Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1274, (10 - 16 December 2015)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1274, (10 - 16 December 2015)

Ahram Weekly

A visit to Saudi Arabia

A recent visit to Saudi Arabia showed that the Saudi people care for the country’s pre-Islamic heritage as well as its Islamic monuments, writes Zahi Hawass

Al-Ahram Weekly

I was recently invited to visit the Saudi capital Riyadh by Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman. I was able to see great museums and great site management of major pre-Islamic and Islamic sites. I was really impressed by the fantastic work being done on the conservation and restoration of these sites. At the end of my visit I was also captivated by the city of Riyadh and how it has developed into a major city with all the cultural activities, development, and high-rises that have made it one of the most beautiful cities in the Arab world.

I asked many people how this had come to be, and all of them said that King Salman bin Abdel-Aziz, the custodian of the two holy mosques, was the one who had transformed the city, even calling him the “architect of Riyadh.” The king was previously prince of Riyadh for more than 50 years.

During my visit, Prince Sultan bin Salman, president of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, invited me to a major conference dedicated to the late king Fahd bin Abdel-Aziz. I was able to meet King Salman and was honoured to see the man who has done such great things for the antiquities of Saudi Arabia.

He recently announced the inauguration of the first stage of a project for the restoration and site management of the area of Al-Gigiry at Al-Diriyah and also announced that Al-Diriyah had been designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. This is a message to the world that the Saudis care a great deal about their pre-Islamic antiquities as well as their Islamic monuments.

When he was prince of Riyadh, King Salman cared deeply about the Al-Diriyah project, wanting to bring it to life again. He announced the restoration project and appointed a committee to supervise the work, of which I was the head.

When the conference on King Fahd began, I was delighted to learn that Saudi Arabia was documenting the activities of this great man who was a born leader. More than 1,000 photographs of his activities were shown, many of them with prominent world leaders with whom he met. There was also a film on his life that was a lesson to children about how to become a great leader. When the event was finished, I was able to meet King Salman, who recently, together with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, was able to unite the Arabs for the first time to save Yemen from a new enemy that could be a danger to the whole world.

Prince Sultan was keen to follow the site management of Al-Diriyah, because this is a site that is close to his heart and he had often seen the site with his father when he was a child. He thought then that the mud-brick houses at the site could raise the awareness of the Saudi people, because it records the story of the struggle to free Al-Diriyah from an attack by Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt, who had been sent by Mohamed Ali.

Prince Sultan is planning to build five museums at Al-Diriyah and to convert an old building into a historic hotel, as well as produce a sound and light project. The plan is to make the site full of activities.

During my stay, I was also able to visit the National Museum in Riyadh. This is a wonderful museum in a new architectural style that presents pre-Islamic and Islamic objects in beautiful displays. I gave a speech on my work and the discoveries I have made during my career. The lecture was attended by Prince Sultan bin Salman, Ali Gaban, vice-president of Tourism and Antiquities in Saudi Arabia, and my friend Saad Al-Rashid, who is now a consultant to the Saudi Antiquities Department.  

At the end of my lecture Prince Sultan announced his hope that Ali Gaban and I would document the relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia during Pharaonic times. We know that an inscription of the name of Ramses II was recently found in Saudi Arabia.

Prince Sultan also announced the king’s approval for the exhibition “Roads of Arabia” to tour the world.

My other important visit was to the Masmak Museum. All my life I have wanted to create a museum to explain the history of Cairo, and I planned this with my friend Louis Monreal, the director-general of the Aga Khan Foundation. But the project was left unfinished because of the 25 January Revolution. As a result, I was delighted to see that the Masmak Museum tells the history of Riyadh from its beginnings when it was attacked by Ibrahim Pasha. The Museum displays the weapons that were used for the liberation of the city, items concerning the customs and daily lives of the people, and photographs of the princes of Riyadh.

Prince Sultan also arranged for me to visit the governorate of Al-Oula, especially the site of Madain Saleh, the most famous site in the kingdom. I went in the company of Jamal Omar, the director of the National Museum. Though my itinerary included the chance to meet Prince Faisal bin Salman, the Prince of Al-Medina, in the event I was unable to meet him because of the visit of a world leader to the city. But I did go to visit the Prophet Mohamed’s mosque and also saw the Medina Museum, housed in a former train station that in the past received people from Turkey on the pilgrimage.

I was very impressed with the changes that have occurred in Al-Medina, even since the last time I saw the city two years ago. We took a car to Al-Oula, about a three-hour drive. We stayed in a small hotel, and I was able to meet many foreigners who had come to visit the site.

Madain Saleh is a fascinating site. It is introduced by a visitor’s centre and a plan of the roads that lead to the tombs, as well as information about the tombs themselves. It is an example of excellent site management. The tombs are unique and were constructed in different architectural styles, with inner burial chambers and inscriptions about their owners. During the visit, I also visited the old city and went up the neighbouring mountains to a height of about 2,000 metres in order to take in the beauty of Al-Oula.

All of these achievements regarding Saudi sites and museums, as well as the return of thousands of stolen artifacts from inside and outside Saudi Arabia, are due to the vision of Prince Sultan bin Salman. However, it seems that the curse of the Pharaohs is always after me. On my return from Al-Oula airport to Riyadh, a sandstorm closed the airport, leaving me stuck for nine hours.

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