Pre-Islamic History and Tourism in the New Saudi Arabia

For years, tourism in Saudi Arabia remained largely undeveloped. The strong religious presence along with a deeply conservative society kept tourism at bay. Now, as Saudi Arabia is aiming to diversify its economy in the new post-oil era, tourism is being seen as an alternative source of revenues. Tourist visa rules are expected to be announced sometime in March in an attempt to attract foreign tourists to visit the country.

Saudi Arabia is rich in historic sites, especially pre-Islamic ones. However, the history of pre-Islamic Arabia was never a source of pride as it stood contrary to the teachings of Islam. The rejection of pre-Islamic Arabia in terms of practices and beliefs was emphasized in school curriculum. Pre-Islamic history was seen as the dark ages of the Arabian peninsula.

Mada’in Saleh. (Richard T. Bryan via Saudi Archaeology)

Mada’in Saleh, a pre-Islamic archaeological site of the Nabataean civilization (1st century AD), is a good example of the attitude towards pre-Islamic history. The Quran referred to the inhabitants of Mada’in Saleh in the story of Prophet Saleh who was sent to the people of Thamud. The Quran also narrates their horrific doom as they were punished for not obeying God’s orders that were conveyed to them by the prophet. Saleh Al-Fozan, a prominent Saudi scholar, discouraged visiting the site, arguing that the Quran instructs Muslims to weep when they see the site. He also dismissed allocating funds to preserve Mada’in Saleh and argued that it does not indicate or symbolize culture or important civilizations.

Al-Fareed Palace in Mada’in Saleh (Madani Sindi via Al-Arabiya)

Pre-Islamic tribes have deep roots in the region. The mu’allaqat, odes composed by famous pre-Islamic poets, provide insight into the lives and beliefs of pre-Islamic Arabia. Since they are full of imagery, the mu’allaqat also give precise descriptions of places and meeting points. Antarah ibn Shaddad, a pre-Islamic knight and poet, mentioned in his mu’allaqa the area of al-Jiwa, in Al-Qassim region, where he used to meet his cousin Abla near a rock. This rock, which still stands until today, has been neglected and graffiti can be seen on the rock.

Sakhrat Qusayba / Antarah Rock in al-Jiwa (Okaz Newspaper)

Qaryat al-Faw, the first capital of the Kindah kingdom, is another important pre-Islamic site located 700 kilometers south-west of Riyadh. The site was excavated by Saudi archaeologist Dr. Abdul Rahman Al-Ansary in the 1970s. However, it has not been opened for the public and still remains fenced until today. Excavated artifacts from al-Faw are among the collections of the “Roads of Arabia” exhibition which has been touring several European, American and Asian cities.

Qaryat al-Faw (Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage)

The “Roads of Arabia” exhibition features artifacts that have never been shown in Saudi museums before. Statues and human depictions have been forbidden in Islamic teachings, especially during the rise of the sahwa era in the 1980s and 1990s. In school, statues are considered part of a pre-Islamic era and demonstrate ignorance and blasphemy.

“Roads of Arabia” exhibition highlights (via SUSRIS)

Pre-Islamic history has never been regarded as a continuity to our identity. For us, our identity is purely Islamic, as any civilizations or religions before Islam were considered alien and dark. Now, with tourism as an important source of revenue, Saudi Arabia is trying to revive its pre-Islamic past and make citizens also appreciate it and see it as part of their identity and heritage. The Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage has targeted religious figures to pre-Islamic sites to challenge the rigid assumptions of pre-Islamic Arabia.

The “Roads of Arabia” exhibition, which started in 2013, finally arrived in Saudi in November 2017. Statues belonging to pre-Islamic civilizations were present for the first time in the history of the Kingdom. Members of the Council of Senior Scholars in Saudi Arabia were invited to see the exhibition along with prince Sultan bin Salman, President of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage. The appearance of these members in front of pre-Islamic statues (as seen in the video below) symbolizes a new lenient perspective of pre-Islamic Arabia. In the video, the senior religious scholar, Abdullah Almanea, says to Prince Sultan that the museum has proven how “the [Arabian] peninsula is the cradle of humankind”.

Saudi Arabia is making important steps towards acknowledging its pre-Islamic past. In the Gulf region, we see similar trends as new concept museums are targetting more tourists. The Lourve Abu Dhabi hosts a big array of artifacts and acquisitions from all religions to demonstrate its message of universalism and acceptance. The Bin Jelmood house in Doha is the first museums in the Arab world to address the issue of slavery and human exploitation. Hopefully, Saudi Arabia is now connecting with its rich pre-Islamic past to bring all of its history to the forefront when tourists start to arrive.

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