salvageable if we have good supervision and monitoring and we knuckle down,” he said. “What we have now is very strong political will.”
But some residents complain they were given no chance to comply with laws that are only now being enforced.

 

 

 
Canadian Allan Lieberman has called Boracay home for three decades. Despite having legal papers and permits issued by local authorities, he’s demolishing his 10-year-old cliffside resort, in anticipation of being evicted for occupying a plot that was supposed to be protected forest land.
He thinks it was time for him to leave anyway.
“Boracay? I hate Boracay,” he said, as a team of workers behind him took down solar panels and wooden poles. “There’s nothing of the old Boracay left. Even if restored, its soul has gone.”
Resort owner Delnora Hano has lived in Boracay just as long, and remembers when there was no electricity and accommodation was bamboo huts.
She says the temporary loss of business and jobs is worth it and lauds Duterte for stepping in.
“It’s the right time to intervene, there are problems that can be fixed now,” she said. “It can be done, the island can survive.”

Decoder

Philippines' top tourism island's failing sewage system

In a survey of Boracay’s sewerage facilities, the vast majority of residential and business properties were found to have no discharge permit and were presumed to be draining waste water directly into the sea.

FACTOID

End of the liners

The Philippines’ tourism department said that as many as 18 ocean liners, carrying more than 50,000 passengers and around half that number of crew members, were due to visit the island in 2018 before the closure announcement.