Historical/Ancient Sites in Saudi Arabia

While I was visiting Saudi Arabia years ago, I got into a conversation with one of the Saudis who worked in the international recruitment department. He told me how the mosque in his hometown in the northwestern part of the Kingdom had, many centuries ago, been a Christian church, and even earlier than that, had been a synagogue. As a child, he would play around town and around the mosque, and had collected a box full of pottery shards, arrowheads, and even a few coins. Then, when he went off to university, his mother cleaned his room and threw them all away. From this, I learned not only that mothers are the same everywhere, but also that history is in danger of being lost. This may be particularly true in a country, such as Saudi Arabia, that, within just the past few decades, has advanced very quickly into the modern world.

A May 2, 2007 article in the Arab News quoted Dr. Mohammed Al-Ruwaished, deputy minister of education for antiquities and museums, as saying there are nearly 100,000 historical sites in the Kingdom, 3,700 of which have already been identified and registered. Here are just a few:

Mecca

Mecca is the holiest city in Islam. It attracts millions of Muslims each year, especially for the Hajj pilgrimage (one of the Five Pillars of Islam). The city, which reportedly dates back more than 4,000 years, is forbidden to non-Muslims. Mecca is a place of history and faith to those who can enter it. The city is the home to historical landmarks such as the Kaaba, the cube structure within the Grand Mosque, which Muslims believe was built by Abraham and his son Ishmael. The Grand Mosque is also the site of the ancient Zamzam Well, located meters from the Kaaba, and which is also believed to be connected to Ishmael. In some versions of the story, the angel Gabriel dug the well. Visitors can also see historical art dating from the period of the Ottoman occupation of the area.

Medina

Medina's history dates back more than 2,600 years. It is the second-holiest city in Islam, and is the burial place of the prophet Mohammed, thus the prophet's mosque (also known as the grand mosque, or Masjid Nabawi) is the main site. Like Mecca, Medina is not open to non-Muslims.

Lesser-known Islamic historical sites are found around Mecca and Medina, but they aren't always well documented. As stated in a December 28, 2006 Arab News article, within the area around these two cities "... are supposed to be no less than 300 locations ... Some were old mosques built on an older site related to the Prophet, (Peace Be Upon Him) or one of his companions. … Very few of the holy sites are documented. Some people in Makkah and Madinah make individual efforts, but they are not scientific and don't have proper documentation."

Medain Saleh ("Cities of Saleh")

History buffs — particularly Middle Eastern history buffs — are most familiar with the stone city of Petra, in Jordan. Petra was carved out of the rocks in a tall canyon by an ancient Semitic people known as the Nabateans. The city was built in a defensible place with access to water, and along the caravan routes. It is uncertain when the history of Petra began, though a fortress is likely to have existed for some time before it was expanded into a city. (Fans of the third Indiana Jones movie would recognize "the Treasury" as the grail temple.) Petra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Many miles southeast of Petra, in Saudi Arabia, is Medain Saleh, sometimes known as Al-Hijr (Rocky Place). Medain Saleh is the largest conserved site, south of Petra, of the civilization of the Nabataeans. Featuring well-preserved monumental tombs with decorated facades dating from the 1st century BC to the 1st century AD, the site also has cave inscriptions dating to a much earlier period. In total, it has 111 tombs, of which 94 are decorated. Medain Saleh gained UNESCO World Heritage status in 2008, making it Saudi Arabia's first World Heritage Site. As stated in the UNESCO description, Medain Saleh "... bears witness to the encounter between a variety of decorative and architectural influences (Assyrian, Egyptian, Phoenician, Hellenistic), and the epigraphic presence of several ancient languages (Lihyanite, Talmudic, Nabataean, Greek, Latin)." Due to the limited tourism in Saudi Arabia, this is an archaeological treasure that few have seen.

Al-Jawf

An article] in the March/April 1998 issue of Aramco World recommends a visit to a little-known place called Al-Jawf. How little known? As the article states, "Even among historians of the Arabian Peninsula, al-Jawf is not a name that comes tripping off the tongue."

Al-Jawf is an oasis located at the northern curve of Saudi Arabia's Great Nafud desert. The current community is relatively modern, but as it is set where the trade routes met that once linked Mesopotamia, Persia and Syria with Arabia and Yemen, habitation goes back for millennia.

As the article states:

During the Chalcolithic, or Copper Age, approximately 6000 years ago, the population of Al-Jawf laboriously erected 54 groups of squared-off stone pillars, some of which measured up to three meters (9'6") in height. Called al-rajajil ("the men") today, the pillars appear to the casual observer to be randomly placed, although a bird's-eye view shows that they are placed in roughly parallel east-west lines.

Their significance is no more certain than that of the more famous megaliths at Stonehenge, or the dolmens of Jordan. ....

Today, Al-Jawf is part of an agricultural area, and its ancient history is only now being rediscovered.

Jubba Paleolithic Kingdom

Located near the small town of Jubba (100 km, or 62 miles northwest of Hail), visitors can see rock art depicting animals and people dating back 7,000 years. If you can't get out that far, some examples of the art have been transported to the National Museum in Riyadh.

Old Dariyah

Not nearly so old, yet still worth a see, is Old Dariyah. Located a short drive outside Riyadh, it is the home village of the ruling family of Saudi Arabia. Although most of the mud buildings date to this century, Old Dariyah is several centuries old, with the oldest section dating to the 9th century. The old city also served as the capital of the first Saudi dynasty from 1744 to 1818. Significant old city structures include the Salwa Palace, Saad bin Saud Palace, the Turaif Bath House, and the Imam Mohammad bin Saud Mosque. Dariyah obtained UNESCO World Heritage status in 2010.

Najran's Traditional Architecture

For a look at some traditional architecture, head to Najran in southwestern Saudi Arabia near the border with Yemen, to see the traditional adobe and brick architectural style, known as the midmakh buildings. Some of the community's buildings are estimated to be several hundred years old.

Old Jeddah

Jeddah is a cosmopolitan, modern city, but it still has its jewels (although not ancient ones). The old city of Jeddah (Al Balad) traces its origins back more than 2,500 years ago when Jeddah was a small fishing village. However, in this heart of modern Jeddah, you will see nothing of those millennia today, though you can see beautifully renovated old houses, such as Naseef House, which dates to the late 1800s, and well preserved examples of traditional architecture styles (e.g., the Mashrabiya, or intricately carved doors and the lattice-work screens, which allow the sea breezes in, but keep out the sun).

Finally ...

And there are also lesser-known, or less obvious sites. While in Saudi Arabia in 2009, our hosts, who work at the King Faisal Jeddah, took us on a day trip from Jeddah to Taif. They drove a very short distance off the highway towards some cylindrical stone structures, each about six feet (two meters) tall. Turns out these were part of a chain of 1,000-year-old water cisterns, built by a princess to provide water to Mecca from a source in the mountains. As people drove by going about their business, I wondered if they even knew about the unassuming treasure just off the highway.

Also see:

• The General Commission on Tourism & Antiquities — Arabic and English

Saudi Tourism Portal

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