Bible and Beyond

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Only since the 1960s has there been a department of antiquities and museums in Saudi Arabia. But in the last two decades—the lifetime of BAR—we have made enormous progress, placing the archaeology of Arabia in the wider context of ancient near eastern history.

In 1976 we began a comprehensive archaeological survey of the country. Fifteen years later we had recorded thousands of archaeological sites all over the Kingdom. Sponsored by the government, this was undoubtedly one of the largest, most ambitious and comprehensive archaeological surveys ever conducted in any country. To manage this enormous project, several teams of archaeologists and other technicians, both from Saudi Arabia and from American and European universities, divided the country into different geographical regions.

Among the more specialized surveys was a study of the early Islamic pilgrimage route from Kufa (in Iraq) to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina al-Munawarra in Saudi Arabia. Incidentally, we are now using the information gained from these surveys to restore and improve some of the sites, including the reactivation of some of the water reservoirs and basins for the benefit of contemporary Bedouin populations.

Another special survey searched for rock art and epigraphy. Now nearing completion, this survey has located and recorded over 1,200 rock art and inscription sites all over the country.

A special area of interest has been ancient mining sites. Three expeditions surveyed the Arabian Shield, the northwest Hejaz, and the southwestern and northern highlands and located numerous ancient gold, silver and copper mines, as well as quarries of semi-precious stones.

Our purpose in conducting all these surveys was not only to record the sites, but also to locate potential sites for large-scale excavation. In 1985, we started to excavate some of the more significant sites located in the surveys. The results of our surveys and excavations are reported in Atlal, the journal of Saudi Arabian archaeology, which is published annually in English and Arabic. The Department of Antiquities and Museums also publishes monographs and special publications, as well as posters depicting the antiquities of the Kingdom.

Humans have a long history here. At Shuhaythia in the northern part of the country, we found evidence of early man’s settlement in the Arabian Peninsula nearly a million years ago. Some sites are dated to the paleolithic and neolithic ages [100,000–4,000 B.C.], and many other sites are dated to the third, second and first millennia B.C.

The paleolithic and neolithic sites scattered over various parts of the country suggest that a climate and environment very different from today’s extremely hot, dry conditions once prevailed here.

From the third to the first millennium B.C., fully developed urban centers existed, with well-developed literary, religious and political traditions. Contrary to some current views, many ancient inscriptions indicate that an independent writing system evolved and developed within the Arabian peninsula.

The Department has also conserved and restored numerous historical buildings, such as Dirriyah, the old capital of Najed, about 15 miles north of Riyadh; the King Abdulaziz palace, Qasr al-Masmak in Riyadh; the Ibrahim Mosque in Hasa; the Bait Nasif in Jeddah; and numerous other watch towers, castles, forts and mosques throughout the Kingdom.

Archaeological museums have been constructed in a number of large cities and a network of local museums has been established. A national archaeological and ethnographical museum, estimated to cost a billion Saudi rials [about $286 million], is under construction in the capital. Two Islamic museums planned for Mecca and Medina will cost together about 500 million Saudi rials [about $143 million].

In short, archaeology is thriving in Saudi Arabia and is making a major contribution to the exploration of our country’s rich and very long cultural history.