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Volume 30, Number 2March/April 1979

In This Issue

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A Walk Through History

‘In their Histories verily there is a lesson for men of understanding...’

Written by Barry Reynolds
Photographed by Burnett H. Moody

Last year in Riyadh, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia quietly opened its new Museum of Archeology and Ethnography - a striking review of the kingdom's history and, perhaps more important, a tangible demonstration of the government's efforts to protect its past as it builds its future.

There is no doubt that the past is in danger. As Saudi Arabia hurtles toward the 21st century, its cranes and bulldozers have begun to erase the andent walls, gradous buildings and picturesque quarters of other times; last year in Jiddah priceless Ottoman era homes buckled and collapsed under the assault of the wrecking cranes. And elsewhere the leveling tread of the bulldozer has begun to trample or bury even older treasures.

But there is no doubt either that Saudi Arabia, increasingly aware of its historical heritage, has stepped up efforts to record and save the artifacts and architecture of its past. Recently, for example, an 11th-hour government decree saved a handsome Riyadh landmark from demolition. Furthermore, the Ministry of Education's Department of Antiquities and Museums has announced its intention to construct a permanent $150 million National Museum in Riyadh plus 14 regional museums - some in such historic places as Mada'in Salih and Najran, others in provindal centers. Behind that announcement - and the opening of the Museum of Archeology and Ethnography - is the department's comprehensive plan to find and document the kingdom's archeological sites and provide data for the numerous expeditions and meticulous study needed to cover a country as large as Western Europe - and in which man has lived for millennia.

Actually, a great deal has already been accomplished. In February 1975, Dr. Abdullah Masry, the first director of the department, fielded a team of archeologists on a preliminary expedition to several sites in the Eastern Province of the kingdom, not far from the Arabian Gulf. At the same time the department launched a program - still underway today - to record and preserve the great pilgrimage road from Baghdad to Mecca; called the Darb Zubaidah, the road, and its chain of inns and wells, was built in the eighth century and was a principle Arabian highway for some 450 years. Another project begun that year was a 9,000-mile, 10-week photographic expedition which resulted in a splendid pictorial record of sites and monuments that was subsequently published in a volume called Saudi Arabian Antiquities.

Other scholars, meanwhile, have begun to partidpate in Dr. Masry's investigations. In 1976 scholars from the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago and the Institute of Archaeology of the University of London joined the investigations - as did others from Harvard University's Peabody Museum the following year. At the same time groups of outstanding archeologists, working with the department on a seasonal basis, began to publish summaries of their surveys in Atlal, a new journal of archeology and history issued by the department.

Many of the artifacts found by these expeditions and surveys - as well as a number of earlier, more casual finds - are now on display in the Museum of Archeology and Ethnography. Although just a beginning, therefore, the museum is already an important repository of Arabiana and, as a showcase for the kingdom's efforts, a scheduled highlight of Queen Elizabeth's royal visit to Saudi Arabia in February. To the Queen, as to all visitors, the museum offered a brief but sumptuous audio-visual journey through millennia of buried history. It lasts only two hours, yet visitors emerge feeling that they have witnessed significant events in the development of a civilization. Working like time-lapse photography the panels and exhibits compress the past and elicit a sense of involvement that many larger but more austere museums cannot match.

At the building's entrance, a calligraphic quotation from the Koran capsules the museum's aim and its effect: "In their Histories verily there is a lesson for men of understanding..." These lessons are at the core of the museum's profoundly simple design.

There is, for example, the lesson of Neolithic man's ingenuity when he first saw flints as extensions of his fingers and fist; the lesson of man's courage as he caught, tamed and harnessed animals to plow the soil that fed him; and the lesson of his growing consciousness of past and future as he inscribed his awe, and later his language, onto stern rock. There are too the lessons of his centuries-long progress toward civilization: his development of irrigation systems, his construction of monuments, his discovery of copper - and ways to mine it - as well as his development of the advanced modes of transport that put the early Arabians into regular contact with other civilizations which had grown and matured along separate paths elsewhere in the Middle East. Simultaneously, the museum's exhibits hint at the Peninsula's archeological potential and offer significant information about Arabia's little-known past. They tell, for example, of Qurayyah in the northwest, near al-'Ula; once, perhaps, the capital of the fabled Land of Midian, Qurayyah was a city dating to the 13th century B.C., and produced beautifully decorated pottery. Other artifacts tell of the city of Taima, also part of Midian, but best known as a haven for the last Neo-Babylonian king, Nabonidus, who moved there in the seventh century B.C. One important find - the so-called Taima Stone, inscribed with a religious text in ancient Aramaic - was discovered there in 1888 and is now in the Louvre. It was found near the great well Ain Haddaj which has been in use since Nabonidus' time and which, until diesel pumps were installed, required up to 60 camels at a time to draw water.

There are exhibits too from Madain Salih, a strategic stop on the vital spice and incense routes from South Arabia to the Mediterranian Sea in the first century B.C. (See Aramco World, September - October, 1965). Its huge rock-cut tombs, a wealth of inscriptions and its distinctive fine pottery make it clear that the area was the home of a sophisticated and wealthy civilization: the Nabatean culture that also built "rose-red" Petra further north in Jordan (See Aramco World, May-June 1966).

Included too are photographs - from the western half of the kingdom, south to north - of ancient graffiti, which in some areas appear on nearly every available rock surface - the work of hunters and travelers during endless centuries. The exhibits in the museum show the diversity of ages and subjects of this early art. They include inscriptions from 'Asir, in the southwest, about half of which are in similar, apparently related scripts dated about 2,700 years ago. But they also include much older pictures: wild boar, bulls and what appear to be lions - which corroborate geological evidence showing that the Arabian climate, after the last great ice age, was quite different from what it is today. Some 20,000 years ago, and again about 7,000 years ago, today's 'Rub al-Khali apparently resembled the well-watered grasslands of East Africa, with lions, baboons and ostriches - plus long-horned cattle and their herdsmen. Later, as the southwest monsoon belt retreated to its present position at the bottom of the Peninsula, today's aridity reclaimed that vast region.

Another region of Saudi Arabia covered in the museum's exhibits is the Hijaz in western Saudi Arabia. Although rightly renowned for its Islamic monuments, it is also rich in pre-Islamic sites. One is the sturdy al-Samallaqi Dam near Tayif, constructed of unmortared stones and one of the many holding and diversionary dams in the region. Another is the Ukaz Suq, 25 miles north of Tayif; for centuries the Ukaz Suq was the commercial, social, political and literary hub of the region as, in other times, the Greek agora was the hub of a town. There are also on display traces of early life in Najd and the Qasim, the cultural core of Arabia, although, says Dr. Masry it is precisely in this region that the records left by the antiquities are the most incomplete. Another exhibit is devoted to al-Dir'iyah, an oasis town about 10 miles northwest of Riyadh. The ancestral home of the House of Sa'ud, and the birthplace of the Islamic reform movement of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the middle of the 18th century, al-Dir'iyah was destroyed in the early 19th century during an Egyptian invasion ordered by the Ottoman Turks, but the extensive ruins have been preserved as a national monument.

But it is in the Eastern Province, Saudi Arabia's oil-producing region on the Gulf side of the Peninsula, that evidence of earlier epochs has so far been found in the greatest abundance - some of it uncovered by a small expedition led by Dr. Masry in 1972 while a graduate student at the University of Chicago doing research for his Ph.D. thesis.

This evidence corroborates earlier theories that there were contacts between eastern Arabia and southern Mesopotamia as long ago as the Ubaid era of the fifth millennium B.C. - and was of great interest to scholars of the ancient Near East, who are still hotly debating the exact extent of these contacts.

The exhibit designated as "The Age of Trade" focuses on the Eastern Province during the early third millennium B.C. - its busiest period until at least Greek times, and perhaps until modern times. By then, Tarut Island, not far from today's Dhahran, had become what must have been the capital of eastern Arabia and a center of widespread trade - judging by the fragments rescued from date gardens, and artifacts turned up by department investigations. Such fragments - carved soft stone bowls, inscribed with men, bulls, fish, snakes, birds and geometrical motifs - are identical to stone bowls with the same motifs which were found in Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley present-day Syria, Iran and Russia, as well as in the nearby Gulf states of Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and the U.A.E. But in none of these places have so many different designs been found as in Tarut.

At some point, Tarut and the adjoining Arab coast became part of the ancient trading state known as Dilmun, famous in Sumerian mythology. Also called Niduk-ki in some cuneiform texts, Dilmun was regarded as a sort of heaven where "the lion kills not, the wolf snatches not the lamb." Identified by a Danish archeological team in the 1950's as centered on Bahrain, Dilmun also existed in reality; it functioned as middleman between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley in the thriving trade in copper, wood, ivory, precious stones and wool. Dilmun pottery also turned up in the survey of Tarut, and further investigations have turned up evidence of Dilmun traders inland. They have also showed the similarity between the older tumuli on Bahrain Island and those near Dhahran on the Saudi Arabian mainland. Many of the tomb mounds near Abqaiq are from the Age of Trade, too and the net impression is that the entire region seems to have been one extended emporium through which passed the trade of two powerful civilizations and their tributaries. The museum's walk through history includes another gallery which traces the development of writing from pictographic to syllabic systems and finally into a nascent alphabetic system - including the development by the South Arabians, about 1000 B.C., of their own alphabetic script. This alphabetic script provided impetus for the subsequent development of other local scripts across the Arabian Peninsula - and was a development fundamental to civilization itself.

In exhibits called "Emergence of the Arabs" and "Impact of Overland Trade Routes" the museum identifies the Arabs of the Peninsula as middlemen, and perhaps even culture brokers, within the area of the more extensively - studied Mesopotamian civilizations. And, in a display titled "Domestication of the Camel," the museum attributes the rise of the lucrative spice trade between South Arabia and Mesopotamia to domestication of the one-humped camel, the dromedary, towards the end of the 11th century B.C.

As the exhibits of camels inscribed in rock makes clear, the implications of the carvings extend much further than the edge of a stone slab. They chronicle the harnessing of a beast that influenced Middle Eastern history as much as the horse affected the American West. Because domestication of the camel made overland caravan routes possible, South Arabia flourished and way stations on the incense routes were established in eastern Arabia. And that prosperity, in turn, attracted the attention of Alexander the Great, after he returned to Babylon from his Persian conquest. Although he died before he could lead a campaign into Arabia, his successors in Mesopotamia made extensive contacts with the region, and signs of these contacts are outlined in museum exhibits.

There were, for example, Hellenistic influences on such commercial centers in Arabia as Failaka Island - a prosperous Greek trading colony off the Kuwait coast on Tarut and Bahrain, on the oasis town of Thaj, inland from the modern seaport of Jubail, and on the lost city of Gerrha - the one Arabian city known to have been powerful enough to influence nearby civilizations directly. Strabo, quoting earlier Greek writers, described the inhabitants of the city in the last two decades B. C. as "the richest of all tribes...They possess a great quantity of wrought articles in gold and silver, such as couches, basins and drinking vessels; to which we must add the costly magnificence of their houses; for the doors, walls and roofs are variegated with inlaid ivory gold, silver and precious stones." Its location has yet to be identified.

The location of Thaj is known, however, and when it is excavated will be surrounded by its 12-foot-thick wall, which still stands, in places, to a height of nine feet. The deep pools at Thaj, and at neighboring al-Hinnah, are constructed of fitted stone and are still used by herdsmen. Some 2,000 years ago water from these hand-dug wells was lifted to the surface and channeled through an extensive irrigation system to prosperous fields.

Because the rise and spread of Islam is the central fact of history in Arabia, the gallery on Islam is, appropriately, at the center of the museum. It shows the development of the mosque and minaret, displays Islamic coins and exhibits fragments of the famed Darb Zubaidah pilgrimage road and, in a graphic demonstration of Islam's unifying impact, offers a simultaneous-projection slide show. Interpreting Arabia's tumultuous history in a melange of rapid images, it captures vividly the evolutionary confusion of the past as Sumerians, Sabaeans, Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians, Greeks and Romans rise, peak and vanish. Then, gradually, the frenetic score modulates and harmony emerges: one by one the nine panels on the projection screen coalesce as the message of Islam spreads to the farthest reaches of the world. A unique climax to the previous displays, the films crystalizes, in a few well chosen images, the chronology of the past.

Designed by Michael Rice Ltd., a firm of British consultants, who also designed museums in Qatar (See Aramco World, July-August 1976) and in Oman, the museum's displays offer an impressive and attractive cultural lesson for Saudi Arabs and foreign visitors alike. Despite the limits of size and the temporary nature of the museum, the designers have created a series of compressed displays that subtly illuminate the wealth of themes that played a role in the Arabian Peninsula's development, and that stitch together the threads of history revealing patterns and parallels with the present. Today, for example, Saudi Arabia's trade is in oil and petrochemicals, not copper and spices, but the results are similar: the enrichment and refinement of a culture.

The museum, in sum offers striking lessons in curiosity energy and ingenuity - the muscle and mettle of the mightiest civilizations.

Like the museum itself, scientific exploration of Saudi Arabia's past is a relatively new undertaking. And like the industrialization of the Kingdom (See Aramco World, January-February 1977) it is a massive challenge. But Dr. Masry believes that Saudi Arabia's approach must be cautious and careful except where "rescue archeology" is called for to save sites or monuments from the great construction programs now underway throughout the kingdom. "We are discouraging large-scale excavations for the present," he says. "Massive, ad hoc or haphazard digging has had a disastrous effect on research in the Near East. We want academic control over our national heritage."

Masry's master plan for indentifying and mapping potentially rich sites in Arabia, therefore, is being formulated with meticulous care. "We must determine the chronology of an area - who lived where, when and how - before commencing simultaneous excavations," he explains, "so that the different areas can be fitted into a coherent historical perspective." Unlike the repeatedly plundered archeological sites elsewhere in some parts of the Middle East, much of Saudi Arabia's past is, at present, in the safest place an archeologist can think of. "It's under the sand," Dr. Masry points out, "where it will stay until we can launch an organized, full-scale investigation."

What that investigation will disclose is, of course, unknown. The experiences of the millennia are always elusive and there are always nagging questions, loose ends and even the possibility that tomorrow's discovery may overturn today's theories. Where, for example, is lost Gerrha today? Submerged somewhere in the Gulf? Buried forever under centuries of shifting sand? Or, as Abdullah Masry says smilingly, "In the imaginations of those of us who dream of past glory?" No one knows. But if the care and thoroughness of Saudi Arabia's Department of Antiquities and Museums' recent investigations is any indication, they will, some day, find out.

Barry Reynolds, an instructor at the John Abbot College in Montreal and a former television scriptwriter, is now a teacher and a free-lance writer in Saudi Arabia. He has published poetry and short stories in the U. S. and Canada and his articles on Saudi Arabia Slave appeared in The Arab News, and in Canadian and American newspapers and magazines.

This article appeared on pages 12-17 of the March/April 1979 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1979 images.