The government of Saudi Arabia is spending more than $1.7bn on building 230 new museums as part of a programme to promote the country’s culture.
At a conference held in Oxford early in April, entitled “Green Arabia”, the influential Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, nephew of King Abdullah and president of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA), said, “We have entered a new age; we have transitioned. Antiquities are the seat of a continuum to bring the life and history of Saudi Arabia closer to the hearts and minds of the people of the Kingdom—particularly the young.”
Building has already begun on 14 of the new museums, which will not only contain antiquities but the latest Saudi contemporary art. “Our artists are among some of the most vibrant in the world,” said Prince Sultan. He added that the museums will be run in part by women. “Women in Saudi Arabia have come a long way—this is not something new,” he said. “They have carried a lot of the history of Saudi Arabia on their shoulders. If you look throughout history, Bedouin women were the backbone of life.”
International archaeological contracts
In addition to the museums under construction, contracts have been signed between the Saudi government and around 30 archaeology teams from around the world—including one from Oxford—to carry out research into the desert land and to uncover exhibits.
Michael Petraglia, Professor of Human Evolution and Prehistory at Oxford’s School of Archaeology, who is leading a unit investigating climate change and the peopling of Arabia, said that there are “tens of thousands” of unexcavated sites across the country. “There is an abundance of archaeology in an area traditionally thought of as quite empty,” he said.
Until recently, little pre-Islamic research has been done in the country because of opposition from religious scholars, who claim it is ungodly. Now, however, clerics sit on the committee of the SCTA advising on the new cultural programme.
“Islam is a great religion and through its openness and sustainability it has enlightened the rest of the world,” said Prince Sultan. “But if we only research the history of Saudi Arabia post 610AD [the year in which Mohammed had his vision and began to preach] and say nothing about our history before then, we are belittling Islam.
“We believe our people were Bedouins and the caravans that went to Mecca 400 years before Islam led into the rituals of going on Hajj that still prevail today.”
Arabia once green
The conference in Oxford brought together research proving that 1.7m years ago, Saudi Arabia was no desert but a savannah, full of trees and lakes and occupied by a host of mammals including elephants and cheetahs, as well as humans.
Antiquities dating back 10,000 years or more demonstrate that Saudi Arabians stem from a line of wealthy tribes who transported frankincense and other precious materials to the north, west and east of the peninsula. “We are not, as many might think, nouveaux riches,” joked Prince Sultan. “Throughout history, Saudi Arabia has been at the crossroads of civilisations. People will be completely surprised and overwhelmed by the depth of civilisation of this country.”
The Nabataeans were here
Provinces like Al Jawf in the north of the country, which is rich in archaeological finds, have been earmarked as potential attractions, as have settlements such as Mada’in Saleh, a town founded by the Nabataeans in the first century AD and dubbed the “Saudi Arabian Petra”, because of its ancient necropolises carved into rocky outcrops.
“Mada’in Saleh was not only on the caravan route linking Arabia Felix (now Yemen) and the port of Gaza, where the frankincense, myrrh, spices and herbs went to Greece and Rome. It was also a real city, the southernmost of the Nabataeans, with a sophisticated irrigation system and intense agricultural activity,” said Dr Laila Nehmé, the research director at the archaeology department of the French National Centre for Scientific Research, who is leading a research team financed by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the SCTA.
Other striking finds include the numerous rock drawings dating to 7,500BC at Jubbah in the north of the country, and four stone hieroglyphic cartouches of Ramesses III at Tayma, which prove how Saudi once linked Egypt and the East.
What is believed to be the third biggest mosque in Saudi Arabia, possibly dating as far back as the sixth century AD, has been found at Al Kharj, as well as some 7,000-year-old Gulf pearls.
Dr Abdullah Alsharekh, the director of the Prehistory Programme at King Saud University, said that although these discoveries were “fantastic” they were “not unexpected”. Saudi scholars, he pointed out, have been researching the archaeology of the peninsula for years and he drew attention to the 12 national teams that are collaborating with the international ones. He acknowledged, however, that they did not always have the latest equipment at their disposal and would benefit from greater government investment as well as “knowledge transfer” with foreign universities, including exchange programmes.
Since the National Museum of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh opened 14 years ago, its visitor numbers have jumped from 90,000 to 140,000 a year. Whether there will be enough visitors to fill a further 230 museums and whether tourists from abroad can be persuaded to visit a country whose reputation for intolerance and secrecy dominates outside perception remains to be seen.
“We have a long way to go,” concluded Prince Sultan. “But the history of Arabia does not belong just to us but to the whole world. Saudi Arabia is an undiscovered pleasure house and we are only beginning to discover it.”
Major archaeological sites to visit
• Mada’in Saleh, with its first-century AD Nabataean tombs carved into rock, is 400km north-west of Medina, 500km south-east of Petra, Jordan. It is Saudi Arabia's first Unesco World Heritage Site, granted in 2008.
• Rock drawings, dating to 7,500 BC, of humans, camels, horses and cattle, at Jubbah, 600km north of Riyadh. An application for World Heritage Site status was made in 2012.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘The Kingdom to spend $1.7bn on building 230 museums'