Paris exhibition unravels mysteries of Saudi Arabia’s AlUla

French and Saudi archaeologists recreating the story of AlUla since prehistoric times have uncovered evidence placing the region at the crossroads of several civilizations and a host of cultures.
Updated 10 October 2019

Paris exhibition unravels mysteries of Saudi Arabia’s AlUla

  • Once a center on ancient trade routes, AlUla is now the site of an ambitious project
  • AlUla is believed to have been at the crossroads of several civilizations and cultures

PARIS: Few spots in today’s world have remained mysterious to today’s archaeologists and scientists, armed with the latest, hi-tech tools that enable them to visualise and recreate the world as it may have been thousands, or even millions, of years earlier.

Yet, AlUla, located on an important route with links to Damascus, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, continues to remain hidden in a veil of mystery even as teams experts try to pry open the diverse region to understand its origins and history.

Lying on the route that connected Aden in the south to Damascus in the north, and from there onwards to Europe, AlUla is believed to have been on the crossroads of several civilizations and multiple cultures. It was an important resting place on the trade route, with its abundant water supply feeding several oases and lush green farms.

Since the emergence of Islam, it has also been an important site on the route connecting most of northern Middle East and Africa with Makkah and Madinah.

A dedicated team of French and Saudi archaeologists, historians and researchers, assisted by a host of experts from around the world, has been trying to rebuild the story of AlUla since prehistoric times right up to today.

Dr Laila Nehmé, a French historian and archeologist, has been involved in uncovering the mysteries of AlUla for nearly 30 years.

She and her colleagues have been able to fill in many holes in the site’s timeline and reconstruct, using a clutch of modern tools and computer software, a fairly comprehensive story of  a site that appears to have been continuously inhabited by humans for more than 200,000 years.




Painting on AlUla being shown at the Paris exhibition.
 

This is the story being told in a breathtaking exhibition entitled “AlUla Wonder of Arabia” that has been organized by the Royal Commission of AlUla, in collaboration with the French culture ministry and the Institut du Monde Arabe (Institute of the Arab World) in Paris.

The exhibition showcases all aspects of AlUla and its evolution in the past 200,000 years, including 7,000 years of human inhabitation.

Covering more than 30,000 square kilometers, an area equivalent to that of Belgium, AlUla has seen several transformations in its geological as well as zoological composition. An impressive 3D model of the region, illuminated by computer software, recreates the geological and natural evolution of the region, with a range of diverse incidents such as large-scale floods, immense volcanic eruptions and of course the seemingly endless desertification.

All of these incidents have had a huge impact on AlUla’s history and this is what is recreated in the exhibits at the IMA.

The exhibition, was inaugurated on Monday by the Saudi Culture Minister Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan and Franck Rieter, the French culture minister, as well as Jack Lang, the President of the IMA and a former French minister.

Nehmé says that AlUla is literally a living museum, with its extremely well-preserved tombs, historic dwellings, monuments as well as captivating sandstone outcrops that hide in their hearts a largely untold story of more than 200,000 years of history. And despite the 30-years put in by her and dozens of other researchers, AlUla seems to be preciously guarding its secrets.

For instance, Nehmé says that it is very difficult to predict with any degree of certainty the human dimensions of AlUla, especially the variations in its population over the several cycles of ups and downs that the region clearly has seen over the course of its long history.

 

  • AlUla was the capital the ancient kingdoms of Dadan and Lihyan, which controlled the caravan trade.
  • Mada’in Salih was the principal southern city of the Nabatean kingdom, famed for its spectacular monumental tombs.

‘‘I would say it is difficult to put a finger on the exact figure of what might have been the maximum or even the optimum population of AlUla at a given time, notably in the early years of Dadanite and other pre-Roman eras. I might venture to say between 5,000 to 20,000, but it is only a guess and not based on any scientific certitude,’’ Nehmé told Arab News during a preview offered to leading media from around the world just before the official inauguration.

Another big mystery about AlUla is the transition between various kingdoms and empires. In the span of less than 800 years, from the 6th century BC to 2nd century AD, AlUla changed hands between the neolithic empires of Dadanites and Lihyanites and then onto the Nabateans from the Jordan valley and finally the Romans in the 2nd or 3rd century AD.

Despite the frequent changes, Nehmé says the team of archaeologists has not been able to pinpoint the exact nature of these political changes.

‘‘We have not found any significant elements that can allow us to conclude that there may have been wars between the kingdoms, nor do we have any particular catastrophic moment that may have led to the change of power in AlUla.

For instance, if we had found traces of large-scale burnings or destruction at a particular time in history, we may have looked at possibilities like outbreaks of wars or diseases or even natural catastrophes. But here, so far, we have not yet found any such elements,’’ says Nehmé.

For Amr Al-Madani, the Chief Executive Officer of the Royal Commission of AlUla, these unresolved mysteries can only add to the allure of the region for not just scientists and researchers from all across the world, but tourists and those interested in learning about human civilization and its evolution as well as people that like nature and environment.

‘‘AlUla has everything for anyone looking for any of these elements. It is a jewel of Saudi Arabia and we want to share this with the entire world and that is why we are mounting a series of events and activities to allow visitors from all over the world to come and enjoy at AlUla and relive the story of the evolution of human civilisation,’’ Al-Madani said.




A Nabatean inscription

Amongst the several wonderful sights that await visitors in AlUla are thousands of rock inscriptions dating back to the prehistoric period and some of which also go on to show the evolution of the Arabic script as the Nabatean script slowly evolved into Arabic in the early centuries of the first millennium AD.

AlUla also has hundreds of tombs built by Nabateans in the same style as in their most famous city, Petra, in Jordan. The most famous Nabatean site in AlUla is of course Mada'in Salih, also known as Hegra, which was recognised by UNESCO as the first World Heritage Site in Saudi Arabia.

AlUla is a repository not just of the beauty of human creations. There are plenty of nature’s wonders, too, for the visitors to admire. There are hundreds of sandstone and basalt rock outcrops, carved beautifully by nature over thousands of years that offer a breathtaking view.

Al-Madani said the Royal Commission of AlUla has planned a series of activities, beginning later this year, to allow visitors and tourists to relish the region, even though the site will be thrown open fully to tourists only in October next year.

While opening the AlUla to the world, Al-Madani also stresses that the royal commission will keep the focus on community involvement and sustainable tourism to ensure that not only the heritage of AlUla is well-preserved, but that the local community remains a major stakeholder and beneficiary of tourism and the cultural activities that would take place there.

‘‘We need to be sure that we hand over AlUla to the future generations in the same unspoilt and well-preserved state in which we have inherited it,’’ Al-Madani said.


Saudis unite in condemnation of US Navy base attack

Updated 08 December 2019

Saudis unite in condemnation of US Navy base attack

  • The attack, in which a Saudi gunman killed three Americans, is viewed as an act that does not represent Saudi people
  • The OIC has said the attacker did not represent the tolerant Islamic values that distinguish the Saudi people

From the king and top-level Saudi government officials to everyday Saudi citizens, all are united in condemning the attack on a US Navy base in Pensacola, Florida, calling it as “un-Islamic” and barbaric.

The shooting of three Americans by a Saudi gunman was an individual attack that does not represent the Kingdom’s people, it has been widely  stressed. 

For decades, many Saudis have lived in the US for work or attended universities across many states, becoming their own ambassadors. 

Nedda Akhonbay, a communications professional working in Jeddah, expressed her sadness when she heard the news.

“My condolences go out to the families of the victims as I hope they find peace in their lives after facing such a tragedy. As a Saudi-American and having spent many formative years in the US and made friends who became like family, I thought this attack was very close to home and I hope both people work together to get past it.”

“As a student who lived in the States, I never faced any problems for being a Muslim,” said Alaa Sendi, an American-Saudi lecturer working in Jeddah University.

Having obtained a PhD in electrical engineering, Dr. Nazih Al-Othmani lived between the states of Michigan and Pennsylvania for ten years in the late 1990s and was in the US during the 9/11 attacks. He recalled how Americans understood that such atrocious attacks never represented a community, and this one was no exception.

“The tragic event that took place yesterday does not represent us, this attack is unacceptable regardless of any reason and no sane person can ever accept it,” he said. “I lived in the States for many years, I was also there on 9/11, and made many American friends throughout my time there. They stood by us, they helped us, protected us and our relationship was very civil and courteous. We need to stand together to combat this dangerous tendency that can be found in every community.”

The attack at the US naval station in Pensacola, Florida, was the second incident at an American military base in this week, following another shooting at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on Wednesday. (AFP)

Many Saudis are angered over the actions of this one individual. Dr. Al-Othmani expressed his concerns about those who would take advantage of the situation and try to point a finger at Saudis.

“Though right-wingers will take advantage of the event and attack Saudi Arabia, I don’t believe many Americans will see it that way. Americans are aware enough to differentiate between the nationality of an individual and his actions,” he said.

Al-Othmani recommends that Saudi students communicate, cooperate and extend a hand of friendship to their respective communities.

In the decades of friendship and cooperation between the US and Saudi Arabia, many Americans have come to work in the Kingdom and some have made it their home. 

Dr. Alia Mitchell, vice dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Director of the Teaching and Learning Center at the Prince Sultan University in Riyadh, is an American citizen who has been a Muslim for more than 30 years and has lived in the Kingdom for more than 20 years. She has chosen to live in the Kingdom as she sees the beauty of the religion interwoven into society, one that she believes is not represented by the shooter. 

“When something tragic that happens like this, it’s on the individual,” she said. “it doesn’t go back to the community or the society.

“I’m still sickened and mostly very, very saddened with this tragedy,” said Melanie H. “I’ve a son the same age as the shooter and can’t imagine what the pain and grief his actions would do to me as a parent. To learn that your son has caused so much hell… that he has taken others’ lives.”

She said: “I lived in Saudi Arabia for over 10 years and I have experienced Saudi’s hospitality, warmth — nothing like what I imagined or expected before arriving. It isn’t perfect but then what country or nation is?” 

“Now that the country has opened its doors to the world, people really shouldn’t judge the book by its cover especially when criminals like this shooter make such a false, misleading cover.” 

Melanie H continued: “Do not judge a people by an individual — that’s what we Americans are all about. No judging.”


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“This crime does not represent us as Saudis,” said Sheikh Abdullatif Al-Sheikh, minister of Islamic Affairs, on his personal Twitter account. “We reject such criminal acts and we sympathize with the injured and the families of the victims. It is a horrible crime and a dishonest act.

“We condemn crimes anywhere and anytime, and we stress our complete rejection of such horrible criminal acts which Islam forbids.”

Saudi scholar and Imam of Quba Mosque in Madinah Saleh Al-Maghamsi shared the same notion. He said: “This incident should be stripped away from religion and from the country to which whoever committed this criminal act is affiliated. The Shariah does not approve of this act for it violates the texts of the Holy Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet, which is based on the principle of no bloodshed. Logic also does not approve of this action.” 

Opinion

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The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) said the aggressor did not represent the tolerant Islamic values that distinguish the Saudi people and all Muslims who believe in tolerance, moderation and coexistence.

The General Secretariat of the Council of Senior Scholars in Saudi Arabia also condemned the shooting incident in Florida and called it a heinous crime. 

Describing it as a crime against humanity, the senior scholars stressed that such actions were against the true teachings of Islam. They said that the Saudi people will continue to uphold their noble values and contribute to the progress and prosperity of the world and humanity.