How heritage sites will make Saudi Arabia a magnet for cultural tourists

How heritage sites will make Saudi Arabia a magnet for cultural tourists
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AlUla, Saudi Arabia's leading heritage site, is a living museum that is home to ancient civilizations and archaeological wonders dating back 200,000 years. (Shutterstock)
How heritage sites will make Saudi Arabia a magnet for cultural tourists
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AlUla, Saudi Arabia's leading heritage site, is a living museum that is home to ancient civilizations and archaeological wonders dating back 200,000 years. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 23 September 2022

How heritage sites will make Saudi Arabia a magnet for cultural tourists

How heritage sites will make Saudi Arabia a magnet for cultural tourists
  • Each of the six World Heritage sites shows that Saudi roots run far deeper than many might have imagined
  • Carefully preserved and protected, Diriyah is the jewel in the crown of one of Saudi Arabia’s largest giga-projects

LONDON: Even as Saudi Arabia writes the next chapter in its story, defined by the ambition of its Vision 2030 blueprint for the future, it is rediscovering and embracing a past destined to play a central role as it opens up to the outside world.

Since 2008, Saudi Arabia has had no fewer major six sites of “outstanding universal value” inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.

There are 10 more on its Tentative List — properties being considered for nomination — including the Hejaz railway, three historic pilgrimage routes and the Al-Faw archaeological area at the northwestern edge of the Empty Quarter, a site of human occupation from prehistoric nomadic times to the growth of a thriving ancient caravan city in the second half of the first millennium B.C.

Certainly, there is no shortage of locations from which to choose for future nominations; there are more than 10,000 historical sites on Saudi Arabia’s National Antiquities Register. 




Diriyah served as the capital of the Emirate of Diriyah under the first Saudi dynasty from 1727 to 1818. (Supplied)

Each of the six World Heritage sites is one piece of a fascinating mosaic that shows not only that Saudi roots run far deeper than many might have imagined, but also that Saudi heritage is a vital component in the broad sweep of human history.

And this is living history. Each site will play — and in some cases is already playing — a crucial role in the opening up of the Kingdom as a destination for cultural tourists from around the world.

One of the most breathtaking of the UNESCO properties is the Hegra archaeological site, centerpiece of plans by the Royal Commission for AlUla to develop sensitively as a major destination more than 22,000 square kilometers of the spectacular landscape of the AlUla region, with its lush oasis valley and towering mountains. 

The jewel in AlUla’s crown is the ancient city of Hegra, the southern capital of the Nabataeans, who also built Petra in modern-day Jordan.




AlUla, Saudi Arabia's leading heritage site, is a living museum that is home to ancient civilizations and archaeological wonders dating back 200,000 years. (Supplied)

Yet the astonishing collection of over 100 hand-carved tombs, many with elaborate facades and inscriptions, cut into sandstone outcrops, is merely the tip of an archaeological iceberg.

There are currently a dozen international archaeology teams exploring the past cultures of AlUla and the nearby Harrat Khaybar volcanic field, from prehistory to the early 20th century. The astonishing volume of the finds they have already documented is prompting a radical rethinking of the prehistory of the Arabian Peninsula.

One team, from the University of Western Australia, has spent the past four years identifying and cataloging all the visible archaeology of AlUla county and the nearby Harrat Khaybar volcanic field. The tens of thousands of structures found, most between 4,000 and 7,000 years old, tell a story of a landscape and a climate that was once lush and temperate. 

In all, the Aerial Archaeology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia project has identified 13,000 sites in AlUla and an extraordinary 130,000 in Khaybar county, dating from the Stone Age to the 20th century, with the vast majority from prehistory.

A “core” 3,300 square meter area of AlUla was surveyed separately by UK-based Oxford Archaeology which, working with staff and students of King Saud University in Riyadh, identified in excess of another 16,000 archaeological sites.




A panoramic view of the Dadan District, site of the ancient city of Dadan, a predecessor to Hegra.  (Supplied)

Dr. Hugh Thomas, a senior research fellow at the University of Western Australia, said that in the past archaeologists had concentrated on the Fertile Crescent. “But as we do more and more research, we’re realizing that there was so much more here than small, independent communities living on nothing much and not doing much in an arid area,” he told Arab News. 

“The reality in that in the Neolithic period, these areas were significantly greener, and there would have been really sizeable populations of people and herds of animals moving across these landscapes.”

Among the most intriguing finds cataloged by the AAKSA team are the mysterious mustatils — often huge, rectangular structures, built by an unknown prehistoric people over 8,000 years ago. Possibly unique to the Arabian Peninsula, they are thought to have had some kind of ritualistic purpose.

More than 1,600 are now known to exist across 300,000 square kilometers of northwestern Saudi Arabia, concentrated mainly in the vicinity of AlUla and Khaybar.

More evidence of Saudi Arabia’s prehistoric past can be found in the world’s largest and most impressive collections of Neolithic rock carvings, or petroglyphs, located at two sites 300 kilometers apart in the Hail province, together adopted by UNESCO as a World Heritage site in 2015. 




Camel and oryx images depicted on the vertical surface of Jabal Umm Sinman, in association with several Thamudic inscriptions, are found in Hail region in northern Saudi Arabia. (Supplied)

The first is at Jabal Umm Sinman, a rocky outcrop to the west of the modern town of Jubbah, the origin of which dates back to the dawn of Arab civilization, when the surrounding hills once overlooked a lake, lost beneath the sands of the Nefud desert some 6,000 years ago.

It was on the hills of Umm Sinman, in the words of the UNESCO nomination document, that the ancestors of today’s Saudis “left the marks of their presence, their religions, social, cultural, intellectual and philosophical perspectives of their beliefs about life and death, metaphysical and cosmological ideologies.”

The second site is at Jabal Al-Manjor and Jabal Raat, 220 kilometers southwest of Jubbah, near the village of Shuwaymis. 




The Cultural Rock Arts in Hima Najran consists of rock art images made over millennia ago by armies and travelers who passed this way along an ancient desert caravan route in the southwest of the country. (Supplied)

Together, the twin sites tell the story of over 9,000 years of human history, from the earliest pictorial records of hunting to the development of writing, religion and the domestication of animals including cattle, horses and camels.

The rock art in the Hail region is regarded as one of the world’s most significant collections, “visually stunning expressions of the human creative genius by world standards, comparable to the messages left by doomed civilizations in Mesoamerica or on Easter Island…of highest outstanding universal value.”




The Cultural Rock Arts in Hima Najran consists of rock art images made over millennia ago by armies and travelers who passed this way along an ancient desert caravan route in the southwest of the country. (Supplied)

Saudi Arabia’s other UNESCO sites include the most recently inscribed, the Hima Cultural Area, listed in 2021. It also consists of a substantial collection of rock art images made over 7,000 years ago by armies and travelers who passed this way along an ancient desert caravan route in the southwest of the country.

Historic Jeddah, inscribed by UNESCO in 2014, was established in the seventh century as the major port on the Red Sea and grew rapidly as the gateway for pilgrims to Makkah who arrived by sea. Jeddah, which developed into “a thriving multicultural centre” was “characterized by a distinctive architectural tradition, including tower houses built in the late 19th century by the city’s mercantile elites,” many of which can still be seen today. 




Jeddah's old village of Al Balad, one of the UNESCO world heritage sites in the Kingdom, is host to plenty of old buildings. (Shutterstock photo)

Al-Ahsa, a “serial cultural landscape” in the Eastern Province, is home to the world’s largest, and almost certainly oldest, oasis, a sprawling collection of 12 separate elements and 2.5 million palm trees scattered over a total area of 85 square kilometers.

Listed by UNESCO in 2018 as “an evolving cultural landscape,” Al-Ahsa “preserves material traces representative of all the stages of the oasis history, since its origins in the Neolithic to the present.”

Al-Ahsa, which lies between the rock desert of Al-Ghawar to the west and the sand dunes of the Al-Jafurah desert to the east, is associated with the Dilmun civilization that flourished in the third millennium B.C. in what is now eastern Saudi Arabia. Pottery finds from the Ubaid period, dating back roughly 7,000 years, also suggest the Al-Ahsa region may have been among the first in eastern Arabia to have been settled by humans.




Al-Ahsa governorate in the Eastern Province boasts of the largest date-palm oasis in the world. (Supplied)

Pride of place, in the hearts of Saudis at least, must go to the Turaif district of Diriyah, which is considered the birthplace of the Kingdom and was listed by UNESCO in 2010. 

Nestling in a bend of the Wadi Hanifah, a few kilometers northwest of the modern metropolis of Riyadh, are the preserved remains of a breathtaking collection of mud-brick palaces, houses and mosques, “the pre-eminent example of Najdi architectural style, a significant constructive tradition that developed in central Arabia…and [contributed] to the world’s cultural diversity.”

First settled by the ancestors of the House of Saud in the 15th century, the oasis of Diriyah became the capital of the First Saudi State, established in 1744.

Diriyah was destroyed in 1818 after a six-year campaign by a vengeful Ottoman Empire, alarmed by the challenge posed by the First Saudi State to its grip on Arabia and the Holy cities of Makkah and Madinah.

Ultimately, it was Al-Saud that would prevail, as history relates. In 1902, Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman Al-Saud, better known to the wider world as Ibn Saud, famously recaptured Riyadh, going on to unite the kingdoms of Nejd and Hejaz in 1932 as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 




Diriyah, where the first Saudi state was founded 300 years ago, is being developed as an iconic tourist destination. (Supplied)

The Turaif district of nearby Diriyah, left in ruins by the Ottomans, would never be occupied again. Carefully preserved and protected, however, it is now the jewel in the crown of one of Saudi Arabia’s largest giga-projects — the development of the wider area by the Diriyah Gate Development Authority as “one of the most amazing cultural gathering places in the world.”

The $50 billion plan to transform Diriyah into a global historical, cultural and lifestyle destination will create 55,000 job opportunities and attract 27 million visitors every year. They will be able to immerse themselves in the history and culture of a kingdom that, in less than 300 years, has grown from an idea born in a small desert community to become one of the world’s most influential nations.

Awaiting visitors on the site of 7 square kilometers will be museums, galleries, world-class hotels, restaurants, shops, homes and educational and cultural facilities, all created in the traditional Najdi architectural style.

But at its heart will be Turaif, which, like so many of Saudi Arabia’s historic sites, is a priceless piece of the past now helping to shape the Kingdom’s future.


Saudis amplify bustling music scene with Jeddah’s Makan Music Center

Saudis amplify bustling music scene with Jeddah’s Makan Music Center
Updated 05 October 2022

Saudis amplify bustling music scene with Jeddah’s Makan Music Center

Saudis amplify bustling music scene with Jeddah’s Makan Music Center
  • Jeddah will be ‘one of the biggest cities for music,’ says DJ

JEDDAH: With a vibrant arts and culture scene, music has been an essential element in the social renaissance of the Kingdom. Following social reforms, many musicians surfaced to showcase their talent in the music industry.

Taking the opportunity, Makan Music Center in Jeddah opened its doors in 2018 as a small music center to teach aspiring musicians.

Abdulaziz Obaid, the CEO’s assistant, told Arab News that 2018 was “a powerful beginning for music learners and hobbyists.”

“In the beginning, we only had one room with all the instruments from deejaying to electric guitars and drums. Once we saw that there is a huge demand for music education in Jeddah, we moved to a bigger place to have separate rooms for each instrument class,” he said.

He added: “We can find musicians everywhere now from restaurants to shopping malls. There is also huge competition in this field,” he said.

Abdulaziz Obaid, Makan Music Center CEO’s assistant. (Supplied)

Obaid said Jeddawis have a thirst for music events and appreciate everything from Asian to Western content.

“Jeddawis are the ‘people of music’ and are very active in the music scene,” he said. “We also have a large number of musicians visiting from Riyadh and they ask about Makan and want us to open a branch there,” he added.

Hasnain Sheikh, a drumming instructor at the center, grew up in a family of musicians that inspired him to go in to the music field.

“Growing up, my father was a musician. He played the piano and he was also into production. We had room in our home … like wherever we moved from apartment to apartment, we (always) had a studio room, and his friends used to come over to jam and play music. I grew up looking at that and wanting to also take part in the art,” Sheikh told Arab News.

“Music has always been a part of my life, like other people play video games or play sports. I was at home playing music,” he added.

Sheikh takes the responsibility of being a drummer seriously. He believes it is important to spend time and know your instrument “rather than just knowing the basics as every little details goes into account.”

DJ instructor Mohammed Darweesh, also known as Code Dee, aspired to be a music teacher during his youth.

DJ instructor Mohammed Darweesh, also known as Code Dee, teaching his student on the mixer. (Supplied)

“I like teaching people, it’s been one of the things I wanted to do since I was a kid. I wanted to be a teacher. I like sharing information, especially if it’s about my passion,” said Darweesh, who joined the center five months ago. 

He became a DJ in 2015 with a particular interest in the underground scene, between minimal breaks, house and deep techno.

Speaking about his experiences from the underground music scene, Darweesh said people in Jeddah are always hungry for music events. 

“There are so many people in all the events. There are very talented people who were hidden and now are coming up because of the revolution of Saudi music,” he said.

“It’s a wonderful thing and Jeddah is going to be one of the best cities for music in Saudi Arabia.”
 


International literary experts discuss heritage preservation at Saudi book fair

International literary experts discuss heritage preservation at Saudi book fair
Updated 04 October 2022

International literary experts discuss heritage preservation at Saudi book fair

International literary experts discuss heritage preservation at Saudi book fair
  • The event played a prominent role in the ‘renaissance of literature, culture, science, and the arts’ in the Kingdom

RIYADH: Literary experts from around the world have been gathering in Saudi Arabia to help further cement the Kingdom’s position on the global heritage map.

Writers, publishers, and translators are among the delegates taking part in events and discussion sessions being held under the umbrella of the Riyadh International Book Fair, running at Riyadh Front until Oct. 8.

The fair’s program includes dialogue platforms, interactive lectures, and workshops covering art, reading, writing, publishing, bookmaking, and translation.

Chief executive officer of the Literature, Publishing, and Translation Commission, Dr. Mohammed Alwan, said the event had made significant contributions to the Saudi literary scene and played a prominent role in the renaissance of literature, culture, science, and the arts in the Kingdom.

He described the fair as providing a cultural bridge to understanding others and being a major contributor to the national cultural movement.

Day five of the gathering witnessed six panel discussions, one titled “Saudi Arabia on the world heritage map.”

Saudi archaeological discoveries have recently drawn international attention and experts took to the stage to talk about the Kingdom’s future capabilities, its components, and its growing status as a global leader in heritage preservation.

Day five of the gathering witnessed six panel discussions, one titled ‘Saudi Arabia on the world heritage map.’ Speakers discussed how heritage could enhance Saudi Arabia’s cultural, economic standing. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)

Ibrahim Aglan, a college research professor at the faculty of letters and human sciences in the Moroccan capital Rabat, said culture was multi-faceted. “It’s a way of life, a way to enhance the Kingdom’s international standing, and economic prosperity.”

Acting general manager of the Saudi Heritage Preservation Society, Rehaf Gassas, said: “The society is considered an arm of government bodies and agencies in preserving heritage and implementing specialized projects in this field.

“Whatever we do on our part as researchers, the community remains the sole owner of the heritage, knowing how it flowed and changed from generation to another, and how it is practiced.”

General manager of the Saudi Ministry of Culture’s intangible heritage, Ebtisam Al-Wehaibi, told delegates that the ultimate goal was communication between peoples.

She said: “It is amazing that we can get to know other people’s cultures and heritage and create a dialogue; that instead of looking for differences, you look for similarities.”

Al-Wehaibi noted that Saudi Arabia had been among 20 countries that got together after World War II to establish the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.

“In 2020, the Kingdom joined the executive board of UNESCO and the World Heritage Committee,” she added.

A workshop was held on the role of the law in protecting cultural heritage by Dr. Muhammad Al-Sudais, a law professor at Al-Yamamah University, who spoke about the laws and penalties imposed on anyone who tries to harm heritage. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)

Meanwhile, a workshop run by Al-Yamamah University law professor, Dr. Muhammad Al-Sudais, looked at the role of the law in protecting cultural heritage.

He said: “With regard to the legal aspect, the Kingdom presented a wonderful model in the matter of preserving heritage.” And he pointed out that over recent years the Ministry of Culture had introduced a range of rules and regulations related to antiquities, museums, and urban heritage.

Al-Sudais noted that the Saudi Heritage Commission had added the 70-year-old oil Trans-Arabian Pipeline (Tapline), built during the reign of King Abdulaziz, to the national register of industrial heritage, adding that the Kingdom’s urban heritage register provided an important source of information for research centers.

“The Kingdom is very interested in excavating antiquities and preventing licensing except for the authorities designated by the system.

“It also specified that it is not permissible for any person, whether a citizen or not, to sell antiquities and engage in any activity related to the import and export of antiquities without obtaining a license from the commission,” Al-Sudais said.
 


Saudi Arabia reports 155 new COVID-19 cases, 3 deaths

Saudi Arabia reports 155 new COVID-19 cases, 3 deaths
Updated 04 October 2022

Saudi Arabia reports 155 new COVID-19 cases, 3 deaths

Saudi Arabia reports 155 new COVID-19 cases, 3 deaths

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia reported 155 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, according to the Ministry of Health. As a result, the total number of cases in the Kingdom over the course of the pandemic grew to 816,975.

The authorities also confirmed three new COVID-19-related deaths, raising the total number of fatalities to 9,360.

Of the new infections, 59 were recorded in Riyadh, 28 in Jeddah and 12 in Madinah. Several other cities recorded fewer than 10 new cases each.

The ministry also announced that 124 patients had recovered from COVID-19, bringing the total number of recoveries in the Kingdom over the course of the pandemic to 804,033.

It said that 3,582 COVID-19 cases were still active, adding that 7,368 PCR tests were conducted in the past 24 hours, bringing the total number to more than 44 million.

The ministry said that of the current cases, 39 were in critical condition.

More than 68 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered since the Kingdom’s immunization campaign began, with over 25 million people fully vaccinated.
 


Saudi Arabia to celebrate World Teachers' Day

Saudi Arabia to celebrate World Teachers' Day
Updated 04 October 2022

Saudi Arabia to celebrate World Teachers' Day

Saudi Arabia to celebrate World Teachers' Day

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Education Ministry will celebrate World Teachers’ Day, which falls on Oct. 5 each year, under the theme “The transformation of education begins with the teachers,” with three days of events, programs and activities in schools and education departments.

A special celebration at the ministry's headquarters in Riyadh will feature a performance of “The Vision’s Teacher” operetta, and an activity titled “For Teachers and Students.”

Activities in schools will allow students and teachers to express gratitude for the role of the teacher in the growth and development of learners.

Education departments, offices and schools in all regions and governorates will honor teachers by devoting the school radio program to presentations highlighting the role of teachers.

The ministry has praised the role of teachers in building generations by establishing and strengthening positive initiatives.
 


Fun seekers invited to roll up for retro skating disco in ancient AlUla

Fun seekers invited to roll up for retro skating disco in ancient AlUla
Updated 04 October 2022

Fun seekers invited to roll up for retro skating disco in ancient AlUla

Fun seekers invited to roll up for retro skating disco in ancient AlUla

ALULA: Fun seekers are being invited to get their skates on and head to the ancient city of AlUla for a new outdoor roller disco with music served up by international DJs.

AlUla on Wheels, being held in Al-Jadidah, will run from Thursday until Oct. 22, with organizers AlUla Moments promising an “old-school blast from the past” for roller-skate beginners and experts alike.

Skaters can “glide under the stars,” experience a different way of enjoying music, and join an international revival of the roller discos of the 1980s, all with skates and headphones provided.

The entertainment is curated by Good Intentions, an initiative started by Saudi Noor Taher and American record producer Swizz Beatz, the husband of US singer Alicia Keys.

Seating will be provided for those who want to soak up the entertainment without the potential bruises, and food trucks will also be open.

The venue is free to enter but those wishing to skate on the rink must buy a ticket.

Thursday and Friday nights have been reserved for the biggest parties. Tickets costing SR250 ($66.50) will allow entry for more than three hours of music from an international DJ playing what organizers promise will be “the world’s freshest music.” 

For all other nights, tickets for 45 minutes of skating, starting at SR40, are available on the AlUla website. The rink is open from 7 p.m. until midnight. 

AlUla on Wheels is being held as part of AlUla Wellness Festival, which aims to promote mental and physical health.

Follow @alulamoments and @experiencealula on Twitter for more information, or book via the website.