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.


Global stars shine at Saudi leisure forum

Updated 14 October 2019

Global stars shine at Saudi leisure forum

  • “It (Saudi Movies) will bring Saudis closer to the world and the world closer to Saudi,” Shahrukh Khan 

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia took another step toward establishing its place on the global entertainment map with a major industry event in Riyadh on Sunday.

The Joy Forum19 brought together entertainment promoters and pioneers from around the world, along with global stars such as Indian actor and film producer Shah Rukh Khan; Hong Kong martial artist, actor, film director Jackie Chan and Belgian actor and martial artist Jean-Claude Van Damme.

The event was organized by the General Entertainment Authority (GEA), which signed several important agreements on the day, including a financing guarantee program for small and medium-sized enterprises.

Participants are ushered in on the first day of the Joy Forum19 event in Riyadh. (Social media photo)

“Our message is for both, locally and internationally. Me and my generation suffered a lot, we had lots of time on our hands,” GEA chairman Turki Al-Sheikh said at the event.

“Today you are witnessing things we have never had in Saudi Arabia. We have 300,000 visitors to our events, and our sales have hit 80 percent.

“Saudi Arabia has never seen anything like Riyadh Season, we have over 400 sponsors, which is unprecedented.”

Al-Sheikh announced that the authority had named a stadium after singer Mohammed Abdo, the “Artist of Arabs,” and another after Abu Baker Salim, the father of Khaleeji music. 


READ MORE: Three MoUs signed at opening day of Joy Forum19 in Riyadh



Drunken master

The actors expressed what it meant to be movie stars and how wide-reaching their influence could be.

Jackie Chan recalled that when he was a new actor, he often acted like a drunken fighter until he realized that he has a responsibility towards younger fans. 

Jackie Chan: no longer a "drunken master". (AN photo by Basheer Saleh)

“All over the world I keep drinking and fighting (in films).  I realized that I made drunken master cool — so I stopped,” he said. One of Chan's most popular movies was the 1978 action comedy martial arts film "Drunken Master".

“When you’re 20 you don’t have this inner thought — anything that makes the audience laugh you do, but later on especially (when I went) to Africa so many years ago — they started doing the drunken style — the children look up to me. So, I realized we have a responsibility to the children so all those years I corrected those actions: no dirty comedy words or action,” he said.

He attributed his awareness in being responsible for the content he produces to the fans. “I’m really thankful to the fans in making me a good actor.”

Chan spoke about his experience in acting martial arts in both the United States and Asia. “I realized we have two different markets one for America another for Asia. They are totally two different things.”

The safety measures the US takes for stunts is very impeccable making sure of the wellbeing of the actor comes first. However, in Asia it’s a different story, “In Asia when I want to do a stunt, I roll, jump (and then go to the) hospital, he said laughingly.

“It’s so difficult sometimes in the USA so many rules- Jackie Chan movies: NO RULES!” he said and received applause from the audience.

 

Good start

Jean Claude Van Damme gave a shout out and a big thank you to all his “brother and sisters from Saudi Arabia,” He said he got a royal treatment fit for “Kings and Queens”. He went on to reveal that his hotel room at the Ritz Carlton Riyadh was so big he could easily “roller-skate” in it.

Jean Claude Van Damme: "Let's do a movie together". (AN photo by Basheer Saleh)

“I’m honored to be invited here. I know it’s your first time to do this event, but I know it will have a very bright future and I hope next year you will invite more people,” he said.

He said he may not be a “good talker” but expressed his joy at being in Saudi Arabia saying. “I’m happy to be here and I hope to have more connection later with the audience.”

Van Damme remarked how that in every country in the world you have treasure actors and movies with different cultures, “In the Middle East I don’t know what the taste will be, but I know they love American, Asian and Indian movies. They have a broad taste. (Saudi Arabia) should do a movie with all of us together!”

 

Crossing barriers

Sharukh Khan emphasized the importance of every country telling their story through movies; “As long as we are telling the story in whatever language it doesn’t matter. Cinema crosses all barriers.”
 

Shahrukh Khan: "I'd audition for a Saudi movie". (Social media photo)

With the opening of Saudi Arabia to the world and Cinemas, he said, “I can’t wait to talk about the Saudi films...It will bring Saudis closer to the world and the world closer to Saudi.”

“The stories that you tell should talk about goodness and people should be engaged with the content and it should bring them together. People want to laugh and sadly have to cry, to be entertained and to feel.”

Sharukh noted that Saudi Arabia has started to make movies and he’s watched the King Faisal movie, "Born a King". 

“You’ll always find gems in all movie industries and I think there’s are gems in Saudi and as a matter of fact one of the things I’d like to do is audition for a Saudi movie … Please give me an opportunity!” he said, eliciting a thunderous applause from the audience.


Red carpet

Abdulaziz AlMuzaini, co-founder and CEO of the Saudi Arabian Myrkott Animation Studio; gave a heartfelt thanks full of gratitude to King Salman and the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, saying: “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have dreamed of this moment or this panel.”

Some of the celebrities invited to the event walk the red carpet. (AN photo by Basheer Saleh)

Lebanese actor Wahid Jalal, who was the voice of Long John Silver in Treasure Island, came onstage for the opening of the event. “Children love heroes and they try to imitate them,” he said. 

He also delighted the crowd by performing Silver’s famous laugh.

Some of the celebrities who walked down the red carpet were American actor Jason Momoa, star of Aquaman; Amr Adeeb, Balqis Fathi, Yusra, Boosy Shalabi, Lojien and Aseel Omran, Mohammed Hamaki, Nawal AlZoghbi, Talal Salama, Ahlam Al-Shamsi, Hussain AlJismi, Suad Abdulla, Ibrahem Alharbi, Tariq Alali and Abdulnaser Darweesh.

The gala dinner hosted 500 guests and was a private event, but the red carpet captured the essence of where Saudi is moving to culturally.