The great discoveries currently being made in Saudi Arabia demonstrate the cooperation between the Saudi Heritage Organisation, under the direction of Jaser Al-Harbish, and scientific institutions and universities all over the world. There are now more than 21 expeditions excavating, survey-making, restoring, and engaging in conservation work and the recording of inscriptions in Saudi Arabia, discovering the civilisations that once existed there during the pre-Islamic and Islamic periods.
In cooperation with the French National Centre for Scientific Research, Saudi archaeologists have carried out an archaeological survey at the Yamamah site in the area of Riyadh. The expedition worked at the site for five seasons, and the results of their work show that this area includes many important historical sites dating to the prehistoric period, including the Old Stone Age, the Middle Stone Age, and the Iron Age. The expedition’s work also shows that the site contains monuments dating to the Greek and Roman periods as well as the pre-Islamic and Islamic periods. This shows the importance of the survey work that led the archaeologists to start their excavations at certain sites.
The French-Saudi expedition has also recorded many tombs dating to the Bronze Age. They have recorded the water-drainage system that once surrounded the oasis at Yamamah and extended over a long distance. They have found many stone tools dating to the prehistoric period. The Islamic monuments found by the expedition include a complete mosque containing 22 pillars. Evidence of human activities was found in the area near the mosque, including the remains of ovens and elements from domestic activities that tell us much about the daily lives of the people that lived there in the early Islamic Period.
The mosque was once surrounded by other activities because it was found near a lot of other architectural elements and the remains of walls. Pottery and bones were also found, indicating that the sands of the desert in Saudi Arabia are now revealing many important discoveries.
Other great archaeological work is also happening in Saudi Arabia, owing to the personal interest of King Salman bin Abdel-Aziz in the preservation and conservation of monuments. When the king was prince of Riyadh, for example, he supervised the Al-Dareia restoration project at one of the most important archaeological sites not only in Saudi Arabia, but also in the world as a whole.
The appointment of Prince Sultan bin Salman as head of antiquities and tourism in Saudi Arabia led to major changes, leaving a great mark on conservation, restoration, and the return of stolen artefacts to the country. He was responsible for an exhibition, “The Treasures of the Saudi Kingdom”, that travelled to the US, France, and Japan. Prince Sultan must be given the credit for making all these changes in Saudi antiquities, with the result that the world respects all the great work that is happening in Saudi Arabia with regard to the excavation and conservation of sites dating from the pre-Islamic period.
Prince Badreddin Al-Saud was then made minister of culture and antiquities, and he appointed Al-Harbish to be in charge of the Heritage Organisation.
The recording of the inscriptions at the Najran site was also done by a French-Saudi expedition. The inscriptions show the importance of the site as well as the rituals that once happened inside its temples. The inscriptions are in the Thamudic language and include scenes of cows and horses, along with the name of the ancient deity once worshipped in Najran.
The Himyarites who once lived in the area left important historical inscriptions dating to the sixth century CE. Two inscriptions have been found in the area of a shaft, along with a rock drawing and ancient Arab inscriptions and tombs dating to the Bronze Age.
Another site that the expedition worked at is called Hiltan, or Jebel Kawkab. Thousands of ancient Arab inscriptions have been recorded at this site, as well as inscriptions in the Thamudic language. The inscriptions record important occasions in the lives of the ancient people of Najran, including that they were once pushed to convert to the Jewish religion. Other inscriptions talk about people killed in battles. The façades of the rocks bear groups of drawings of birds, camels, and other animals.
More drawings are of elephants thought to have been brought to the Arabian Peninsula from Habesha, today in Ethiopia. There are scenes showing women dancing and other scenes of knights and warriors. Other scenes show musical instruments once used by people in the area, with the scenes as a whole showing that the area once hosted a great civilisation.
Another ancient South Arabian script known as Musnad was once used in Saudi Arabia. Most of the inscriptions in this script date from 1000 BCE. There are also a number of Arab inscriptions and early Islamic ones.
It is very important that all these inscriptions be recorded and translated because they bear witness to an important part of the history of the Arabian Peninsula and are evidence of the trade routes and cultural activities of the people who once lived there. If we lose this information, we will lose part of the history of this great region.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly