First Published: 2018-04-10

Saudis revive forgotten past with opening of desert ruins
Chiseled rock art forms of Al-Ula could help unravel mysteries of millennia-old civilisations on Arabian Peninsula.
Middle East Online

Saudi Arabia's first UNESCO World Heritage Site, Madain Saleh, was built more than 2,000 years ago by the Nabataeans.

AL-ULA - Trudging up a caramel-hued cliff pocked with ancient tombs, guide Bandar al-Anazi gazed at the stunning view: a windswept desert landscape of pre-Islamic ruins at the centre of Saudi-Franco preservation efforts.

Al-Ula, an area rich in archaeological remnants, is seen as a jewel in the crown of future Saudi attractions as the austere kingdom prepares to issue tourist visas for the first time -- opening up one of the last frontiers of global tourism.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is set to sign a landmark agreement with Paris on Tuesday for the touristic and cultural development of the northwestern site, once a crossroads of ancient civilisations.

"All of Al-Ula is an open air museum," Anazi said during a media tour just days before Prince Mohammed's trip, revealing a patchwork of rock-cut tombs containing niches for burials.

"There is so much history here still waiting to be discovered."

The tombs, some containing pre-Islamic inscriptions and drawings such as hunting scenes, are a legacy of the Nabataean artistic tradition.

The chiseled rock art forms could help unravel the mysteries of millennia-old civilisations on the Arabian Peninsula.

The area, roughly the size of Belgium, served as an important way station and bedouin watering hole on the trade route linking the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa and India.

It is home to the kingdom's first UNESCO World Heritage Site, Madain Saleh, built more than 2,000 years ago by the Nabataeans.

"Every day something new is being discovered," Jamie Quartermaine, an expert from the Britain-based Oxford Archaeology group, said.

"The potential is endless. Look behind you," he said, pointing at ancient animal art depictions engraved on a rocky spur inside an Al-Ula hotel resort.

- 'Gift to the world' -

A helicopter tour of the area revealed a desert landscape that appeared like the top of a foamed latte, dotted with heritage sites and towering maze-like rock formations.

The Saudi-Franco partnership is in part aimed at preserving the site from further erosion and vandalism it has faced.

At one archeological site called Al-Khoraiba, Anazi pointed at a bereft cistern.

Photos taken by French explorers Jaussen and Savignac, who visited the area in the early 20th century, showed the same cistern once featured the statue of a deity.

The walled city of Al-Ula, with tightly packed mud-brick and stone houses that were inhabited until modern times, sits decaying under the scorching sun.

But before a preservation plan is launched in collaboration with France, all archaeological treasures need to be accounted for, said Amr al-Madani, head of the Royal Al-Ula Commission.

A massive two-year surveying programme began in March, which includes scanning via helicopters, satellites, drones and a remote sensing technology called Lidar, he said.

"This is a significant undertaking incorporating all levels of survey from aerial survey down to ground checking," said Quartermaine.

A Franco-Saudi deal to develop Al-Ula calls for the creation of a dedicated agency modelled on the lines of the French museums agency, which spearheaded the establishment of the Louvre museum in Abu Dhabi.

At least one large museum is planned to be built in Al-Ula.

Gerard Mestrallet, the former CEO of French electric utility company Engie, has been appointed special envoy of French President Emmanuel Macron for Al-Ula.

Al-Ula is expected to fully open up to global tourists within three to five years, launching the site as what Saudi officials describe as "a gift to the world".

- 'Pride in our past' -

Al-Ula is among a hidden trove of Saudi archaeological treasures.

Archaeologists last year used Google Maps to find hundreds of stone "gates" built from rock in a remote Saudi desert, which may date back as far as 7,000 years.

They also discovered evidence of 46 lakes believed to have existed in Saudi Arabia's northern Nefud desert, which experts say has lent credence to the theory that the region swung between periods of desertification and a wetter climate.

Tourism is one of the centrepieces of the blueprint to prepare the biggest Arab economy for the post-oil era.

Al-Ula's hotel infrastructure is currently inadequate, with only two facilities with a capacity of 120 rooms.

But the project is about reviving the glory of Saudi Arabia's ancient past.

There is currently scant information in Saudi history textbooks about Al-Ula.

"This is about national pride in our own past," Anazi said.

 

France, US clash with Iran over changing nuclear accord

Saudi Arabia claims killing of Yemen rebel leader

EU to Russia, Iran: Bring Syria to peace talks

Iraq's Shiites split ahead of crucial vote

Iraq’s ex-football stars from sports to politics

Turkey opposition journalists demand acquittal in terror trial

UN says Syria blocking humanitarian aid to Douma

OPCW experts visit second site of alleged Douma gas attack

Israeli policeman gets 9 months jail for killing Palestinian

US court rules for Arab Bank in precedent-setting case

Lebanese candidates pay hefty price for media coverage

Madani’s resignation sheds light on Iranian power play

Kuwait expels Filipino ambassador over treatment of workers

Syria aid donations for 2018 fall short of amount hoped

Growing anti-war sentiment in the US Congress could spell trouble for Trump

Liverpool’s Salah wins Israeli defence minister’s plaudits

Body of assassinated Palestinian driven through Malaysian capital

'Gap in perceptions' threatens wider Middle East war

UNESCO picks Morocco for project on prevention of violent extremism

Syrian regime retakes region near Damascus from rebels

Mogherini: Iran deal 'needs to be preserved'

Syria rebels prepare as Assad sets sights on next target

Iran's Rouhani questions 'right' to seek new nuclear deal

Trump, Macron call for 'new' nuclear deal with Iran

Syria's Idlib 'big new challenge' for international community

UNRWA chief says Palestinian aid $200 million short since Trump cuts

Bad memories resurface at Raqa’s mass grave

Turkey newspaper chief slams journalist terror trial

Setback for Yemen rebels after strike takes out leader

Saudi issues Islamic sukuk sale to finance deficit

Yarmuk, an epicentre of Syria's bloody conflict

Egypt’s Eurobond succeeds but risks remain

Egypt former anti-corruption chief gets five years jail

Philippines apologises to Kuwait over 'maid rescues'

Iran urges EU not to pay Trump ‘ransom’ over nuclear deal

UAE to finance project to rebuild Mosul's Grand al-Nuri Mosque

EU, UN begin major conference for Syria aid

New tensions rise between old rivals Turkey and Greece

Rouhani warns Trump against betraying nuclear deal

10 killed in Toronto “deliberate” van attack

Nine people killed in Toronto van attack

Yemen Huthi political leader killed in coalition raid

Syria security chief refuses Lebanon court appearance

Air raid kills dozens at Yemen wedding

Algeria draws Europe’s ire by cutting imports, boosting trade with China