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Volume 31, Number 2March/April 1980

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The New Historians

Written by Jon Mandaville
Illustrated by Michael Grimsdale

Pick a time in the past, any time. You'll find someone in the Arabian Peninsula dipping his pen by lamplight to fill a few more pages of the month's events. Ask any desert man there the history of his – tribe, and he'll reel it off by rote - or if he can't, he'll drag you by the hand to "an old'" man who can. For generation upon generation, Arabs of the Peninsula have singled themselves out to record the; experiences of their people. Why? Two reasons, basically: to help their generation learn from lessons of the past, and then, to pinpoint their pride of place in time.

New Saudi Arab historians are doing the same today, and for the same age-old reasons. But the methods have changed from manuscripts and memory to computers, transits, microfilms and shovels. Voting history is nothing new to the people, of Saudi Arabia. But digging history is.

In the last six years, Saudi Arabia has decided to add archeology to its collection of historical tools, and the, "results are just beginning to show. Already however, scholars around the world are beginning to revise their traditional histories. Who, alter all, expected to find some of the earliest settlers of Sumer 400 miles south of Basra? Greek towns in al-Hasa? Cities in the sands of the Empty Quarter?

The main purpose of these articles, therefore, is to offer a glimpse of this revision, and show a little of how these new discoveries are affecting interpretations of man's earliest history in the Middle East.

A second purpose is to introduce, briefly, the key figures in this exciting exploration into man's past — the new historians. From different generations of different backgrounds and upbringings with different personalities, they share, nevertheless, certain important qualities: drive, conviction and faith.

And they need it. It takes a tough man to push through a new approach to something so fundamental to national identity as history. And it takes a fast man to beat the bulldozers in Saudi Arabia today. We call these men ''new" because of their use of the latest technology. But beneath all this, they still are working as their fathers did on the 'perennial gopls of history: a compendium of man's experience and - an important factor for their people - a sense of place in time. Today, in this world of oversight modernization and rapid social change, those age old goals look more important than ever.

Who are the new historians of Saudi Arabia? Of the dozen or so I talked to, three stood out clearly as the pioneers: Shaikh Hasan Al ash-Shaikh, Minister of Higher Education of Saudi Arabia, Professor 'Abd al-Rahman al-Ansary of the University of Riyadh, and Dr. Abdullah Masry, Director of the Department of Antiquities arid Museums of Saudi Arabia. These men, scholars all, represent three different generations and each has his own particular style and approach and worries; But all three in their own way, through their faith in the ultimate value of the history of man, have made major contributions in bringing the modern science of history to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is their immediate beneficiary; ultimately, the whole world of historical scholarship is in their debt.

My first interview on the subject was with Shaikh Hasan Al ash-Shaikh and it very nearly didn't take place. I had come to the ministry in Riyadh with almost no forewarning and the secretary, with a glance at other gentlemen patiently waiting for appointments, could only smile dubiously. But a few minutes later he beckoned to me and I entered the office - large, respectable, lined with books but not particularly pretentious - and saw a tall man unfolding himself from behind the desk, leaning forward with an easy smile and offering his hand.

Shaikh Hasan, Minister of Education when the Department of Antiquities was founded and now Minister of Higher Education, shows the best qualities of an older generation - open, generous to visitors, easy in conversation, but firmly the leader in ministry business - and brings to his position a heritage of education. His great-great-great-great grandfather was Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, the 18th-century founder of an Islamic reform movement. His vocation, then, is scarcely surprising. What is particularly noteworthy is his success at it, given the trials and tensions of Saudi Arabia's overnight drive for industrialization. How do you establish from scratch a national educational system which, on the one hand, will satisfy impatient younger people and meet the future demands of a modern society, yet, on the other hand, will be acceptable to a more cautious older generation? How do you make neutron activation analysis of dug-up potsherds acceptable as historical methodology to a traditional historian who relies on manuscripts?

Shaikh Hasan's answer is illuminating: "With the help and guidance of God." Which took the form, he suggests, of encouragement from his friend the late King Faisal, and solid work from a "competent, cooperative staff."

His examples of success in the kingdom's elementary and secondary schools,and now in higher education, are also telling: computer programming where pens once laboriously worked the figures, schools standing where there were none before, and a curriculum to match the challenge. Included in the curriculum, of course, is history. But is it taught, I asked him, by the new historians? "Fundamentally" he muses, "there are no new historians. The goals of both the historians of the older generation and those of our universities today are the same: the study and understanding of man's past. But there are, certainly, new technologies and methods for discovering new sources for that study. These new approaches in themselves are truly useful for history. We are bringing them into the classroom as rapidly as we can train our faculty to use them."He shifted back in his chair. "Of course, speaking as an administrator of the educational system, they have their drawbacks." How do you mean? "Well, consider. Our historians in the past were generalists. They were more widely read in many fields of history. Many literally memorized volumes of important works; I know personally of one who did this, a scholar in Mecca.

"Now we are sending students from our colleges to Europe and America for doctoral studies in history, to learn the new techniques. They return as specialists, specialists not only in rather small periods but in one kind of source for those periods. Some have come back having spent two years writing their thesis on a few years in the life of one man."

"We can't afford that kind of specialization. It may be suitable for developed countries like America, where you can afford one hundred specialists to cover one hundred years, but not for developing countries like Saudi Arabia. Here, with our shortage of teachers, one man must be prepared and willing to cover a great deal of history; we need broadly useful teachers for our students."

"And if s not just a matter of teaching," he added. "At this stage, as we open new universities every five or so years, the new highly-educated Saudi students of history as well as of other disciplines find themselves moving to administrative posts within a few years, and must suddenly be able to handle broad policy questions."

The Minister of Higher Education has no special interest in history, although, as a graduate in Islamic law, he is well versed in the field of Islamic legal thought. What matters is that he appreciates its importance in the curricula of his colleges and universities, and in turn encourages the new Saudi historians in their classrooms and in their research.

There are two worlds of history in Saudi Arabia today. One is the world of the court chronicler compiling dynastic annals of wars and diplomacy or the traditionist painstakingly analyzing the accuracy of thousands and more traditional stories of the life of the Prophet and his companions and committing the best of them to memory. The other is the world of the modern researcher who burrows into archives, checks out a book on interlibrary loan from a library a continent away, studies the 300-year statistical trend of house rents, or-as they now do in Saudi Arabia - makes a chemical analysis of pottery from a four-millennia-old town site. This is the world of the new historians - of men like Professor 'Abd al-Rahman al-Ansary.

Presently chairman of the Department of History at the College of Arts of the University of Riyadh, Professor al-Ansary has been excited by ancient history and archeology since he was a boy. "I was on a high-school trip to visit Mount Uhud outside my hometown of Medina," he said. "Wandering around right up near the top I saw a piece of metal sticking out of the ground. I dug it out and found that it was a sword, a really old one, hundreds of years old. I'll never forget it."

From that point, he continued, he moved slowly, if indirectly, toward what is now a consuming interest in archeology and anthropology. In college in Cairo, he majored in Arabic literature, with emphasis on ancient Arabic poetry, and from there steadily moved into the study of ancient Arab society. While in Cairo he made trips on his own to Luxor and after a year as an instructor at the new University of Riyadh, in 1960, he finally cast his lot with the historians, beginning his doctoral program in ancient history and archeology at Leeds University in England. In the fall of 1966 he returned to the University of Riyadh as assistant professor with his doctorate in hand. He never looked back. Ahead of al-Ansary lay a whole series of "firsts" for Saudi Arabia: the founding of the Saudi Arabian Historical and Archeological Society - a wide group of Saudi historians and citizen history buffs - the establishment of the university museum in Riyadh, regular radio and television programs for Riyadh stations on archeology in the Peninsula, newspaper and magazine articles on the same subjects and an international conference in Riyadh on ancient and modern Peninsular history which brought together more than 100 famous scholars from around the world. Finally - in 1978 - he helped to establish a department of archeology and anthropology in the university.

In the beginning it wasn't easy. "When we organized the society in 1967" says al-Ansary, "people found the idea very strange. There was much criticism, some of it public."

"What was their problem?" I asked.

"Well, I could see their point," he said slowly. "People were concerned that, with all the excitement and publicity about our ancient past, the younger generation would forget the far more important fundamental values of our Islamic society" He glanced at me with a smile. "That sort of thing has happened elsewhere in the world, you know."

But al-Ansary's society survived - partly because al-Ansary knew as much about classical Arabic literature as he did about digging. Most of his publications resulting from his excavations at Fao have relied on both, for example, and his writings on the Lihyanite kingdom of northwest Arabia depend heavily upon inscriptions and literary references. This double background allowed him to talk easily with traditionalists outside the university and thus smooth the way for others among the new historians. It also made him a good candidate for administrative positions within. He has chaired innumerable faculty committees, served as dean of faculty for two years, headed his own department for the past four. "I have spent more time in administration than I ever intended," he admitted ruefully, "but what can I do? No decent research and teaching will get done - neither mine nor anyone's - unless there's an administration to support them. We all have to take our turn."

With that sentiment Abdullah Masry, who epitomizes the new generation as al-Ansary represents the transitional generation, is in full agreement. The first director of the new Department of Antiquities, he is already frustrated by paperwork. But, like" al-Ansary, he also knows that administration is vital if the new historians are to make the contributions he envisions. To Dr. Masry, however, the major issue is not whether to use literature or excavation to study ancient history; it is "new" versus "old" archeology - the holistic environmental approach to a site versus the analysis of only the human artifacts. He comes down heavily on the side of the "new."

Abdullah Masry was born and raised in Mecca. "My father was a grain merchant there," he says. "I went to one of the older established primary and secondary schools, Falah School, it's called; we started English in the fourth grade." In the 10th grade, he transferred to the Aziziya School where, by finishing in the top 10, he qualified for a government fellowship for university studies overseas in a subject of his own choice. He opted for archeology and headed for the United States.

In the States, he found that archeology suited him splendidly; at California he earned a B. A. degree and at the University of Chicago won his M. A. and Ph. D. During those years he worked on Indian mounds in the upper Sacramento Valley, studied the Southwest Indian collections in Flagstaff, Arizona, participated in the ongoing excavations at Lagash in Iraq with the New York University/Metropolitan Museum of Art group and worked with the Harvard Expedition on Iran's Tepe Yahya. At last, though, it was time to return and in 1973, doctorate in hand, and a reputation as one of the Oriental Institute's brightest graduate students, he came back planning to teach and do research at the University of Riyadh. Because Saudi Arabia, just at that point, needed someone to direct the program of its new Department of Antiquities and Museums, however, his career abruptly changed direction; nominated as director, he accepted the job. Since then, he says, administration has been his primary job. Still, he teaches an occasional university course, has published both his thesis and a respectable list of scholarly articles over the past five years, and edited an illustrated survey of Peninsular archeological sites, as well as the first issue of Atlal (Ruins), a Peninsular archeology journal. Last, but certainly not least, he has supervised construction of Saudi Arabia's National Museum in Riyadh. (See Aramco World, March-April 1979)

"The museum's too small," he says, "but it's a start. We already are well underway planning a proper museum. We want an all-encompassing program and exhibits, which will cover all aspects of man's life on earth and particularly in the Peninsula. It will include ethnography as well as archeology. But for the time being the present museum will serve our purposes.

"The stage we are working on now is the establishment of a regional museum network. These regional museums aren't museums, really, as you think of them. They're still site research centers, located on or near the major sites around the country, and serve the districts in which they're located as gathering points, information points for local schools. Once we have enough trained personnel we will then establish proper provincial museums in the capitals of each province, into which the research centers will feed material and information for public interpretation and display."

"You work with the schools?" I asked.

"Good heavens, yes! That’s a central theme of our program. My department lies in the Ministry of Education, after all. Museums aren't just fancy warehouses. They're learning laboratories, or should be. We work closely with school authorities all over the country, helping with school trips to historic sites and the like. These authorities and the teachers also are a great help to us, acting as liaison people in the various districts.

"The same thing applies to the general public. We're in the business of educating everyone, not just school children. And again, we get enormous amounts of help from local people of different regions; these so-called backwoods people have a much more sophisticated view of the sites in their region than we do."

When do you think the next major discovery will be made in Saudi Arabia? Where would it be?" He fiddled with a pencil on his desk and said, slowly "People repeatedly ask me this. Really, it's too early to say. After all, we've hardly begun. The preliminary survey of the Eastern Province is nearly done; this season we're concentrating on the Central Region. This is the area we know least about." He glanced up. "You know, one has to be careful not to get carried away in this line of work. There are great pressures generated by the treasurehunting instinct. If one gives in to that, one often does irreparable damage to the central task of archeology, uncovering the history of man. At the very least, one ends up offering misleading interpretations.

"Still," he resumed, "I think it's fair to say that the future work on Tarut Island, near Dammam in the Eastern Province, will turn out to have major bearing on our interpretation of the earliest periods of man. And of the other known sites, Tayma, up in the northwest, will probably be of tremendous interest. The site itself is enormous; I just came back last week from driving the outer walls, and they're seven kilometers [4.35 miles] round. The mounds inside the walls are classic Near Eastern tells, just like Iraq or Syria, and stand about 30 to 40 meters [100 to 130 feet] high. It's going to take a lot of seasons of excavation to grasp the history of that site. Fortunately, it's not directly in the path of a proposed freeway or development project."

I thought of the history of urban renewal projects in America and commented wryly, "You have that problem, too?"

"Have it!" He was obviously upset at the idea. "I've seen sites butchered! We have laws now which require historical research before any project is undertaken and many of the larger companies and government agencies are very good about consulting us and carrying out surveys. But the pressures for the project completion are so great we always seem to be a step too late." He smiled suddenly. "I can really get worked up over that issue." He paused, and then said, "But that’s what the work of our archeologists and historians is all about, in large degree. Unless our cultural heritage is carefully preserved, 20 years from now Saudis may be walking around like zombies with only a veneer of modern life to call civilization. You asked me earlier if I didn't miss the traditional quiet of the academic life of research and teaching. Certainly I do, at times. But I can't think of anything more important for an archeologist to be working^* on right now than the job I have."

Two weeks before this conversation with Masry I had been out in the Empty Quarter. I found a flint. I stood beneath the high dune on the marl floor of the desert fingering it absent-mindedly. Thirty feet away a rusted geological survey stake rose up out of the ancient lake bed. It was on the leading fringe of the dune; one or two hard winter winds and it would be swallowed. A flint and a stake: what a world of time between the two! But also, what a strong argument for the new historians in their search for records of man's experience. For everyone knows that there is oil beneath the surface, and that it is valuable. But there is also, the new historians believe, a record of man's experience, spanning the whole of his sojourn on earth. And who knows? Perhaps in retrospect that treasure of perspective will ultimately be the more valuable. With the new historians at work, we will at least have the opportunity to judge.

This article appeared on pages 2-7 of the March/April 1980 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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