Saudi Arabia recovers 52,000 illegally taken priceless artifacts

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Two medium-sized stones weigh 10 kilograms. One is engraved with Arabic inscription in civil calligraphy and found in the village of Hufah. (Photo by Mohammed Al-Maghthawi)
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Well of Tloub from Hamdan Al-Harbi. (Photo by Mohammed Al-Maghthawi)
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Hamdan Al-Harbi, left, with one of the stones he found. (Photo by Mohammed Al-Maghthawi)
Updated 02 December 2019

Saudi Arabia recovers 52,000 illegally taken priceless artifacts

  • Most of the national heritage artifacts that have been returned came from the US, says Dr. Nayef Al-Qanoor
  • The recovery is the result of a campaign over more than 30 years organized by the SCTH

RIYADH: The Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH) has recovered thousands of illegally taken antiquities.

SCTH is encouraging citizens and residents inside and outside of Saudi Arabia to hand over national antiquities. This is so the items can be displayed in museums and exhibitions to highlight their historical value, since they represent essential evidence for the study of civilizations that once prevailed in the Kingdom.

SCTH has formed a special committee to work on the inventory of lost artifacts and recover them in coordination with the authorities at the Saudi ministries of interior and foreign affairs.

These efforts resulted in the return of about 32,000 national artifacts from outside the Kingdom, and about 20,000 national artifacts from within it, according to the SCTH website.

Dr. Nayef Al-Qanoor, director general of the Registration and Protection of Antiquities department in SCTH, said that the archaeological survey is considered the pillar of archaeological works in the Kingdom. The search began with a small group of Saudi researchers.



The priceless items recovered include arrowheads and stone tools, a 1,000-year-old clay pot, basalt grinding stones, a neo-Babylonian seal stamp and Roman-era glass bracelets.

“It has initiated since the 1980s the establishment of an organization responsible for the antiquities of the Kingdom and the enactment of laws and regulations to protect national cultural property,” Al-Qanoor told Arab News. “Since that time, that organization began to inventory and document national antiquities from within the Kingdom and abroad that have been taken illegally.”

Al-Qanoor said that SCTH has missing antiquities that are documented and registered on their database.

There is a red list on the commission’s website of stolen national and cultural property with a picture and a description of each item and when it was stolen.

He said that SCTH is working in cooperation with its partners to track down the antiquities. “Most of the national heritage artifacts that have been returned came from the US,” he said.

Al-Qanoor said that there is a joint cooperation agreement between the commission and Saudi Aramco “in returning national antiquities that were taken out of the Kingdom illegally.”

The antiquities were voluntarily returned from American citizens who worked in the Kingdom in the 1960s or from their relatives in coordination with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Others have also voluntarily returned national antiquities from France, Britain and Canada.

Marian Ferguson collection. (Supplied)


Al-Qanoor said that SCTH honors those who returned the antiquities.

Arthur Clark, assistant editor at AramcoWorld and editor of the twice-yearly magazine Al-Ayyam Al-Jamilah, became involved with the Antiquities Homecoming Project through Saudi Aramco’s King Abdul Aziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) in Dhahran in late 2011. 

“The center launched the Antiquities Homecoming Project in cooperation with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage to encourage Aramco retirees and family members to repatriate archaeological antiquities that they had collected during their years in the Kingdom,” Clark told Arab News.

Aramco’s Houston-based subsidiary publishes Saudi Aramco’s magazine for retirees, Al-Ayyam Al-Jamilah, of which Clark is editor. “Through the magazine, we reached out to annuitants around the globe for help in locating objects of national historical interest,” he said.

Clark has worked with Ithra in its cooperative agreement with SCTH arranging for antiquities to be returned to Saudi Arabia.   

Clark said that he had helped to return hundreds of antique pieces. “They range from hundreds of arrowheads and other stone tools from the Empty Quarter desert to a 1,000-year-old clay pot from Al-Ahsa in the Eastern Province, basalt grinding stones from Mada’in Saleh, and a neo-Babylonian seal stamp and Roman-era glass bracelets, also from the Eastern Province,” he said.

The center launched the Antiquities Homecoming Project in cooperation with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage to encourage Aramco retirees and family members to repatriate archeological antiquities that they had collected during their years in the Kingdom.

Arthur Clark, Assistant editor at Aramco World and editor of twice-yearly magazine Al-Ayyam Al-Jamilah

Clark said that he is not an antique collector but likes to view antiquities on-site in the Kingdom or in its museums. “My work in contacting retirees and family members has turned up many ‘unexpected antiques’,” he said.

According to Clark, “each piece is fascinating.”

“One of the most intriguing (antiquities), because of its age (and the journey it made), was a clay bowl found near Jubail by Marian Ferguson, who lived in Dhahran with her husband Kenneth and their son Ken from 1953-1970,” he said.

Daniel Potts, a highly regarded scholar of Arabian archaeology, said that it was almost certainly a Mesopotamian bevel-rim bowl dating to 3400-3000 BCE “and, if so, the first one to turn up in the Eastern Province.”

“Another notable ‘find’ was what looks to be a bead-drilling tool — perhaps the first of its kind— found in the Eastern Province and donated with other artifacts by retiree Mark Goldsmith,” Clark said.

Al-Qanoor said that the removal of antiquities from the Kingdom took place before the establishment of an official body concerned with national heritage. “These events were at a time when there was not full knowledge of the importance of national heritage, which led to some of them exiting the country illegally,” he said.

Al-Qanoor said that all shops with heritage antiquities in the Kingdom are subject to regulations. There was continuous monitoring of these markets, and the commission worked with their owners from the perspective of sustainable partnership.

He said that all returned antiquities pieces come back via official channels and underwent a series of procedures before they are restored — checking the authenticity of the piece and if it belongs to the civilizations of Saudi Arabia.


• The Antiquities Homecoming Project dates back to a donation in 2001 of a 2-foot stele covered with Greek letters found in 1968 by Tom Barger, Aramco’s CEO, in Mada’in Saleh. It is part of the T.C. Barger Collection at the National Museum in Riyadh. Barger’s son, Tim, said his father, a geologist, ‘read anything he could find about the archaeology of Arabia and collected about a dozen significant pieces.’

• When Tom Barger retired in 1969, he placed the stele and nine other artifacts he had discovered in the Semitic Museum at Harvard University until arrangements could be made to transfer them to the Kingdom.

• More than 40 donors, including some with indirect connections to the company (Saudi Aramco), have returned antiquities since 2011.

“This is followed by the initiation of formal restoration procedures in coordination with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other partners,” Al-Qanoor said.

He said that most of the items returned are in their original and intact condition. Some have suffered minor fractures and have been treated by the Department of Restoration of the Heritage and Museums Sector.

Mohammed Al-Maghthawi, a Saudi expert in early Islamic inscriptions, has discovered more than 3,000 early Islamic inscriptions and has read, studied and linked many of them to historical sources.

He contributed to the discovery and registration of three archaeological sites on the old caravan route called the path of the prophets and was registered on the National Archaeological Register.

Al-Maghthawi handed in three pieces of early Islamic inscriptions from the 7th and 8th century AD and received an award from Prince Sultan bin Salman, former president of SCTH, for his discoveries.

“The Kingdom has many archaeological and historical sites, inscriptions and drawings that are not found in any other country. We are working with SCTH under the regulations and instructions to preserve this valuable national heritage,” he said.

Hamdan Al-Harbi, an expert in the historical antiquities found in the villages crossing prophets pathway and migration (Hijrah) and caravans between Makkah and Madinah, found tombstones from a village underground, and was the first to see many of these historical tombstones when a flood swept through part of the village in 1992.

Richard Bodeker: Ambassador of Green in Saudi Arabia

Updated 06 December 2019

Richard Bodeker: Ambassador of Green in Saudi Arabia

  • German landscape architect’s passion — to turn Saudi Arabia into a lush garden — became his mission

RIYADH: For 46 years, Richard Bodeker was devoted to turning Saudi Arabia into a lush garden. The architect landscaper recently passed away, but his green print lives on as he is celebrated for his loving work.

Gardening runs deep in the family as both he and his wife’s family are in the profession. Bodeker considered himself blessed because he could do what he loved, working with plants and creating gardens.

“He developed a real love of Saudi Arabia as his favorite country and created many lifelong friendships in the Kingdom,” Bodeker’s son, Jens Bodeker, told Arab News.

His relationship with Saudi clients was special. They had a great mutual understanding, said his son. One of those special relationships was with Prince Sultan bin Salman, chairman of the Saudi Space Commission. Bodeker landscaped his Al-Uthaibat Ranch in Diriyah.

“He opened the doors to all his friends, clients, colleagues and partners in Saudi Arabia. Most of his contacts became close friends to me, too,” Jens said.

Saudi Arabia honored the late Bodeker and his works when the minister of culture, Prince Badr Al-Farhan, named a park in Riyadh’s diplomatic quarter after the talented landscaper.

Creativity is key and he was never daunted by developing a green oasis in the midst of a desert capital. “As a plant lover, he was impressed by the survival strategies of desert plants. Acacia trees can develop 50-meter-deep roots to get water, for example. He was convinced to be able to water the trees by treated greywater which is produced by each citizen. So, each citizen could irrigate a tree by using water in the house,” Jens said.


Richard Bodeker projects in Saudi Arabia:

  • ‘Initiative Green’ developing a greening strategy for the city in the 1990s
  • Diriyah Mosque landscape design
  • King Fahd Road, the green corridor 
  • MOMRA, park and roof greening
  • Ministry of Foreign Affairs staff housing
  • Court complex
  • King Abdul Aziz Historical Center parks and gardens
  • First ideas for King Salman Park, at that time Riyadh Public Park in the 1980s of last century
  • Thumamah Nature Park
  • Wadi Hanifah and Wadi Sulai as green lungs of Riyadh
  • Many private farms for members of the Royal family and many other clients
  • Initiation of a tree nursery for the Riyadh Development Authority
  • Regional park in Al-Hofuf,Jebel Qara

His vision to make use of the materials that can be found in nature with his strategy of “cut and fill,” in which he would cut Riyadh limestone and build a garden out of it. He maintained sustainability by using local sources for construction material. His approach was to create garden oases with local materials in respect of the site and the local culture, his son explained.

Bodeker’s passion was ramped with a desire to turn the desert capital into a green sanctuary. “He possessed strength, persuasiveness and the ability to assert himself to even fight for green, gardens and uncommon ideas. This passion made him an ambassador for green in the Kingdom,” he added.

Passion for his profession was the secret of his success: “Gardens and plants have been his lifelong loves,” said Jens, adding that “the creation of gardens was his real mission.”


Like father, like son 

Following his fathers’ footsteps, he inherited his passion and love for this country and landscape design from his father: “I feel the same passion when it comes to greening the country to work with nature and to follow nature in design,” he said.

“He shared his professional knowledge and passion for this country ... with me. The respect for tradition and culture in landscape design was essential,” he added.

“His passion for landscape design, especially the challenge to green the desert set me on fire and carries me to continue what he started. His focus laid on local material, like the Riyadh limestone and plants for arid regions to create lush garden oases.”

Of all his unique designs, Islamic gardens were the most symbolic. Jens explained: “Islamic gardens mirror paradise on earth with water, fruits and lush greens. He wanted to respond to this in his garden design works. Bodeker always saw gardens and green as the most important element in Riyadh.”

In 1993, Bodeker started the “Initiative Green,” which was Jens’ most significant influence.

The secret to great success is working with nature in environments, like the desert with its valleys, oases, escarpments, sand dunes and rock plains, he added.

“In Thumamah Nature Park, one can see the impact of land protection. The park is much greener than any landscape in the surroundings without that protection, just by fencing, nature recovers slowly,” Jens said.

“My part is to give my contribution to developing the landscape and environment for the better and give nature a chance. I will follow in his footsteps and will stand up for green as an ambassador for green environments, parks and gardens.”

From childhood, he and his brother had been strongly influenced by gardening and landscape design. For many years they worked together with their father. It was not always easy to work with him because his father had “a strong personality.” However, he noted that he found his own path which he learned through discussions and debates “to find my own place next to him.”