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Saudi Arabia slowly explores its history

A Muslim theocracy loath to acknowledge its pre-Islamic past, it is

September 20, 2009|Donna Abu-Nasr

RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA — Much of the world knows Petra, the ancient ruin in Jordan that is celebrated in poetry as "the rose-red city, 'half as old as time,' " and which provided the climactic backdrop for "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade."

But far fewer people know of Madain Saleh, a similarly spectacular treasure built by the same civilization, the Nabateans.

That's because it's in Saudi Arabia, where conservatives are deeply hostile to pagan, Jewish and Christian sites that predate the founding of Islam in the 7th century.

But now, in a quiet but notable change of course, the kingdom has opened up an archaeology bonanza by allowing Saudi and foreign archaeologists to explore cities and trade routes long lost in the desert.

The sensitivities run deep. Archaeologists are cautioned not to talk about pre-Islamic finds outside scholarly literature. Few ancient treasures are on display, and no Christian or Jewish relics. A 4th or 5th century church in eastern Saudi Arabia has been fenced off since its accidental discovery 20 years ago and its exact whereabouts are kept secret.

In the eyes of conservatives, the land where Islam was founded and the prophet Muhammad was born must remain purely Muslim. Saudi Arabia bans public displays of crosses and churches, and whenever non-Islamic artifacts are excavated, the news must be kept low-key lest hard-liners destroy the finds.

"They should be left in the ground," said Sheik Mohammed Nujaimi, a well-known cleric, reflecting the views of many religious leaders. "Any ruins belonging to non-Muslims should not be touched. Leave them in place, the way they have been for thousands of years."

In an interview, he said Christians and Jews might claim discoveries of relics, and that Muslims would be angered if symbols of other religions went on show. "How can crosses be displayed when Islam doesn't recognize that Christ was crucified?" said al-Nujaimi. "If we display them, it's as if we recognize the crucifixion." Muslims believe that Jesus was raised to heaven and someone else crucified in his place.

In the past, Saudi authorities restricted foreign archaeologists to giving technical help to Saudi teams. Starting in 2000, they began a gradual process of easing up that culminated last year with American, European and Saudi teams launching significant excavation projects on sites that have long gone lightly explored, if at all.

At the same time, authorities are gradually trying to acquaint the Saudi public with the idea of exploring the past, in part to eventually develop tourism. After years of being closed off, 2,000-year-old Madain Saleh is the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in Saudi Arabia and is open to tourists. State media now occasionally mention discoveries as well as the kingdom's little known antiquities museums.

"It's already a big change," said Christian Robin, a leading French archaeologist and a member of the College de France. He is working in the southwestern region of Najran, mentioned in the Bible by the name Raamah and once a center of Jewish and Christian kingdoms.

No Christian artifacts have been found in Najran, he said.

Spearheading the change is Prince Sultan bin Salman, who was the first Saudi in space when he flew on the U.S. space shuttle Discovery in 1985. He is now secretary general of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities.

Dhaifallah Altalhi, head of the commission's research center, said there are 4,000 recorded sites of different periods and types, and most of the excavations are on pre-Islamic sites.

"We treat all our sites equally," said Altalhi. "This is part of the history and culture of the country and must be protected and developed." He said archaeologists are free to explore and discuss their findings in academic venues.

Still, archaeologists are cautious. Several declined to comment to on their work in the kingdom.

The Arabian Peninsula is rich, nearly untouched territory for archaeologists. In pre-Islamic times it was dotted with small kingdoms and crisscrossed by caravan routes to the Mediterranean. Ancient Arab peoples -- Nabateans, Lihyans, Thamud -- interacted with Assyrians and Babylonians, Romans and Greeks.

Much about them is unknown.

Najran, discovered in the 1950s, has a rich history. It was invaded nearly a century before Muhammad's birth by Dhu Nawas, a ruler of the Himyar kingdom in neighboring Yemen. A convert to Judaism, he massacred Christian tribes, and had triumphant inscriptions carved on boulders.

At nearby Jurash, a previously untouched site in the mountains overlooking the Red Sea, a team led by David Graf of the University of Miami is uncovering a city that dates at least to 500 B.C. The dig could fill out knowledge of the incense routes running through the area and the interactions of the region's kingdoms over a 1,000-year span.

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