What has happened is unchangeable, a fact of history, and rather than metaphorically it is quite literally in the case of Rijal Alma in the Aseer province: It is set in stone. The stone-built village, stern guardian to a trade route that has long disused in a valley at the foot of the Souda Mountain, was hewn and dressed and built with relatively crude tools out of the local rock. It required a huge amount of human effort to build. Eventually it fell into disrepair and became part of history.
It has been restored and preserved by the local community and won the Prince Sultan bin Salman Prize for Preservation of Urban Heritage in 2006. The question is why? What is the point of keeping this pile of stones and going to all the trouble of keeping it, let alone restoring it? This is the 21st century, not the 10th. These old houses are history. Move on, keep up, get a life!
In an interview in the Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1916, the industrialist Henry Ford was quoted as saying, “History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker's dam is the history we made today.”
If that were true, he would not have been able to tie his shoelaces. The historical act of tying his shoelaces he learned some time in his past. Should he have forgotten he could have consulted a historical document or a verbal record, perhaps his mother, to remind or reeducate himself.
Even at this very simple level, history is clearly not “bunk” — unless you always wear slip-on shoes. It is a source of wisdom and custom that informs the present, and by consulting it as a storehouse of ideas and practices that helped form our current world, it has the potential to guide the actions of today with experiences of the past.
History is a repository of information about how people and societies behave. To understand how people and societies work is difficult. If we relied solely on current data and did not use what we know about past experiences, this would limit our understanding of, for example, the influence of technological innovation, or the role that beliefs play in shaping family life. It would, for example, be impossible to answer the question, “Why Islam?”
A second reason following hard on the first is continuity. What we do now is tomorrow’s history, so we are the past of the future. The “footprints in the sands of time” we leave behind us might lead to a cliff edge or a new idea. Either way, that information will be useful to future generations who might be able to avoid mistakes we make and comprehend how they arrived at their situation. Reference to the past prevents the need to reinvent the wheel on a daily basis. Mr. Ford clearly didn’t recognize this, although he obviously drew on historical experience.
Where this becomes serious is in international diplomacy. If you understand the history of people you deal with on a national basis, then, just as with individuals, offence might be avoided and relations prove easier to build.
So how does this all work with the reconstruction of a stone village? It has been around a long time and was once was the capital of the principality of Hala during the reign of Mossa Al-Kenani in 732 Hijri (1331-1332 AD).
It is an ancient Aseeri village set in the bend of an extensive valley on the trade route between Yemen, Makkah and the Red Sea. Significantly, Aseer translates as “difficult” — and describes both the geography of the area and some say the stubborn and tough character of the mountain people of the area. They certainly put those characteristics to good use a couple of decades ago, when the inhabitants of the village decided to keep and restore their ancestral home and not abandon it to the temptations of glittering modernity.
"Rijal Alma village has introduced itself independently. The residents initiated the rehabilitation works a long time ago to attract tourists to the area and benefit from its economic potentials,” Prince Sultan observed on presenting their prize in 2011.
Easily accessible from the cable car that extends from the Souda National Park complex, it is a place redolent with history and tradition, well preserved and clearly oriented to tourism. It has taken on the appearance of a living museum, but, in its restoration and development, gathered to itself some of the more invasive clutter of development.
The dressed stone square towers, patterned with gleaming lumps of sugar-white quartz, that comprise the original village are typical of the culture of the area. They tell the story of a culture with ingenuity and skills that allowed them to capitalize of the materials to hand and were surprisingly sophisticated in their use of dressed stone to make complex structures.
Clinging to the side of a steep hill and overlooking a sinuous road that once brought the fruits of the spice and incense trade into the interior of the peninsula, the well thought out plans of the builders and planners becomes plain. The hillsides are dotted with defensive watchtowers at points that maximize fields of view and arcs of fire. The solidly built houses double as mini-fortresses and comfortable habitation. They speak of items of great value passing through, a culture immersed in trade, one that picked up trade goods and elements of foreign culture from travelers as they passed through.
Wooden screened balconies, made from sticks gathered from the few trees that grow on the hills, cling to the houses and form extemporary shower rooms. It is a scene that might have been current nearly a thousand years ago when the village was founded.
Restoration and conservation is admirable; preserving historical sites gives the opportunity of succeeding generations to have a datum point in the past to measure their progress and peg a waypoint on their cultural development. Herein lies the invisible but nonetheless real value of sites such as this.
The only way we can understand who we are and how we got to be that way is by studying the past. Similarly, the only way we can understand others is by studying their past. If we don't understand what made them who they are — in terms of how they think and act — we will make all sorts of mistakes in our interactions with them. Equally importantly, to stand before what is by historical standards a considerable architectural achievement and even today a remarkable piece of work fills one with a sense of awe.
The Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) is determined to encourage developing sites such as Rijal Alma. SCTA Chairman Prince Sultan’s avowed purpose in this is to connect modern Saudi and the younger generation in particular with their history. Some of the projects, such as Al-Ghat in the Qassim district, are complete working villages with accommodation in restored houses equipped with few conveniences.
To experience and physically interact with peninsula history from a time centuries before the Saudi state ever came into existence will hopefully, in a world full of virtual truths in cyber space, ground the Saudi visitor on the foundations of his culture. His ancestors were handling the same problems as the visitor has today: Finding food, shelter, fending off aggression, and building a family. Sure, the targets were easier to see and the challenges perhaps clearer, but they used the best technology of their day, the best thinking, astounding ingenuity and sheer muscle to survive and achieve what they did. Succeeding generations built on their achievements through time to bring the culture to where we are today. No one had to reinvent the wheel, so to speak.
Now as then, culture and technology was both locally invented and imported: Principals the same, technology different.
Understanding all this gives the thoughtful witness a sense of continuity, a connection with his origins, and a sense of pride at being part of a culture that has progressed so far — in a word, an identity.
And rather than be the unthinking target market for someone else’s culture, to understand one’s own historical roots and realize that one is unique and always has been delivers the lesson that you can and must learn from history and the accumulated wisdom of previous generations to guide events and inform decisions in the future — and never have to reinvent anything.
It’s true: At Rijal Alma, it is set in stone.
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