UNESCO heritage in Saudi Arabia
A tube between past and present
With parts of it still in use and cultural values that date since times immemorial, heritage in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is like a tube between past and present. While some of it is a lesson in history, some is, surprisingly, functional heritage, seeking global tourists.
Heritage in KSA is commonly defined by the city of Makkah, the holiest of destinations for Muslims from around the world, the birthplace of Prophet Mohammed and the faith itself; and Medina, the city from where the Prophet launched his campaign to conquer the entire Arabian peninsula and where he was buried.
While most of the tourism traffic to Saudi Arabia is limited to Mecca & Medina, notably during the Haj, there is much more to the kingdom and its history. Also, even though the two holy cities may be closed to non-Muslims, there are several other sites in the country that are open to people of all faiths.
With the Red Sea on its western coast, Saudi Arabia has been on a major trading route since ancient times and hence its heritage reflects much more than Islam. Several of these sites, including an oasis and a key centre on the trade route, have become more prominent globally since the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) granted them the status of world heritage.
Of late, Saudi Arabia has started promoting these heritage sites and has included their promotion and preservation in Saudi Vision 2030, the ambitious plan of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to diversify the nation’s economy. Here is a slice of that Arabic heritage.
Rock art in Hail
Situated in a desert landscape, about 600 kilometres (km) north-east of Saudi capital Riyadh, Jabel Umm Sinman at Jubbah and the Jabal al-Manjor and Raat at Shuwaymis, tell stories of the country’s past in a visual way. Capturing one’s imagination are numerous carvings and inscriptions on rocks that used to once line a common pathway taken by people who resided here hundreds of years ago.
At Jabal Umm Sinman at Jubbah, approximately 90 km northwest of the city of Hail, the ancestors of present day Arabs left marks of their presence in numerous petroglyph panels and inscriptions within a landscape that once overlooked a freshwater lake.
At Jabal Al-Manjor and Jabal Raat at Shuwaymis, approximately 250 km south of Hail, are a large number of petroglyphs depicting numerous representations of human and animal figures from over 10,000 years ago. Together, these heritage sites make for the biggest and richest rock art complexes in the KSA and the region beyond.
Processes of desertification from the mid-Holocene altered the local environmental context and patterns of human settlement in these areas, the changes of which are expressed in the numerous petroglyph; and these include a large number of inscriptions, archaeological features and the environmental setting.
Historic Jeddah, the gate to Makkah
Situated on the eastern shore of the Red Sea, the historic city of Jeddah holds heritage that is vital to the civilisation of today on either sides of it.
In 7th century AD, Jeddah was established as a major port for channelling goods to Makkah from across the Indian Ocean; and was also the gateway for Muslim pilgrims, who were arriving by sea to the holy city. Jeddah was, in fact, declared as the official port to Makkah for Muslim pilgrims reaching Arabia by boat.
It was because of these twin roles that the city developed into a multicultural centre and eventually a historic place. Jeddah’s multiculturalism can also be seen in its old architecture that boasts of influences and crafts from along the trade routes.
Submerged in coffee hues with the darker russet or green defining some corners and white mellowing down all the heat of the weather, most heritage buildings in the historic Jeddah are in shades from a pastel palette.
Their construction style is common to cities on both sides of the Red Sea, and is unique as only a few relics of similar nature are today preserved outside the kingdom. Characterised by imposing tower houses with large wooden windows, the buildings are a remnant of 19th century’s mercantile elites of the city, who also powered the construction of coral stone houses, mosques, ribat (fortification), souqs (markets) and small public squares that together make a vibrant space.
This multicultural facet of historic Jeddah is the result of the rather significant exchange of human values and technical know-how across the Red Sea region and along the Indian Ocean routes between the 16th and the early 20th centuries. Historic Jeddah represents this cultural world that thrived, thanks to international sea trade; possessed a shared geographical, cultural and religious background; and built settlements with specific and innovative technical and aesthetic solutions to cope with the extreme climatic conditions of the region (humidity and heat).
Jeddah was, for centuries, the most important, largest, and richest among these settlements and today, it is the last surviving urban site along the Red Sea coast that still preserves the ensemble of the attributes of this culture: commercial-based economy, multicultural environment, isolated outward-oriented houses, coral masonry construction, precious woodwork decorating the facades, and specific technical devices to aid internal ventilation.
At-Turaif District in ad-Dir’iyah
On the north-western edge of Riyadh lies At-Turaif District in ad-Dir’iyah, the first capital of the modern Saudi royals about 250 years ago. In the heart of the Arabian peninsula, it was founded in the 15th century and is home to aesthetically ruined mud-structures of Najdi architecture, a style specific to the centre of the Arabian peninsula that was developed to cope with the extreme climate of deserts.
In the 18th and the early 19th century, the districts political and religious role increased in the kingdom, and the citadel of at-Turaif became the centre of the temporal power of the House of Saud and the spread of the Islamic reform movement in Arabia, Salafiyya.
The property includes the remains of many palaces and an urban ensemble built on the edge of the ad-Dir’iyah oasis.
Palatial in appearance and stature, these tombs and monuments are just sandstone cut and carved. At the archaeological site of Al-Hijr a remarkable and well conserved Saudi history comes forth.
The ensemble of buildings and other structures boasts of a mix of decorative and architectural influences such as Assyrian, Egyptian, Phoenician, Hellenistic, and has an epigraphic presence of several ancient languages such as Lihyanite, Thamudic, Nabataean, Greek, and Latin.
The site also stars functional wells that throw light on the development of Nabataean agricultural techniques.
The Nabataean was a civilisation of traders, originally from Jordan that travelled to Arabia. The ancient city of Hegra or Al-Hijr bears witness to their international caravan of trade.
It is located at a meeting point between various civilisations of late antiquity, on a trade route between the Arabian peninsula, the Mediterranean world and Asia, and bears witness to important cultural exchanges in architecture, decoration, language use and the caravan trade. Interestingly, even though the Nabataean city was abandoned during the pre-Islamic period, the route continued to play its international role for caravans and then for the pilgrimage to Mecca, up to its modernisation by the construction of the railway at the start of the 20th century.
With tall sand formations, ancient structures such as courtyards and well, old mosques, a brown landscape dotted with green cacti, gardens, Al-Ahsa Oasis, in the eastern Arabian peninsula, is a serial property. It also boasts of canals, springs, wells and a drainage lake, as well as historical buildings, archaeological sites that are surviving in harmony with an urban fabric.
A representation of continued human settlement in the Gulf region from the Neolithic Age to the present times, Al-Ahsa Oasis boats of management systems of various periods in time. It is a tube between past and present.
With its 2.5 million date palms, it is also the largest oasis in the world and is also a unique geo-cultural landscape and an exceptional example of human interaction with the environment.