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Archaeology and History in Saudi Arabia

by Stewart Wild

Reading in the press recently that Mount Sinai, a revered holy site, is now believed to be an extinct volcano located in Saudi Arabia, and not in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, has reminded me how much archaeology there is in this little known and much maligned country. I was fortunate to spend some time here earlier this year (during the Iraq conflict, actually) and although I didn’t get to all of the major sites, I was invited to write about them.

Saudi Arabia is a vast country the size of western Europe; it is a two-hour flight from one side of the country to the other (Jeddah on the Red Sea to Dammam on the Arabian Gulf). In the southeast of the country, the Empty Quarter, beloved by explorers like Wilfred Thesiger and Harry St John Philby, is a huge desert the size of France.

Archaeological sites include the remains of Qaryat Al Fau that for around 1,400 years was a wealthy town on the spice and frankincense routes across Arabia. It was abandoned in the first century AD when maritime routes came to prominence and the trading centre of Najran (close to the border with present-day Yemen) declined. Finds from recent excavations, which are on going, may be seen in the King Saud University Museum in Riyadh.

The Jawan Chamber Tomb, on the Arabian Gulf coast, was excavated by oil company employees in 1952 and was found to contain a number of objects, including gold, bronze, iron and ivory, probably dating from at least 2,000 years ago.

In the northern desert, Al-Rajajil is a barren plain with groups of standing stones believed to be well over 5,000 years old. The tall thin stones, up to 10 feet high, have Thamudic inscriptions and are aligned to sunrise and sunset. Like Stonehenge, they are a bit of a mystery and together with pottery shards and nearby rock carvings make the area a magnet for archaeologists.

The most spectacular site, however, is undoubtedly Mada’in Saleh, in the north west of the country. Sister city to Petra in Jordan, the site is famous for its more than 80 rock-cut tombs, evidence of the wealth of the Nabateans who levied taxes on the camel trains on the incense route to Mesopotamia, Greece and Egypt in the first century AD and before. Unlike Petra, however, Mada’in Saleh was never colonised by the Romans.

Archaeological digs in the area (including one in 1968 by a team from the University of London) have uncovered buildings made of adobe with stone foundations. They have also uncovered a variety of coarse, plated and polished pottery, with animal, plant and geometric ornamentation. Other finds include glasswork, some thin and some thick with a snow-white colour, stone cisterns, cooking vessels and 96 coins. Some of these artefacts are in the National Museum in Riyadh while others are kept in a local museum.

The surrounding area has many other archaeological treasures, including rock-cut tombs, petroglyphs and inscriptions in obscure Dedanite, Lihyanite and Minaean dialects dating from the 7th to the 5th centuries BC.

The nearby town of Al-Ula is on the route of the famous Hejaz Railway, which T E Lawrence and his Bedouin supporters famously wrecked in a series of raids during the First World War.

The origins of the railway go back to 1897 when the Turks, who controlled most of the Arabian peninsula as part of the Ottoman Empire, conceived the idea of a railway between Damascus and the holy city of Madinah. The idea was supposedly to make it easier for pilgrims to reach Madinah and Makkah (Mecca) and it would cut the journey time from Syria from six weeks to four days.

The Arabs, however, saw the project for what it was: a method of reinforcing Turkish military and political aims in the region, since troops and ammunition could quickly be supplied in the event of an insurrection. Despite opposition, construction of the railway began in 1900.

The route ran from Damascus to Amman in Jordan, and on to Al-Ula and Madinah. Along the 1,000-mile route about 50 stations were built, although some were never finished. The planned extension to Makkah was never built.

The line opened in 1908 and was a source of friction from the outset. Although pilgrims benefited from the convenience, the Bedouin camel-train operators saw only declining revenues. The trains were frequently stopped and raided, forcing the Turks to provide armed guards all along the route.

During the First World War, the Ottoman Empire sided with Germany. Sherif Hussein of Jeddah made an alliance with the British to drive the Turks from the region, and Lawrence led the Arab Revolt. The Turkish garrison in Madinah was cut off which heralded the end of Turkish domination in the Arabian peninsula.

In recent years, in the area around Al-Ula, some old railway engines and carriages have been put on display. Elsewhere, in the middle of the desert, you can see the remains of the track-bed, derelict engine sheds and abandoned stations. Some restoration is under way and it is hoped that one day it will again be possible to travel from Al-Ula by train.