Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Saudis struggle with whether to display pre-Islamic artifacts

Last year a Saudi/French archeological team made a major discovery at Madain Saleh. Pottery and metal and wooden tools were unearthed at Al Diwan and at Ethlib mountain.

The discoveries at Madain Saleh pose something of a dilemma for Saudis. We Saudis are not particularly eager to look for pre-Islamic artifacts. There’s a prevailing opinion among the conservatives that items not Islamic belong in the ground because displaying them risks a tacit endorsement of the culture or religion the artifacts represent.

We have a habit sealing off ancient sites from public view whether they are Islamic or non-Islamic. We have been known to neglect or destroy them. Saudis don’t want to run the risk of turning a site into a place of idolatry. As a rule we minimize the publicity of such discoveries.

But as with most things, Saudis can’t stop progress. And today there is a significant and successful campaign to develop an economically viable tourism industry that will create jobs and stimulate the economy, particularly in rural areas.

Add to that is the fact that Madain Saleh was named in 2008 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Madain Saleh is now open to visitors. The Saudi Commission on Tourism and Antiquities, under Secretary General Sultan Bin Salman, and the National French Research Center are continuing excavation efforts. An American team also is participating.

The teams are restoring what has been found and electronic software is being used to record the excavation and restoration efforts. The work is continuing and it’s certain that more items will be unearthed.

Once the Saudi government finds its footing in establishing a consistent tourism program and becomes more flexible in granting visas to Muslims and non-Muslims to visit the Kingdom, Madain Saleh should become a key component in developing a thriving tourism sector.

But offering Madain Saleh as a tourism stop is not a problem. It was first inhabited by the people of Thamud who are mentioned prominently in the Qur’an. But what of the non-Muslim sites? Like most Saudis, I know little of pre-Islamic sites, although occasionally amateur archeologists come across such places. Frankly, it’s gross negligence to destroy or hide these discoveries. The government in recent years has taken positive steps to recover and catalog artifacts, but there’s a disagreement with what to do with them once they are found.

It’s right that churches are not permitted in the Land of the Two Holy Mosques. But what’s less certain is whether crucifixes, if found, should be destroyed or hidden. More precisely is the issue of whether Christian or Jewish artifacts can be displayed in the proper context in a Saudi museum as an acknowledgment of a people who called pre-Islamic Arabia their home.

My guess is that most Saudis will say no. Many Saudis believe there is no place in the Kingdom for such relics.

The Associated Press the other day reported that Sheikh Mohammed Al Nujaimi said non-Muslim artifacts “should be left in the ground.” He said that Muslims would not tolerate the display of non-Muslim religious symbols. "How can crosses be displayed when Islam doesn't recognize that Christ was crucified?" he said. "If we display them, it's as if we recognize the crucifixion."

Most Saudis probably agree, although the argument can be made that displaying an ancient cross doesn’t necessarily recognize that Christ was crucified but only acknowledges a previous non-Muslim civilization.

Religious symbols aside, there is a precedent in showcasing pre-Islamic items. The museum in Riyadh has a number of pre-Islamic statues. And Riyadh’s King Saudi University has similar items.

This is a sensitive time for Saudi Arabia. We have made tentative steps with the international community by promoting inter-faith dialogue. We have been diligent in sending young university students to other countries where they learn of other cultures. We are throwing open the doors of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology to the world’s best researchers and scientists. Developing a policy to deal with non-Muslim antiquities is a logical step towards continuing to bridge cultural gaps.

Perhaps displays of such artifacts are not the solution, but it’s not unthinkable.


Sugabelly said...

It sounds like government sponsored brainwashing to me. If Saudis are so confident in Islam then why is there a need to hide, neglect or destroy pre-Islamic heritage sites?

It's basically one of the standard practices of cultism/brainwashing - remove everything that even remotely points to anything outside of the religion.

Frankly I think that Saudi Arabia in particular treats its adults as though they were mentally four years old.

They say women should wear long black hot abayas in the middle of the desert to protect them from the men. This statement alone implies that the men are mindless sex-crazed animals that are incapable of conducting themselves with even an ounce of civility in the presence of women and so the women must hide themselves from them.

They say hide non-Islamic artifacts from public view, or prevent the public from seeing them, hearing about them, or learning anything about them, even though these artifacts point to the history of many ancestors of Saudis. This pretty much implies that the Saudi public is not mentally mature enough to be trusted not to immediately abscond from Islam the moment they get a hint that some of their ancestors might not have been Muslim.

I'm not saying this is the absolute rule here, but I am pointing out a lot of the irritatingly daft ideas and justifications I see coming out of Saudi Arabia. I would never want to live there. I could never stand being an adult and constantly being treated as though I were a brain dead child, and being a woman, Saudi Arabia is the LAST place I ever want to set foot in again.

And little by little, bit by bit, Saudi governmental and even individual attitudes to even random things like these archaeological digs reveal why so many people in the world think Saudi Arabia is vile.

Cheick said...

Dear Madam, I would like to give view on your article on "Policy needed on ancient artifacts".I am an expatriate living in KSA for one year, and I think KSA is known allover the world by its two Holy Sites and your King's official title is Custodian of The Two Holy Mosques which are very important places for almost 2 bn citizens across the world. While I appreciate the scientific fact of archeology broadly, in KSA archeology should be restricted to give some insights over Islam, which is the prestige of KSA. Besides, I find no real interest in the fact that Maiden Saleh is considered by UNESCO as World Heritage, just because I am surprised that Makkah with his holy mosque and its four millennium-old river ZamZam is not considered as World Heritage. I understand the tourist opportunity of such discovery; however I don't see any additional significant prestige for KSA that will increase have not received from Islamic Sites.Moreover, I will say that for the sake of purity it is better that KSA is not associated with anything that is a kind of idolatry. I would tend to agree with the Sheikh, such things if discovered should not stay on the Saudi soil, they will be better preserved by those who will give them more care, they should just be handed over to museums outside KSA. Best Regards

John said...

"Oh! These are IDOLS our fore-fathers used to worship. PEOPLE come and have a look. Maybe if we start worshipping them again, we'll get our prayers answered". In essence , whats the point, to revere them?, to make money off them? to make mockery of the earlier generations,or to resurrect their worship?.
The past is the past. Resurrecting Idols doesn't bring anyone any good and definitely doesn't please the creator.

I'm really amazed that SABRIA could think saudis are stopping "progress" by not publicising unearthed Idols.

Anonymous said...

The idea of tourism in Saudi Arabia is interesting to me. What woman would want to spend her vacation dollars in a country where 1) she can't drive, 2) she has to wear a BLACK POLYESTER covering from head to foot in the hot desert sun, 3) she is treated like a second-class citizen, and 4) everything she does is viewed as an attempt to promote illicit sexual behavior? The only people who might even consider coming here as tourists are probably those who want to see the very artifacts SA is trying so hard to deny and hide.

Anonymous said...

If Mecca is the holiest city in Islam, then Jerusalem is the holiest city in Christianity and in Judaism. Do you think Jews or Christians would be justified if they prevented all Muslims from entering the holy city of Jerusalem and prevented (or even eliminated)the display of all Islamic religious symbols? Would it be right for Christians to adapt what I see as the Muslim way of thinking...only
religious symbols from MY religion should be allowed. Yes, I am aware that Jerusalem is considered sacred by Islam also. I personally think that the beliefs of all people should be respected and am aware that the biggest determinate in a person's religion is the location of their birth, but it appears to me as if a large percentage of Muslims do not respect other religions and fail to realize that they practice Islam because they were born in a part of the world that has a Muslim majority. PLEASE don't interpret this as an attack on Islam, but as a plea for Muslims to try to look at themselves through the eyes of people from other parts of the world.

Chiara said...

I agree that there needs to be a policy to deal with these artefacts, and more; and one preferably that preserves them and allows them to be displayed in Saudi to Saudis and non-Saudis alike.

Part of the message of Islam is that it came to replace the previous polytheistic religions on the peninsula and to reset the monotheists on the right path. Thus pre-Islamic history is a part of Islamic history and should be taught as such, including via archaelogical sites, and museums with pre-Islamic artefacts in them. Certainly this heritage should not be destroyed, hidden, nor sold to outsiders, but preserved and displayed to convey the messages of the Kingdom about its heritage.

In Maoist China there were tours of the Forbidden Kingdom which was well-preserved, but they emphasized the evils "pre-Liberation" ie pre- 1949, as did any tour of anything pre-1949. That didn't stop tourists from appreciating the art, architecture and history of China (though tourism was severely restricted both in numbers and freedom while visiting).

I do hope that with a general evolution towards more openness, eg interfaith conferences, there will be greater flexibility about this.

Average Joe Body Builder said...

I don't see what the big deal is. There have been other places that were not Muslim before, like Egypt, and Egypt didn't become any less Muslim by displaying its non-Islamic past. Have you met any Egyptian Muslims that suddenly said, I am going to worship Aten, Osiris, or Isis? I certainly haven't. Same with Iran, same with Afghanistan (aside from the debacle of destroying the Buddhist statues), Pakistan, India, Turkey. Not a single one of those people decided, wow, look out these nice statues, let's all go back to being jahils! So why KSA?

It's as if the writer is saying Saudis are too weak in faith. They NEED to have these relics hidden from them, because their level of iman is too low to handle such things.

Jewels said...

KSA is equally uncomfortable with its Islamic artifacts for fear of people worshiping them. I say send the whole lot to a county where there is "no compulsion in religion" and they can be appreciated for the part of history they are. Then our Saudi children can go learn the full extent of their heritage somewhere else.

As for the "purity" of this land? What? No one knows what is in people hearts. People say they are Muslim here and then behave how they like. It would be more pure with some Christians and Athiests I know. I am not afraid of churches here- my faith is not so weak.