Re­viv­ing ru­ins in the desert

A for­got­ten past is be­ing brought back to life.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Living -

TRUDGING up a caramel-hued cliff pocked with an­cient tombs, guide Ban­dar al-Anazi gazes at the stun­ning view of Al-Ula, Saudi Ara­bia: 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 Sal­man was sched­uled to sign a land­mark agree­ment with Paris for the touris­tic and cul­tural de­vel­op­ment of the north-west­ern site, once a cross­roads of an­cient civil­i­sa­tions.

“All of Al-Ula is an open air mu­seum,” Anazi says dur­ing a me­dia tour last week, 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 chis­elled 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 (United Na­tions Ed­u­ca­tional, Sci­en­tific and Cul­tural Or­gan­i­sa­tion) 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, tells us.

“The po­ten­tial is end­less. Look be­hind you,” he says, 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 re­veals a desert land­scape that ap­pears 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 points at a bereft cis­tern. Pho­tos taken by French ex­plor­ers An­tonin Jaussen and Raphael 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, says 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 (light de­tec­tion and rang­ing), he says.

“This is a sig­nif­i­cant un­der­tak­ing in­cor­po­rat­ing all lev­els of sur­vey from ae­rial sur­vey down to ground check­ing,” adds 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 late last year.

There are plans to build at least one large mu­seum in Al-Ula.

Ger­ard Mes­tral­let, the for­mer CEO of French elec­tric util­ity com­pany Engie, has been ap­pointed the 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 that 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 pos­toil 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 says.

— Pho­tos: AFP

An­cient tombs at the Khu­raiba ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site near Saudi Ara­bia’s north-west­ern town of Al-Ula.

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

A view of the Qasr al-Farid tomb (The Lonely Cas­tle) carved into rose­c­oloured sand­stone.

A tomb at Madain Saleh, which was oc­cu­pied more than 2,000 years ago.

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