As part of Saudi Arabia’s plans to develop tourism in parts of the Arabian Peninsula, the archaeological sites of the AlUla region in the country’s north-west are currently the subject of a new exhibition at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris.
Entitled AlUla, Wonder of Arabia, the exhibition, running until January next year, presents the ancient oases of the area to international audiences for almost the first time, introducing them to the vestiges of the ancient Nabatean, Roman, and other civilisations at these sites that have been almost continuously occupied for at least three thousand years.
However, in addition to presenting the spectacular desert landscapes of the AlUla sites to European and international audiences, their golden biscuit-coloured deserts gashed with strips of almost iridescent green, the exhibition also proffers what may turn out to be an irresistible invitation.
Thanks to the Saudi government’s plans to open the country further to the outside world, Saudi Arabia is poised to become a major tourist destination, with the northwest region containing the UN World Heritage Site of Madain Salih, the ancient Nabatean site of Hegra and one of the oases of the AlUla area, being developed under a major agreement with the French government signed in 2018.
According to the Saudi minister of culture and head of the Saudi Royal Commission for AlUla, Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan Al-Saud, writing in the catalogue of the Wonder of Arabia exhibition, the Royal Commission for AlUla, created by Commission President Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman in 2017, “has been racing against time to make AlUla a premier tourist destination… [and] a gift to be shared with the whole world,” while developing the region as a whole and preserving and enhancing its archaeological and environmental sites.
An agreement signed in Paris in 2018 set up the Agence française pour le developpement d’AlUla, the French Agency for AlUla Development, which over the next 10 years will be responsible for developing the AlUla region for tourism in cooperation with the Saudi Royal Commission for AlUla as part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 strategy. The Institut du Monde Arabe exhibition thus gives a foretaste of what is to come, as well as a first glimpse of a region that until recently had been inaccessible to tourism but that from next year onwards will be welcoming visitors.
The exhibition focuses on the physical geography of the region as much as its cultural heritage and human history, presumably because at least some visitors may have inaccurate or incomplete ideas about the Arabian Peninsula. The AlUla region, part of the Hijaz area of Saudi Arabia and on the ancient caravan routes from Mecca and Medina and up through what is now Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea, is an area of rocky desert interspersed with oases fed from run-off from higher ground and underground aquifers.
Weather-beaten rocky outcrops enclose areas of lower ground, some hosting seas of sand and some crammed with date palms and scrubby vegetation. The region as a whole is extremely arid, but valley-like incisions in the Harrat Uwayrid Mountain range converge onto a huge inland plain that hosts the string of oases that made possible the ancient caravan routes and that exist today in the three main settlements of Qurh (Al-Mabiyat), the southernmost, AlUla itself, formerly the ancient Dadan oasis, also called Al-Khuraybah, and Hegra (Madain Salah), the northernmost oasis near the modern town of Al-Hijr.
These incisions feed the huge water-catchment basin that hosts the dry wadi (seasonal river) that flows southwards down the plain, most of the water being transported along underground courses that replenish the sandstone aquifer that enables human habitation.
As Jean-Batiste Rigot of the University of Tours in France writes in the excellent exhibition catalogue, it was this geographical configuration, the co-existence of rocky mountains, inland plain, and underground sandstone aquifer, that made human settlement of the region possible in the middle of the first millennium BCE.
“Farming only became possible in this region because its people developed sophisticated hydro-agricultural systems,” with Madain Salih in particular “hosting over a hundred wells mostly dating from an ancient (probably Nabatean) period,” Rigot writes. “By developing a system adapted to its environment while maintaining contact with the outside world via the [caravan] routes, the oasis exemplifies an intelligent use of the land.”
CULTURAL HISTORY: However, it was not only early agriculture that found a foothold in this extraordinary and largely inaccessible environment.
Various civilisations have flourished in AlUla from a mixture of oasis agriculture and their position on the trade routes northwards up through the Hijaz, and it is these that make up the lion’s share of the Paris exhibition. While the exhibition starts with some marvellous immersive images of the natural environment of AlUla, focusing on both its physical geography and its flora and fauna, attention soon shifts to the successive civilisations that have left their mark on the region.
Once again, visitors not familiar with the Arabian Peninsula may be surprised to learn of the rich cultural heritage of the region. Following introductory displays on the geography and pre-history of the region that include examples of the early petroglyphs found in the oases and the surrounding environment and reconstructions of early wells and cisterns, on its second floor the exhibition moves to the pre-Islamic Dadan (eighth to fifth century BCE), Lihyan (fifth to first century BCE), and Nabatean kingdoms (first to second century CE) that were located in the region.
Writing in the catalogue, Saudi archaeologist Abdul-Rahman Al-Suhaibani reconstructs the history of these still little-known kingdoms for visitors, noting that the evidence that allows him to do so, still the object of study, is piecemeal and largely material in character. However, early inscriptions in Dadanitic, a language close to Arabic but distinct from the other known ancient forms of the language, “indicate a kingdom that alternated between periods of strength and weakness”.
More is known about the successor Lihyan kingdom, partly because it established contacts with ancient Greek and Roman traders and left inscriptions written in Aramaic, one of the languages of the ancient Levant. The Roman author Pliny the Elder, known for his work on geography and natural history, called the Gulf of Aqaba the “Gulf of Lihyan” in the first century BCE, Al-Suhaibani says, and various inscriptions found both in AlUla and in neighbouring areas mention the destinations of various desert caravans.
There are extraordinary red sandstone sculptures in the exhibition from the Dadanitic and Lihyanite periods, including two enormous carved human torsos found in the Dadan (Al-Khuraybah) sanctuary in AlUla and now kept in the Department of Archaeology Museum at the King Saud University in Riyadh. However, even these tend to pale in comparison with the remains left by the Nabateans, the next and perhaps best-known of the ancient civilisations that flourished in the region, perhaps because of the monuments they left behind them at Petra in neighbouring Jordan.
The major centre of the Nabateans in AlUla was at Hegra (Madain Salih), where they carved the kind of rock-cut tombs with monumental facades that are familiar to many from the Jordanian site of Petra. Originally nomadic herdsman speaking a form of Arabic, by the late fourth century BCE the Nabateans were successfully trading in myrrh, frankincense and spices transported by caravan from what is now Yemen. In Hegra, they left behind them some 100 rock-cut tombs, some of them in a better state of conservation than the better-known ones in Petra. Their success as a trading kingdom on the margins of other more powerful states meant they attracted some envious attention, however.
“Envied by its powerful neighbours for the wealth it garnered from the trade in precious goods, Nabatea was annexed by the Roman emperor Trajan in 106 CE and became the Roman province of Arabia,” French archaeologists Laila Nehmé and François Villeneuve write in the exhibition catalogue.
This history is illustrated in the exhibition using material culture, inscriptions, and often stunning photographs of the oases and the remains of the civilisations that once flourished within and around them. Objects likely to be familiar to Western audiences, such as a dedicatory stelae to the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius from 213-217 CE of the type found across the Roman Empire, but this time from the Roman fort at Hegra, or an immediately recognisable Athenian drachma coin, complete with images of the goddess Athena and the owl as the mark of Athens, also found at Hegra and dating to the first to third century BCE, rub shoulders with less familiar materials from pre-Islamic regional civilisations.
The final section of the exhibition takes visitors up to the beginning of the last century with the accounts of early European travellers in the region, among them the British traveller Charles Doughty who left an account of the AlUla region in his book Travels in Arabia Deserts, and photographs of the Hijaz railway built by the Ottomans from Damascus to Medina before World War I.
Originally having 96 stations, including at the modern towns of Madain Salih and AlUla and opened in 1907, this was abandoned in the 1920s following the political reorganisation of the region. Today, many of these stations have been restored by the Saudi government, and they look very evocative in the vintage and contemporary photographs included in the present exhibition.
AlUla, Wonder of Arabia, Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, until 19 January 2020.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.