In the fortnight since Saudi Arabia opened up to tourists for the first time, more than 24,000 visitors have poured into the country, drawn by the rich culture and heritage of the heartlands of the Arabian Peninsula.
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Arabia, visited by Babylonian kings and guarded by Roman legions, was the setting for the legends of King Solomon’s mines and the dying ambitions of Alexander the Great. The archaeology of Saudi Arabia is, as a consequence, every bit as splendid as its better-known neighbours.
Indeed, many visitors will be surprised to learn that Saudi Arabia has some of the most significant archaeological sites in the Middle East.
The 19th century European antiquarians who picked over the bones of the Fertile Crescent unwittingly created a canon of ancient civilisations.
That canon almost entirely omitted the Arabian interior, which lay beyond the reach of European empires.
Visitors to the British Museum in London and the Louvre in Paris are familiar with the antiquities of Mesopotamia and the Nile Valley. Arabia, in stark contrast, remains terra incognita.
Last year Al Ahsa Oasis was named a Unesco world heritage site, taking Saudi Arabia’s total of historically recognised cultural sites to five, with a further nine on the tentative list.
Unesco – or the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, to give it its full name – was set up after the devastation of the Second World War to promote a humanist vision of a universal legacy.
World heritage sites are monuments or landscapes chosen as signposts of our collective human journey or because they embody our shared human experience.
Among the most famous are Stonehenge in the UK, the Pyramids in Giza and the Taj Mahal in India.
What is special about Saudi Arabia’s Unesco sites is that they don’t simply tell the national story of the Kingdom; they also speak of its place in the world and its contribution to the grand sweep of history.
Saudi Arabia has one of the greatest repositories of ancient rock art to be found anywhere in the world.
The walls of the dry riverbeds or wadis meandering through the hills and mountains of western Arabia are covered with a dizzying array of images laboriously chiselled into the rock, including gods and goddesses, beasts both mystical and mundane, together with thousands of inscriptions in myriad ancient scripts.
The rock art of the Hail region was inscribed on the list of world heritage sites in 2015, the same year that the rock art of Hima near Najran in southwest Saudi Arabia was placed on a tentative list, both featuring a remarkable sequence of images stretching back to the dawn of human civilisation.
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