When I landed in Houston on 4 January 2014 the state of my health was not inspiring. Age was beginning to take its toll. Fortunately, January in Houston is better than summer, when the heat and humidity blend with petroleum fumes from the oil wells not far from the city. There was little to do that day but to walk around in search of something interesting. A couple of hours later I spotted some posters advertising an exhibition of Saudi antiquities at the main museum. I headed that way immediately. The antiquities would be a balm for the soul of an Egyptian far from home, at a certain point in his life.
To my surprise, the exhibition featured more than just Saudi antiquities. Several pharaonic statues testified to the intense interaction between Egypt and Saudi Arabia thousands of years ago. My morale rose even more. If those antiquities could last all these years, then the lesson was that the survival of the stories they told was no less important than their physical survival.
That exhibition took place about a year before Riyadh launched its exciting modernisation programme, which unfolded over the next seven years. An important aspect of this programme was how it underscored the role of history in building the Saudi nation state. The collective memory of a nation is one of the chief components of identity. Any clear sense of self needs to be anchored in a unique, special and sometimes glorious history. The discovery of such memory through excavations and ancient manuscripts is essential to the process of shaping identities out of the plethora of historical details that fill the weft and warp of a given civilisation. Globalisation has furnished technologies such as remote sensing and soil science. The chemical processes for conserving manuscripts, and the equipment to rapidly produce and disseminate facsimiles have given humankind vast capacities to unearth the historical memory of every people and preserve it from extinction.
I have continued to follow this process in its modern Saudi framework, through the museums I visited in Riyadh before the pandemic, coverage in the press and other media, and the publications provided by the press office of the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Cairo, ably led by ambassador Osama bin Ahmad Abbas Nugali, which keep us abreast of the latest, exciting developments.
On 11 January, the Royal Commission of Al-Ula in collaboration with the University of Western Australia (UWA) revealed a major archaeological finding. The people who inhabited the northwestern Arabian Peninsula had built long-distance “funerary avenues” linking far flung oases and pastures. The avenues were surrounded on both sides by thousands of tombs shaped like pendants. Dating back to the third millennium BCE, the highway network suggests a high degree of social and economic inter-connectivity between the peoples of that region, the archaeologists said. This was not the first such discovery that speaks of the antiquity of civilisation in the Arabian Peninsula, the roots of which stretch back long before other civilisations.
To Egyptians this phenomenon is not entirely new. The Egyptian historical memory of the pharaonic era had lapsed for centuries until Champollion succeeded in deciphering hieroglyphics, enabling the recovery of 3,300 years of recorded memory. Nor did it stop there. Western scientists helped restore more than 1,600 years of pre-historical memory for Egyptians. The famous Egyptologist Salim Hassan recorded all this in minute detail in his Encyclopaedia on Pharaonic History which was recently republished under the auspices of the Family Library project. The French archaeologist Jacques de Morgan who undertook excavations and research about the stone age in history, takes his place in that work, as does a compatriot of his by the name of Lepère, who focused on the Palaeolithic and Neolithic eras. To their contributions, the German archaeologist Hermann Junker added considerable insights into the arts and crafts in predynastic Egypt. These scientists were followed by a long list of others who have shed light on prehistoric cultures that arose in parts of Egypt that today go by the names Badari, Al-Kom Al-Ahmar, Abu Sweir and Fayoum, the vestiges of which testify to humanity’s transition from a branch of the animal kingdom to the kingdom of humankind as defined by the ability to tame nature and manufacture civilisation.
The historical-civilisational continuity we see in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Arab cases forms the roots of the modern Arab nation state. As this continuity implies an ever-evolving process, it is only natural that new discoveries and their celebration - such as the recent inauguration of the Road of the Rams in Luxor and the transfer of the mummies from the Egyptian Museum to the Museum of Civilisation - are an integral part of building the New Republic in Egypt.
An equally robust regenerative process celebrates ancient history in the context of what I have referred to on previous occasions as the second establishment of the Saudi state. The first, as we know, occurred when Saudi Arabia won its independence in its current boundaries in 1932. This was one of the outcomes of World War I and a product of the Saudi renaissance spearheaded by king Abdel-Aziz Al Saud who unified the kingdom and made it a centre of the Islamic world. The unification of Saudi Arabia was a fundamentally political process in that it used military force as an extension of politics by other means. The holy mosques in Mecca and Medina became the essence of the state as epitomised by the Saudi flag: the testimony of faith and the sword, the symbol of resolve and power, on a green background.
The second establishment of the kingdom in 2015 precipitated a boom in bringing far-flung parts of the country closer together. The essential cement consisted of the common cultural, sociological and historical ties plus optimism towards the future and a shared connection with a remote past that is not exclusive to a particular group or class. The archaeological discoveries that have been made throughout the kingdom in the past five years are remarkable. But what is of the essence is that they are being prepared not just to serve as tourist destinations but also as heritage for all citizens, thereby instilling in them the awareness that the history of the kingdom is not just about the great Islamic eras but also a civilisation with roots that stretch back thousands of years.
The modern nation state is an entity whose identity is embodied in a historical continuity that transcends borders and eras, and binds citizens in a harmony aimed at progress.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.