Paris exhibition to showcase AlUla — Saudi Arabia’s natural wonder

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'AlUla: Wonder of Arabia' takes up two storeys of the IMA and includes stunning aerial photography and around 200 archeological objects, many of which are on show for the first time. (Supplied)
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One of the exhibits to go on display in Paris from AlUla. (Supplied)
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'AlUla: Wonder of Arabia' takes up two storeys of the IMA and includes stunning aerial photography and around 200 archeological objects, many of which are on show for the first time. (Supplied)
Updated 07 October 2019

Paris exhibition to showcase AlUla — Saudi Arabia’s natural wonder

  • The exhibition at the Institut du Monde Arabe highlights the wonders of the Kingdom’s cultural gem
  • The ‘oasis with 7,000 years of history’ has only been brought to world attention in recent years

PARIS: This month sees the inauguration of an immersive and research-driven exhibition showcasing one of Saudi Arabia’s most significant historical and cultural locations, AlUla. 

Running at the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) in Paris from October 9 to January 19, “AlUla: Wonder of Arabia” is the world’s first major exhibition dedicated to exploring the multilayered history and arresting scenery of the area. 

Isolated in the desert of the Kingdom’s northwestern region, AlUla is an archaeological marvel — boasting golden sandstone canyons, colossal arches and rock formations — that has played host to numerous ancient civilizations, from the Neolithic to the Roman to the Ottoman, making it a significant cultural crossroads. 

“A landscape composed of mountains, hills and rivers, adorned with colors that change from morning to evening, where calm, silence, tranquility and mystery are intertwined,” was how IMA’s president Jack Lang described this impressive setting — which is actually home to Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage site — in an official statement.  

Although the exhibition’s organizers describe AlUla as an “oasis with 7,000 years of history,” it has only been in recent years that it was brought to world attention, thanks to strategic efforts supported by Saudi government officials. The Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) was founded in 2017 with the aim — in collaboration with overseas partners — of preserving and protecting the area, and promoting AlUla to regional and international audiences. 

One of RCU’s ultimate goals is to cultivate AlUla as “a world-class tourist destination.” Plans to boost tourism in the Kingdom have already been set in motion with the arrival of the groundbreaking news that the country will grant tourist visas to nationals of 49 countries. 

Last year saw the launch of AlUla’s Winter at Tantora Festival, which hosted musical legends including Andrea Bocelli, Lang Lang, and Majida El-Roumi. Furthermore, the renowned French architect Jean Nouvel — who also designed the IMA back in the 1980s — plans to construct a bespoke resort called Sharaan, nestled in the rocks of AlUla, an architectural project that is scheduled for completion by 2023. 

According to Saudi archeologist and professor Dr. Abdulrahman Alsuhaibani, who co-curated “AlUla: Wonder of Arabia,” the initial idea for the exhibition came last year. Seeing it finally come to fruition symbolizes a moment of pride but most importantly, an opportunity to enlighten audiences with a better understanding of the Kingdom’s storied archaeological history.

“For a long time, many foreigners have held a common and stereotypical view of Saudi Arabia as a country depending solely on petrol, which is not true,” the Sorbonne-educated Alsuhaibani told Arab News. “Our country has a historical depth of civilizations (to rival) those found in neighboring areas, whether it be Mesopotamia, Greater Syria or Egypt. What I hope to deliver through this exhibition is the true cultural identity of Saudi Arabia, as it deserves to be viewed.”

Our country has a historical depth of civilizations (to rival) those found in Mespotamia, Greater Syria or Egypt

Dr. Abdulrahman Alsuhaibani

A former King Saud University archeology student who dedicated his research to the influential Dadanite kingdom of AlUla, Alsuhaibani fondly recalls the first time he laid eyes on AlUla’s beauty, back in 2005. 

“AlUla means everything to me,” he says. “My personal view is that it represents the past, present, and future. It leaves such a strong impression on you that it is easy to enter AlUla, but difficult to leave.” 

Unfolding across two levels of the museum, the exhibition is divided into four sections, granting insight into the past and present of this little-known city. The first section looks into the fertile environment (due to the presence of an oasis) of AlUla, taking visitors through a vivid, multisensory experience. 

“AlUla at the moment has many gardens and farms, and I was thinking to myself, ‘How can I transport the visitor to such an environment?’” explains Alsuhaibani. And so, the exhibition’s organizers brought AlUla to IMA, stimulating visitors’ senses of smell, sight, and hearing. Permeating throughout the space is the scent of a French-manufactured perfume, using ingredients of plants that commonly grow in AlUla, including figs, dates, pomegranates, and moringa. 

“When I’m asked about what makes AlUla special, I always say it’s where nature meets history,” says Alsuhaibani. To prove this point, the exhibition’s curators brought along the well-known French photographer and environmentalist Yann Arthus-Bertrand — who has practiced aerial photography since the 1990s — to document AlUla’s varying sites in a private helicopter, a mission that was completed within a week, according to Alsuhaibani. 

The results — detailed photographs and videos — are indeed eye-catching: Imagery of Hegra’s massive tombs with decorated facades built by the Nabateans, a nomadic tribe of Arabs who also, famously, established the ‘Rose City’ of Petra in Jordan, is shown alongside bird’s-eye-view videos. 

The second and third parts of the exhibition showcase around 200 archeological objects extracted from excavations carried out collectively by the Saudi-French Commission and King Saud University at the Dadan, Qurh, and Hegra sites — 95 percent of which are being shown for the very first time. One can see delicate and ancient human and animal sculptures, larger-than-life-size statues, incense burners, plants, coins, inscribed rocks, textiles, old maps, and skeletal human remains. 

A subsection of the show presents a selection of sandy toned, inscribed rocks (left behind by inhabitants, traders, and travellers), demonstrating the practice of numerous writing systems including ancient Aramaic, Dadanite, Latin, Greek, and Arabic. 

All in all, such a wide array of objects indicates the long history of settlement and development in the region. “If we look at AlUla alone, it is exceptional because it has been inhabited for the past 200,000 years,” says Alsuhaibani. “There aren’t many places in the world that have had a continuous state of habitation like AlUla.”

Acting as a conclusion of sorts, the forth section offers glimpses of life in AlUla today. The area — which is roughly the size of Belgium — is currently home to 643,000 inhabitants. Visitors are able to ‘meet’ AlUla residents of all social classes, ages and professions through interview-style videos, in which the subjects discuss elements of their day-to-day lives. 

“It all boils down to the people of AlUla. They are the custodians, who were able protect their beautiful city and heritage,” says Alsuhaibani. “And now they are preparing themselves to welcome visitors and tourists in the future.”


Remembering the siege of Makkah

Updated 19 November 2019

Remembering the siege of Makkah

  • Forty years ago, a group of armed fanatics led by Juhayman Al-Otaibi were primed for an assault that would cast a long, regressive shadow over Saudi Arabia

JEDDAH:  In November 1979, the Middle East was already on a knife edge. In Iran, a liberal monarchy that had ruled for almost four decades had just been overthrown by a fundamentalist theocracy preaching a return to medieval religious values that many feared would pollute and destabilize the entire region.

For the citizens of Saudi Arabia, however, the greatest shock was yet to come. The sacrilegious storming of the Grand Mosque in Makkah by armed fanatics that month sent shockwaves through the entire Islamic world.

Murder and mayhem erupted in the very heart of Islam, perpetrated by a reactionary sect determined to overthrow the Saudi government and convinced that one among their number was the Mahdi, the redeemer of Islam whose appearance, according to the hadith, heralds the Day of Judgment. 

Ahead lay two weeks of bitter, bloody fighting as Saudi forces fought to reclaim the Holy Haram for the true faith, but that battle was merely the overture to a war for the very soul of Islam in the Kingdom.

Open, progressive and religiously tolerant, Saudi Arabia was about to travel back in time. Only now, as the Kingdom pushes forward into a new era of transparency and modernization, can the full story of the siege of Makkah and the regressive shadow it would cast over the country for the next 40 years finally be told.

As the citizens of Makkah and those pilgrims who had remained behind after Hajj saw out the final hours of Dhu Al-Hijjah, the 12th and final month of the Islamic calendar, and prepared to greet the year 1400 in prayer within the precincts of the Grand Mosque, a few inconspicuous pickup trucks slipped unchallenged into it through an entrance used by construction workers under the Fatah Gate, on the north side of the mosque.

The trucks and the men who drove them were there at the bidding of Juhayman Al-Otaibi, a disaffected former corporal in the Saudi National Guard.

As a firebrand at the head of a small group of religious students based in a small village outside Madinah, Juhayman had been on the radar of the authorities for some time. According to Prince Turki Al-Faisal, who in 1979 was the head of Saudi Arabia’s General Intelligence Directorate, the group consisted of students from various religious seminaries who had put their faith in the eschatological figure of the Mahdi, the supposed redeemer of Islam. 

“Their aim, according to their beliefs, was to liberate the Grand Mosque from the apostate rulers of the Kingdom and to liberate all Muslims by the coming of the so-called Mahdi,” Prince Turki said in an interview with Arab News.

Juhayman and his group were set on a path that would lead to tragedy, reaching out to potential recruits both inside and outside the Kingdom. “Through their correspondence and preaching, they managed to recruit a few individuals,” Prince Turki said. 

Juhayman Al-Otaibi after his capture following the end of the seige. (AFP)

One temporary recruit was the Saudi writer Abdo Khal, who in 2010 won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his novel “Throwing Sparks.” In an interview in 2017 with MBC television, he said that when he was 17 he was one of Juhayman’s men and had even helped to spread the group’s ideology by distributing leaflets.

“It’s true, I was going to be part of one of the groups that was going to enter the Haram,” he said and, were it not for the intervention of his elder sister, he might have found himself among those who were to seize the Grand Mosque. 

“I was supposed to move out to (a mosque) where our group was gathering. We were supposed to be in seclusion at the mosque for three days, and we were supposed to leave with Juhayman on the fourth day.”

But his sister stopped him going to the rendezvous point, on the ground that he was too young to be sleeping away from home for three nights. Almost certainly, she saved his life. “And then, on the fourth day, the horrendous incident happened.” 

Writer Mansour Alnogaidan was only 11 years old when the siege happened, but like many Saudis of his generation, he felt the tug of various Salafi groups in his youth.

Now general manager of Harf and Fasela Media, which operates counter-terrorism websites, he has done extensive research on the Makkah siege.

Alnogaidan says there were a number of possible reasons behind the 1979 incident, including an existing idea in the mind of Juhayman and his group that they were the successors of a Bedouin movement by the name of “Ikhwan-men-taa-Allah.”

“Some believed they had a vendetta against the Saudi government,” he said in an interview with Arab News. “Another issue was essentially the personal desires of certain people (such as Juhayman) who sought power and control. He wanted to satisfy something inside him.”

Alnogaidan added: “Also, we must not forget that this incident came after the Khomeini revolution in Iran, which had an influence even though not a direct one.”

Juhayman and his group were on the radar of the security services. Over time, recalled Prince Turki, “there were many attempts by authorized religious scholars in the Kingdom to rectify the group’s beliefs by discussion, argument and persuasion.” 

Occasionally individuals were taken in for questioning by the authorities “because they were considered to be potentially disruptive to society. Once they were taken in, however, they always gave affidavits and signed assurances that they would not continue with the preaching and so on.”

But “once they were released, of course, they returned to their previous ways.”

At some point in the closing months of the 13th Islamic century, Juhayman’s group identified one of their number, Juhayman’s brother-in-law Mohammed Al-Qahtani, as the Mahdi.

In the early hours of Tuesday, Nov. 20, 1979, as the inhabitants of Makkah and the pilgrims who had lingered after Hajj gravitated toward the Grand Mosque for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience the dawning of a new century in Islam’s holiest place, the stage was set for the most unholy of outrages.

Carrying firearms within the Grand Mosque was strictly forbidden; even the guards were armed only with sticks. An armed assault on the precincts of the mosque — on the sacred values it enshrined for the world’s two billion Muslims — was unthinkable.

But on the first day of the Islamic new year of 1400, the unthinkable happened.


Juhayman: 40 years on
On the anniversary of the 1979 attack on Makkah's Grand Mosque, Arab News tells the full story of an unthinkable event that shocked the Islamic world and cast a shadow over Saudi society for decades