The Fate of Arabian Archaeology

Ancient cave dwellings in Mada'in Saleh (Citie...
Image by Omar A. via Flickr

I stumbled upon this news piece in The Times regarding archaeology in Saudia Arabia. I wanted to share it with you all because of last week’s discussion of handaxes from the neighboring UAE. The article describes how archaeologists have been using Google Earth to survey for sites and have identified possibly 2,000 or so potential ones in Saudia Arabia. Now using Google Earth to do some armchair archaeology is nothing new really, there are examples from 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2010.

But we all know how strict Saudia Arabia is. One of their many impositions has traditionally been against archaeology — fearing that discoveries may disrupt the foundation of it being a cradle for Islam. From the article,

David Kennedy, a professor of classics and ancient history at the University of Western Australia, used Google Earth satellite maps to pinpoint 1,977 potential archaeological sites, including 1,082 teardrop shaped stone tombs…

…But few archaeologists have been given access to Saudi Arabia, which has long been hostile to the discipline. Hardline clerics in the kingdom fear that it might focus attention on the civilisations which flourished there before the rise of Islam – and thus, in the long term, undermine the state religion.

In 1994, a council of Saudi clerics was reported to have issued an edict asserting that preserving historical sites “could lead to polytheism and idolatry” – both punishable, under the Kingdom’s laws, by death.

This is not surprising to many. What is surprising was this tid bit:

Saudi Arabia’s rulers have, in recent years, allowed archaeologists to excavate some sites, including the spectacular but little-known ruins of Maidan Saleh (Correction its really Mada’in Saleh), a 2,000 old city which marked the southern limits of the powerful Nabataean civilisation.

For the most part, though, access to ancient sites has been severely restricted.

There are a lot of examples where traditions, governments, etc. get in the way of phenomenal discoveries. However, there are few where objection relaxed. I’m hopeful we’ll see more archaeology conducted on the Arabian peninsula, but I’ll think we’ll be seeing more from the more liberal areas like the Emirates.

4 thoughts on “The Fate of Arabian Archaeology

  1. I really hope that the ongoing Arab revolution extends to Saudia soon: it’s a true pity that the country is under such an oppressive theocratic and patriarchal (sexist) tyranny (with full Western support, btw).

    But as you say from the viewpoint of archaeology and historical preservation Saudia is horribly. They have even destroyed monuments such as the home of Mohammed (or some of Mohammed’s relatives – can’t recall) in Mecca and other such historical sites because they might cause “idolatry” (no matter that these Islamic historical landmarks have been there for more than one millennium with the blessings of all the Umma and never caused any bout of “idolatry”).

    I really hope the Wahabbis are removed soon and Arabs get a secular democratic government.

    1. I really doubt the Saudi monarchy would let anarchy prevail. The police their is heavily integrated into the fabric of Islam.. For example, just last month in late January there was some protests in Jeddah. The swift arm of the Mutaween, the religious police, thwarted demostrators within 15min. So, I disagree that we’ll see the Arab revolt move out to Saudia Arabia in the near future.

      But I do agree that the government is oppressive on many fronts, be it regarding rights of its people and the progress of science. You know actually this intolerance extends beyond Arabia… I can’t really think of any other pocket of the world other than the Middle/Near East with so much oppression. The problems of religious intolerance (against Christians, Bahai’i, Jews, Buddhists) to destruction of cultural heritage (remember how the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamyan in Afghanistan) seem to be widespread.

      1. “I really doubt the Saudi monarchy would let anarchy prevail”…

        Obviously not “let”. The question is whether they can help it at all. Total control is impossible: it goes against the laws of thermodynamics. So authoritarian systems always break down sooner than later.

        What most defend the Saudi theocratic fascism is not police but the imperfect redistribution of oil wealth, what makes too many Saudis so “pampered” that they won’t even seriously consider rebellion in any way. But Saudia is a rather large country (c. 15 million people last time I cheked), not any Luxembourg, not even a Libya, so it’s almost impossible to keep all the denizens papered enough.

        Some “dissident” Saudi princes have been appealing for the Royal family to leave while they are in time or risk being deposed by the Army. They may be wrong but there is a real risk… if the right regional circumstances happen.

        And I believe we have finally re-entered the revolutionary half of the cycle, after some three decades of global reaction, so I do think in the years to come we will watch many changes, most of them of revolutionary nature, more easily where autocracy is stronger (because autocracies’ inflexibility makes them weak).

  2. Studying archaeology in college right now, hoping for future archaeology in the northern and southern Saudi Arabia,Syria,Iraq. Also learning arabic which should be useful.

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