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The book that brought the world’s attention to Saudi Arabia’s prehistoric rock art

LONDON: In May 1976, Majeed Khan, a recent graduate of the University of Sindh, Pakistan, traveled to Saudi Arabia to join the Ministry of Tourism as an archaeological consultant, advising on museum development and conducting research archeology in the country. .

It was to prove an inspired date.

At the time, with Saudi Arabia riding the wave of the first great oil boom and necessarily focusing on its rapidly changing future, archeology in the Kingdom was in its infancy.

But in Khan, the country had found a champion for one of its greatest heritage treasures – ancient rock art, thousands of examples of which dot the landscape and bear witness to a history of human culture dating back to 10,000 years old.

Khan, who lives in Riyadh and who, at 80, still works as a consultant in the Department of Antiquities of the Ministry of Culture, has devoted his entire professional life to a subject that continues to fascinate and surprise him to this day.

He received another surprise last month when he learned that his seminal book, “Prehistoric Rock Art of Northern Saudi Arabia”, published by the Department of Antiquities and Museums of the Saudi Ministry of Education in 1993, was now considered a collector’s item.

A copy of the first edition was offered for sale for £1,250 ($1,448) by a London specialist bookseller at the Sharjah International Book Fair in the UAE, which ran from November 2-13.

It was, according to Khan, a lot of money. But on the other hand, “it was the first rock art research book published in an Arab country,” he said. At the time of its release, “there was no rock art being taught in any Saudi university and no real rock art research in Saudi Arabia”.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia’s ancient past had little or no recognition around the world – a past which is now enthusiastically embraced as the backbone of major tourism projects, such as AlUla and Diriyah, designed to attract tourists. million visitors per year to the Kingdom.

For example, in the supposedly comprehensive 1998 Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art, published in 1998, there was not a single mention of Saudi Arabia – an oversight that would be dramatically exposed by Khan’s work.

To describe Khan as a pioneer in his field is to underestimate the impact he had on understanding the scope and significance of the Kingdom’s ancient past.

Over the past four decades he has published dozens of research articles. The first, which he co-authored, was on “The Lower Miocene Fauna of Assarrar, Eastern Arabia”, published in Atlal, the Journal of Saudi Arabian Archaeology, in 1981.

His first book, which appeared in 1993, shortly before his groundbreaking work on the prehistoric rock art of Saudi Arabia, was “The Origin and Evolution of Ancient Arabic Inscriptions”, also published by the Ministry of Education.

But it is to the petroglyphs that he will devote most of his energies, an academic commitment that culminates in 2015 with the inscription of the rock art of the Hail region in Saudi Arabia by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

Along with two colleagues from the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, Jamal Omar and Vice President Professor Ali Al-Ghabban, it was Khan’s name that featured on the nomination text that saw the twin sites near Jubbah and Shuwaymis in the northern province of Hail recognized by UNESCO as being of “outstanding universal value”.

As Khan told Arab News in January 2021, “for me this was the most moving moment of my 40 years of research.”

Not that he is resting on his laurels. Hail is not the only area in Saudi Arabia where rock art can be found, and “these days I am working at the rock art site of Hima, Najran, to see it also inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

There are over 2,000 rock art sites in Saudi Arabia. But the largest concentration of Neolithic petroglyphs, or rock carvings, and the oldest known examples, dating back 10,000 years, are in the north of the country at two sites 300 kilometers apart in Hail province.

The ancient ancestors of today’s Saudis had no paper, pens or written language to record their time on earth.

But with the rocks of their dramatic landscapes as a backdrop, thousands of years ago the ancient peoples of the land that would become Saudi Arabia found a way to leave their mark on history, with a astonishing pictorial representation of a now forgotten world, meticulously pecked, chiseled and engraved in the sandstone rocks of the region.

The first of Hail’s two sites is at Jabal Umm Sinman, a rocky outcrop west of the city of Jubbah, about 90 kilometers northwest of Hail city and 680 kilometers from the capital, Riyadh.

The city’s origins date back to the dawn of Arabian civilization, when the hills of Umm Sinman overlooked a freshwater lake, which would eventually disappear under the surrounding desert sands of Nefud some 6,000 years ago.

It is on these hills, in the words of the UNESCO nomination paper co-authored by Khan, that the ancestors of today’s Saudis “leaved the marks of their presence, their religions, the social perspectives , cultural, intellectual and philosophical beliefs about life and death, metaphysical and cosmological ideologies.

The rock art at Jubbah, Khan said, “represented all phases of human presence from the Neolithic, 10,000 years before the present, to the recent past”, and reflected a time when the climate and landscape were very different. of today.

Carved into the rocks, often at mysteriously inaccessible heights, are the trappings of a lost world: a parade of dancers, long-forgotten gods and goddesses, mythological figures, half-human, half-beast, and of animals including sheep, ibex, camels, horses, wolves, ostriches and – reflecting a time when prey roamed the once lush plains of Arabia in abundance – lions.

“The type of animals (pictured) suggested changes in climate and environment,” Khan said. “The large figures of oxen indicated a cool and humid climate, while the absence of figures of oxen and the appearance of petroglyphs of camels represented hot and dry conditions.

“In both Jubbah and Shuwaymis, this change in fauna and flora clearly represented a gradual but drastic change in society and climate in prehistoric and pre-Islamic times.”

Above all, he said, the similarities in themes and depictions in other parts of the world, including Africa, India, Australia, Europe and America, showed that “Saudi Arabia was part of the world heritage and cultural traditions”.

Like other peoples around the world, “ancient Arab artists drew the animals they lived with and depicted their social activities, such as dance and religious rituals.”

The second of Hail’s twin sites is at Jabal Al-Manjor and Raat, 220 kilometers southwest of Jubbah, near the village of Shuwaymis. Remarkably, its treasures were discovered only 20 years ago, a remarkable story in which, naturally, Khan played a leading role.

In 2002, Aramco World, the magazine of Saudi Arabia’s national oil company, reported that in March of the previous year, a Bedouin man grazing his camels had tripped over strange marks on a distant pile of rocks. He happened to mention his discovery to a teacher in the local town of Shuwaymis. He alerted the authorities and they called Khan.

“Yes, the story is correct,” Khan said. “I met both the Bedouin and Mr. Saad Rawsan, the director of archeology for the Hail region, who took us to the sites for further investigation and research.”

Together, he found, the twin sites told the story of more than 9,000 years of human history, from the earliest pictorial records of hunting to the development of writing, religion and the domestication of animals. , including cattle, horses and camels.

As attested by UNESCO documents, these sites justify their inscription on the World Heritage List because they present “a large number of petroglyphs of exceptional quality attributed to between 6,000 and 9,000 years of human history, followed over the past 3,000 years by a very early development of writing that reflects Bedouin culture, ending with Quranic verses.

Additionally, the Jubbah and Shuwaymis sites include “the largest and most magnificent body of Neolithic petroglyphs in the world”.

Neolithic rock art is found in many places across Eurasia and North Africa, “but nowhere in such dense concentration or with such high and consistent visual quality” as in this remote part of north- western Saudi Arabia.

Peter Harrington, the London specialist bookseller who brought Khan’s book to Sharjah for the book fair, described it as “a pioneering monograph…the first and only edition of this seminal work, which deals with a subject hitherto neglected, defies received ideas. that the region’s rock art influences came from Mesopotamia, the Levant and the Nile Valley, helped put the Kingdom’s ancient past on the map of modern knowledge and paved the way for inscription in 2015 hail rock art region as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“I am extremely surprised to see the price of my book,” Khan said after Arab News told him the asking price for the out-of-print volume at the Sharjah International Book Fair, although he had heard from his own.

“The ministry is printing it again.”

However, this is unlikely to deter collectors still keen to pick up rare first edition books dealing with the region’s history – and there are few stories as fascinating as that of the rock art from Saudi Arabia, and few books so significant. in growing appreciation of the Kingdom’s past as Khan’s 30-year volume.


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