TenAn international group of archeologists, diplomats, architects and preservationists gathered in New York last year for a unique forum on cultural preservation in Saudi Arabia. Experts with widely diverse backgrounds came from various corners of the United States to meet with their Saudi counterparts during the two-day Saudi-U.S. Cultural Heritage Conference. Co-sponsored by the U.S. Committee for Saudi Arabian Cultural Heritage and New York University's Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies, the conference was the first of its kind to be held in the United States.
"This conference is a big event for us," said Saad Nazer, Saudi Arabia's New York consul-general. "Ten years ago, preservation efforts in Saudi Arabia had not yet developed fully. Today you will learn that we have made great progress. We in Saudi Arabia," he added, "also have learned that our experience in preserving cultural heritage closely parallels yours. You in the United States have preserved places uniquely associated with the founding of your nation. We too have now preserved the sites at Riyadh and Dir'iyah where Saudis can learn how King Abd al-'Aziz formed our modern kingdom."
John R. Hayes, vice president of Mobil Middle East Development Corporation, commented that during Saudi Arabia's early years of rapid modernization, "the people who were making that happen were much too busy to pay attention to the effects on the fabric of traditional culture." Then, in the 1970's, he noted, "things started to change."
That was when Saudi Arabia's preservationists stepped in. As Dr. Abdullah Masry, assistant deputy to the minister of education for antiquities and museum affairs, explained, "development was a catalyst for the consciousness of the nation." Decades of change and successful modernization had catapulted the kingdom into the forefront of the 20th century technologically, but to some extent technology had left tradition in its dust. A need for modern cities and highways, for example, had led to the inadvertent destruction of some sites of historic value. Thus, in 1970, the government issued a comprehensive set of antiquities regulations which recognized officially the need to temper development with conservation.
Preservation efforts took hold and public awareness grew within Saudi Arabia Historic buildings in Jiddah were saved from demolition, traditional dance troupes sprouted up in cities and villages around the country and the first National Festival for Heritage and Culture was held at Janadriyah in 1985 (See Aramco World, September-October 1987, November-December 1989, September-October 1985) Major historic and prehistoric sites were identified and excavated. Saudi archeologists, often aided by foreign teams, began to unearth thousands of years of history long hidden beneath the sands. Today Masry explained, "historic preservation is a very important aspect of Saudi culture."
Preservation has often been an after thought of development in the United States as well, the conference revealed. J. Jackson Walter, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, explained that America recognized the value of preservation in the aftermath of World War II. "After rebuilding the face of America, the realization dawned on this country that, while the future clearly would replace the past, it was also destroying much of the physical evidence of our past." For every country, Walter stressed, "cultural preservation must be a national priority. The past teaches us about who we are and where we come from and what our values are. Through historic preservation we can manage change in our culture."
Preservation as a national priority was the first of many topics discussed at the conference. During five sessions, American and Saudi preservationists archeologists were also able to compare notes, often for the first time, on the role of museums in preservation, maintaining traditions, preserving natural habitats and the preservation of historic sites.
Former ambassador Lucius Battle was vice president of Colonial Williamsburg and Williamsburg Restoration Inc. in the late 1950's. As he noted during the conference session on preservation and restoration of historic sites, the success of Colonial Williamsburg, restored according to the original 1699 plans, not only make the past a living part of contemporary American life, but - by demonstrating the economic value of such projects - encouraged the restoration of other historic around the country. It also influenced preservationists thousands of miles away in Saudi Arabia.
Colonial Williamsburg "was an inspiration to Saudi Arabia's heritage preservation," according to Masry, and served, in a sense, as a model for the restoration of Dir'iyah, the ancestral home of the Al Sa'ud and first capital of the Saudi state. Like their American colleagues, Saudi preservationists discovered that "the more you concentrate on restoring and preserving relatively recent urban settings, the more you will be able to draw on the sympathy of the wider public." Due to the important role Dir'iyah played in Saudi Arabia's history in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it became the country's first major restoration project. Other sites have been excavated as well, such as al-'Ula, a pre-Nabataean town near Madain Salih; Tayma, which connected Saudi Arabia and Egypt in biblical times; Duma, site of a 2400-year-old citadel captured by the armies of the Prophet Muhammad; and some on the Darb Zubaydah, the pilgrims' road from Baghdad to Makkah.
Carl Meinhardt, an American architect, was involved in the Dir'iyah project and in the restoration of several 16th-century forts in the Hofuf area. When he first went to Saudi Arabia, he noted that architectural students were not always aware of the role they could play in preservation projects. Today, he said, "The interest in older buildings and the building heritage ... has become much more a part of the understanding of the architects working today. The indigenous buildings provide a very rich source of materials and ideas."
One Saudi architect who has made it a practice to understand and incorporate traditional Islamic and Arab architectural concepts into his work is Ziyad Ahmed Zaidan. In 1974, Zaidan established the IDEA Network for Development in Jiddah, an architectural firm that researches and catalogues the diversity of traditional Saudi architecture. At the New York conference, Zaidan noted that Saudi Arabia "has acquired a new outlook on preservation" during the last decade. As a result, he believes the country has been able to develop a modern infrastructure which maintains a careful balance between tradition and technology. "We realize that this continuity is essential for our human identity," he added.
During the course of the two-day conference, the lively exchange of information resulted in an unraveling of the history of Saudi Arabia's intense preservation efforts since the 1970's (See Aramco World, March-April 1980). Many of the recent findings indicate that the "identity" of the Arabian Peninsula was more closely linked with ancient cultures than originally believed.
Historians had viewed the Arabian Gulf region primarily as a seafaring artery between Mesopotamia and lands to the south and east. However, discoveries made in the last decade by scientific and archeological teams working with Saudi Arabia's Department of Antiquities have revealed prehistoric sites dating back over 60,000 years. Other digs unearthed artifacts similar to those used by early man in East Africa. A four-year, comprehensive archeological survey of the country, begun 1976 and conducted under Masry's direction, had documented more than 1500 prehistoric and historic sites - 267 of them paleolithic, 107 of those dating back between 50,000 and 60,000 years, and one more than a million years old. As a result, the preliminary survey report in Atlal, the journal of Saudi Arabian archeology, pointed out that "to some degree ... the ancient role of the Peninsula must be viewed not as if it were surrounded by a curtain of ignorance ... but as a commercial nexus whose caravan routes sustained an important and continuing flow of long-distance communication."
Excavations and analyses at the oldest site, unearthed in 1977 near the village of Shuwayhitiyah in the Northern Province, inked it to discoveries made in Tanzania's Olduvai Gorge by Louis and Mary Leakey. Professor Norman Whalen of Southwest Texas State University, who specializes in the paleolithic period and who surveyed the site, says that, to date, it is not only the oldest site in Saudi Arabia but also one of the oldest prehistoric sites in western Asia. Discussing these findings at the conference, Whalen commented that "Saudi Arabia is in a unique geographical position for early-man discoveries. I think it is on the threshold of a golden age of archeological findings dealing with early man. The presence of several sites," he added, "both in Saudi Arabia and North Yemen, indicate that when early man left Africa... the first stop was the Arabian Peninsula."
Over years of exploration, excavation and restoration, the quantities of data and artifacts accumulated grew by leaps and bounds. New museums were needed, not only as storage and research facilities but as interactive, community ..institutions. "Museums are powerful tools," Masry explained. In addition to the national museum in Riyadh, now under construction, five regional museums have opened in Jiddah, Dammam, Hail, Tabuk and Abha. Six local museums are functioning at al-'Ula, Jizan, Tayma, Najran, al-Jawf and Hofuf. "In each [local] museum," Masry says, "we have an archeologist's paradise": 40 percent of the space is devoted to research, and each has facilities for visiting scholars. Archeological finds made in the area will be shared by the local museum and the national one in Riyadh.
Another important aspect of Saudi Arabia's cultural preservation efforts is wildlife conservation. Dr. Abdulaziz Abu-Zinada, secretary-general of the National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development, participated in the New York conference, as did Richard Sellars from the United States' National Park Service. The conference, Abu-Zinada noted, was a "great opportunity to meet with historians and archeologists. These people are conserving areas in which we also have interests. It is good to have a dialogue to see how we can collaborate."
Established in 1986, the commission has already set aside eight reserves for wildlife and plants around the country. Harrat al-Harrah, a 13,775-square-kilometer (5237-square-mile) reserve in the region of Taif and the first to be established, is a haven for endangered Arabian and sand gazelles and for reintroduced oryx, as well as a breeding area for the houbara bustard. Two wildlife centers, near Riyadh and Taif respectively, focus on the captive breeding of endangered species.
From paleolithic archeological sites to modern bedouin weavings, from restoration projects to protecting endangered species, the conference revealed Saudi Arabia's commitment to preserving the physical traces of its heritage and history. Dr. Peter Chelkowski, director of the Kevorkian Center, noted that the conference also "brought together people from two completely different political, economic and cultural landscapes on a subject of increasingly compelling interest."
John Hayes of Mobil was also "very pleased with the way it went. We wanted to put people from Saudi Arabia who have been participating in the tremendous cultural explosion there in touch with people in the U.S. who have had similar experiences, who share the same kind of values and interests. The conference proved there is a great deal they can do for each other."
New York University President John Brademas commented that the conference focused attention on "the extraordinary cultural heritage of [the United States and Saudi Arabia] and the shared interest in preserving and restoring both the natural and manmade wonders of the Arabian Peninsula." For Abdullah Masry, any forum which presents Saudi Arabia's preservation efforts to a Western audience helps combat a misperception that Islamic culture "is averse to the idea of preservation." On the contrary, he pointed out, "human culture is basically the same any where: If you don't respect the past, you don't have roots."
Piney Kesting is a Boston-based free-lance writer who specializes in Middle Eastern affairs.