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.

 

Saudi finalises drone regulation after security alarm

Israel rubbishes claims Mossad behind Malaysia assassination

Iran vows to resume enrichment if US quits nuclear deal

Mass grave discovered under Raqa football pitch

Can Arab satellite TV catch up with social media?

UAE accuses Qatari jets of ‘chasing’ passenger flight

Syrian refugees are not going home anytime soon

Resumption of direct flights from Moscow brings hope to Egypt’s tourism sector

Will Lebanon have more women MPs after May 6 poll?

Saudi shoots down ‘toy drone’

UN Security Council meets over Syria in Sweden

Turkish government rejects criticism of election campaign

Condemnation after Gaza teenager killed by Israeli soldiers

Syrian rebels agree to leave new area outside Damascus

Rouhani slams officials' 'vow of silence' in face of protests

Family accuses Israel of killing Palestinian in Malaysia

Natalie Portman says backed out of Israel prize over Netanyahu

Morocco, EU start talks on new fisheries deal

FIFA to return to Morocco to check hotels, stadiums

Turkey in shock after violent Istanbul derby

Iraq pays first war reparations to Kuwait since 2014

Fiery kites adopted as new tactic by Gaza protesters

Romanian president slams plan to move Israel embassy

Western strikes on Syria bring no change whatsoever

Trump criticises OPEC for high oil prices

Syria says rebels south of capital surrender

Market has capacity to absorb higher oil prices: Saudi minister

Putin 'ready' for Trump summit

Saudi Arabia to host first public film screening

HRW criticises Lebanon for evicting Syria refugees

Saudi says intercepted ballistic missile from Yemen

Russia mulls supplying S-300 missile systems to Syria

US has 'concerns' about Turkey holding fair vote under state of emergency

Bashir fires Sudan foreign minister

Washington: Assad still has 'limited' chemical capability

European MPs urge US not to scrap Iran deal

Oil price soars to highest level in years

Two more pro-Kurdish MPs stripped of Turkey seats

Oil theft 'costing Libya over $750 million annually'

Turkey's snap polls: bold gambit or checkmate for Erdogan?

Iran arrests senior official over public concert

Bahrain sentences 24 to jail, strips citizenship

UN experts urge Iran to cancel Kurd's death sentence

Moderate quake strikes near Iran nuclear power plant

Syria regime forces caught in surprise IS attack