The Roman legionaries who pushed into Arabia all the way to Mada’in Salih

The Roman fort at Hegra seen from the north. (Photo credit: Emmanuel Botte)
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Updated 01 March 2024
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The Roman legionaries who pushed into Arabia all the way to Mada’in Salih

  • A British Museum exhibition showcases the lives of people who formed one of the most famous armed forces in the world
  • In the late 2nd century, a detachment of Third Cyrenean Legion was deployed to the conquered Nabataean town of Hegra

LONDON: Anyone who has watched the 2000 movie “Gladiator” will have a vivid, if not necessarily wholly accurate, idea about what life must have been like for the legendary legionaries who imposed Rome’s will upon much of the Mediterranean and beyond for half a millennium.

In the movie, Russell Crowe plays Maximus Decimus Meridius, a Roman general who falls victim to imperial politics after defeating the Germanic tribes of northern Europe. Betrayed, he ends up having to fight for his life as a gladiator in the Colosseum.

But as a new exhibition at the British Museum in London makes clear, life for the soldiers of Rome between about 30 BCE and 476 CE was not all about bloody battles with marauding barbarians.

FASTFACT

• The exhibition, ‘Legion: Life in the Roman army,’ can be viewed at the British Museum in London until June 23.

“The story of the Roman army is more than just pitched battles and war,” said Sir Mark Jones, interim director of the British Museum.

The exhibition, entitled “Legion: Life in the Roman army,” “is a chance to show different perspectives and showcase the lives of the men, women, and children who formed one of the most famous armed forces in the world.”

The exhibition features 200 fascinating artefacts, “iconic Roman military objects alongside contemporary evidence of the real lives of men, women, and children in forts and frontiers across the empire.”




The world’s only intact legionary shield, unearthed at the site of the ancient city of Dura-Europos, on the banks of the Euphrates in Syria. (Photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery)

These include the world’s only known intact legionary shield, on loan Yale, the oldest and most complete classic Roman segmental body armor, recently excavated on a battlefield at Kalkriese in Germany; a cavalry mask helmet found in England; and a dragon standard unearthed in Germany.

But as fascinating as the exhibition is, it fails to tell the story of the legionaries who pushed further south into Arabia than many have previously realized — a story revealed by the discovery and excavation over the past 15 years by a joint French-Saudi archaeological team of a fortified camp on the very edge of the Roman empire.

The Roman historian Strabo described a disastrous expedition that penetrated as far south as modern-day Yemen in 25-24 BCE, but no archaeological evidence of this has been found, despite the reported loss of the large force led by Aelius Gallus, a Roman general from Egypt.




A copper alloy Roman legionary helmet from the British Museum exhibition. (Photo credit: British Museum)

The tale told by the stones and inscriptions at Hegra is the story of the men of Legio III Cyrenaica — the Third Cyrenean Legion. Thought to have been founded in Egypt by Mark Antony, in the early first century BCE the legion was transferred to the newly established Roman frontier province of Arabia, created after the annexation of the Nabataean Kingdom in 106 AD.

Here, it was based at Bosra, in the south of modern-day Syria. But at some point in the later 2nd century, a detachment of the legion was dispatched to police the conquered Nabataean town of Hegra, known in modern times as Mada’in Salih, which today is a UNESCO World Heritage site north of the Saudi town of AlUla.

There, a fort was built on the plateau on the southern edge of the town, in the lee of a hill on which a citadel was also constructed.

The first evidence of the presence of Roman troops emerged slowly, in inscriptions on stones used for building first found in the vicinity of Hegra as early as the 1970s.




Part of the southern perimeter wall of the Roman fort at Hegra. (Photo credit: Zbigniew T. Fiema)

“These found in the Hegra fort and by the southeast gate of the town could be identified as commemorative inscriptions left by still living soldiers,” said Zbigniew Fiema, an archaeologist from the University of Helsinki who is part of the Saudi-French Mada’in Salih Archaeological Project.

“The epigraphic customs of antiquity were characterized by something which we nowadays can identify with Facebook practices, because they often present simple yet informative messages — ‘Hello, I am here; I have done this and that.’

“The preservation of someone's name through an inscription was very important in antiquity. Also, ancient inscriptions are often invocations to deities, thanking or asking for protection.”

Written in Greek or Lartin, more than 14 inscriptions have been found, some of which bear witness to the presence of soldiers from Legio III Cyrenaica.

Several of the men who recorded their names for posterity describe themselves as “stationarii,” soldiers whose duties would have included monitoring travelers coming and going through the gates of Hegra, acting as a police force and maintaining highway security on what would have been an important stop on the imperial postal and transport system in Arabia.




Hegra (Mada’in Salih) monumental inscription dedicated to Imperator Marcus Aurelius in the Roman province of Arabia. (Wikimedia Commons)

Many of the inscriptions appear to be giving thanks to Hammon, a god worshipped in Libya and Upper Egypt and assimilated with the Roman deity Jupiter for successfully completed missions.

Some are etched into stone. But one of the longest is a Latin inscription painted in black, which somehow has survived, having endured the elements for over 1,800 years.

It begins: “To Our Jupiter Best and Greatest Hammon, and for the health of Our Lords the Emperors, and to the holy goddess Minuthis and the Genius of the Third Legion Cyrenaica, good fortune!”

It names five men — “Lollius Germanicianus the senatorial legate … Bennius Plautianus centurion and the soldiers’ friend … Flavius Saianus decurion, an excellent man, Flavius Nicomachus soldier of the legion, from the centuria of Aurelius Marcus, and Antonius Maximus Eros, from the centuria of Ancharius Secundus, stationarii” — all of whom “give thanks to the genius of the gate.”




A fearsome dragon standard found in Germany. (Photo credit: Koblenz Landesmuseum)

Some inscriptions are much shorter: “Remember Komodos!” beseeches one Greek inscription, found on a stone reused in a gateway built in the late 2nd or early 3rd century. An inscription on another re-used building block reads “Remember Ulpis, the camel-rider!”

The fort at which some of these men would have been stationed — built to a standard Roman army design and complete with perimeter walls, barracks, two gates, corner towers and possibly a small bathhouse, or heated room — is thought to have been one of the earliest military structures in Roman Arabia.

Excavated over several seasons since 2015, the fort has yielded a wealth of information and artifacts testifying to the Roman presence in Arabia, including numerous ceramics, often from the Mediterranean, bronze artefacts, more than 150 Roman and Nabataean coins, and pieces of what are thought to be horse harnesses and armor.




Part of the recently unearthed Roman fort in Hegra. (Photo credit: Zbigniew T. Fiema)

Also found were the butchered bones of animals that provided the garrison with meat — cattle, camel, donkey, horse, sheep and goat.

What isn’t clear is where the Roman soldiers were from.

“Some names indicate that their bearers originated in the Roman East, for example Syria, but some of these soldiers could have come from all over the world,” said Dr Fiema.

“We really do not know. However, since the units mentioned in these inscriptions are often attested for a long time as stationed in the Roman East, it will be reasonable to assume that the soldiers were often locals, drafted or volunteered in the Eastern provinces.”




A map of the Roman Empire shortly after Trajan's conquests of the kingdom of Nabataea, including Hegra in the interior. The province was soon reduced back to the line of limes Arabicus. (Wikimedia Commons: Tataryn)

The main significance of the discovery of the Roman fort at Hegra is “the solid confirmation of what we have suspected before that this part of the Hijaz was definitely a part of the Roman province of Arabia, and thus of the Roman Empire, and that the Roman presence was not ephemeral.

“We know that the 2nd century was a time of particularly intensive Roman activities in Arabia and in the Red Sea region. Also, at this point of time, we know that the Roman military presence in that part of Arabia extended at least until the end of the 3rd century.”

Prior to the discovery of the fort at Hegra, it was thought that the legions had advanced no further south into Arabia than the head of the Gulf of Aqaba.

“Scholarly hypotheses postulating that the northwest Hijaz was a part of the empire existed already in the late 20th century,” said Fiema.

“But the discovery of the Roman fort, and the Latin inscriptions, in Hegra have indeed confirmed the validity of these early hypotheses.




A cavalry helmet in the form of an Amazon. (Photo credit: British Museum)

“Unfortunately, most of the maps of the Roman Empire, which are published in school textbooks and scientific works, still show the border of the empire coterminous with that of the modern state of Jordan.”

So far, it is not known exactly when the Roman legions abandoned the Hijaz, or why.

Fiema has little doubt that archaeological evidence that the Romans advanced even further south into Arabia, as testified to by Strabo, remains to be unearthed.

“One should expect that intensive archaeological exploration of the Arabian Peninsula should bring more information on the Roman presence.”

There is some evidence that Roman legions may even have made it as far south as the Farasan Islands in the Red Sea off southwest Saudi Arabia.

 

The rebirth of AlUla
Hegra, ancient city of the Nabataeans in Saudi Arabia’s historic AlUla Valley, is emerging from the mists of time to take its rightful place as one of the wonders of the world

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Award winners crowned at close of Gulf Cinema Festival in Riyadh

Updated 21 April 2024
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Award winners crowned at close of Gulf Cinema Festival in Riyadh

RIYADH: Award winners were crowned on the final day of the fourth Gulf Cinema Festival in Riyadh on Saturday, at a ceremony attended by prominent artistic and cinematic names, the Saudi Press Agency reported.
The winners were nominated by a jury headed by Ibrahim Al-Hasawi from Saudi Arabia, who was joined by Bassam Al-Thawadi from Bahrain, Rawda Al-Thani from Qatar, Khaled Amin from Kuwait, Nujoom Al-Ghanem from the UAE and Ibrahim Al-Zadjali from Oman.
“Hajjan,” a coming-of-age drama set in Saudi Arabia about two brothers who battle to save their favorite camel starring Omar Al-Atawi and Abdulmohsen Alnemr, won the award for best feature film.
It also picked up the best photography award, with Jerry Fassbender recognized for his work on the film. Al-Atawi won the best actor award for his role.
The best actress award went to Bahraini Maryam Zeman for her part in the movie “My Word.”
The award for best short film went to the heavily tipped “Clouds,” about a widower and war veteran who are forced to balance their own morals with societal expectations in southern Oman, directed by Muzna Almusafer.
The award for best documentary film went to Mansoor Al-Dhaheri’s climate change expose “Swimming 62.”
Ziad Al-Hussein took home two awards, including one for best director, for his film “Shiabni Hani.”
The award for best original soundtrack went to Khaled Al-Kammar for his music that featured in the movie “Hawjan,” a modern twist on the ancient Arab jinn mythology, which also opened the latest edition of the Red Sea Festival last year.
The Gulf Cinema Festival was held under the patronage of Saudi Culture Minister Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan, who is also chairman of the board of directors of the Film Commission, which organized the event.
This year’s festival hosted screenings of 29 films, three training workshops and six cultural seminars.
Abdullah Al-Qahtani, CEO of the commission, said in a speech during the ceremony that the festival embodied a commitment to supporting the film sector in the region and building bridges for cinematic cooperation between the Gulf countries.
He thanked Prince Badr for his sponsorship and support of the festival and the film sector in Saudi Arabia, as well as the general secretariat of the Gulf Cooperation Council.


Merwas — Riyadh’s beating heart of creativity

Updated 20 April 2024
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Merwas — Riyadh’s beating heart of creativity

  • World’s largest music production studio is nurturing Saudi talent, streamlining local industry

RIYADH: Riyadh’s Merwas, considered the biggest art and entertainment factory globally, is proving to be one of Saudi Arabia’s greatest music industry assets.

Nada Al-Tuwaijri, co-founder and CEO of Merwas, told Arab News that the facility, which holds the Guinness World Record for the largest music production studio, “is home to all artists.”

She added: “The methodology behind it is to create solutions through the subsidiaries, and invest in both talent and infrastructure.

“Alongside it being a one-stop shop for all content creators, we strive to take our local talents from local to global and create a unique stamp in the industry.”

Spread across almost 5,000 square meters, Merwas fosters creativity, collaboration, and the production of multimedia content, along with hosting workshops, networking sessions, and community events. (AN photos by Abdulrhman Bin Shalhoub/Supplied)

The entertainment zone and audiovisual production studio, located in Boulevard Riyadh City, houses 22 main studios alongside its academy.

Some of the top musicians in the world have visited Merwas since it opened in 2022. These include DJ Khaled, the acclaimed Saudi singer Rabeh Saqer, and the Emirati singer Ahlam. Afrojack, a world-renowned Dutch DJ and producer, also led an electronic music boot camp to nurture local talent and inspire a new generation of Saudi artists.

HIGHLIGHTS

• Merwas, located in Boulevard Riyadh City, houses 22 main studios alongside its academy.

• The academy’s classes offer local creatives and artists direct access to seasoned expertise.

• The Earth Sound Studio, or ESS, named after the late Saudi composer Talal Maddah.

Spread across almost 5,000 square meters, the culture factory fosters creativity, collaboration, and the production of multimedia content, while providing artists with access to top-tier services, facilities and industry expertise.

Spread across almost 5,000 square meters, Merwas fosters creativity, collaboration, and the production of multimedia content, along with hosting workshops, networking sessions, and community events. (AN photos by Abdulrhman Bin Shalhoub/Supplied)

The Earth Sound Studio, or ESS, named after the late Saudi composer Talal Maddah, features state-of-the-art technology, such as the SSL console, which is used to create depth on music tracks and ensures the true soul of the artist’s voice is protected.

This live recording space is booked almost every day by various artists, and has been used by some of the Arab region’s biggest stars.

The facility, which holds the Guinness World Record for the largest music production studio, is home to all artists according to co-founder Nada Al-Tuwaijri. (Supplied)

One of the only five Neve consoles in the world can be found in the Neve Studio. The panel is known for its high-quality sound and warmth, and is ideal for music recording, vocal tracking, and mixing for exceptional audio quality.

Its live studio can accommodate over 120 orchestra members and their instruments to provide a unique recording experience.

Spread across almost 5,000 square meters, Merwas fosters creativity, collaboration, and the production of multimedia content, along with hosting workshops, networking sessions, and community events. (AN photos by Abdulrhman Bin Shalhoub/Supplied)

Specifically designed for electronic music production, the EMP Suite is a DJ’s dream, with cutting edge synthesizers and digital audio workstations ensuring an artist leaves the room with a fully produced track.

Merwas is also home to three production suites, designed for content creators who require a comfortable and professional environment for music production, editing, and mixing. Each suite is equipped with industry-standard gear, software, and acoustics to support a wide range of projects.

Nada Al-Tuwaijri, Merwas cofounder and CEO

The studio also provides private rehearsal spaces to ensure Saudi talents are nourished to their full potential. The versatile space is designed for musicians, performers, and other artists to rehearse and refine their craft within a comfortable environment with access to instruments and equipment.

Part of the charm of recording studios is the live jam sessions that have given birth to some of the most iconic records to date. Merwas’ Band Live/Control Room also captures the spontaneity of live performance within its soundproof walls.

Alongside (Merwas) being a one-stop shop for all content creators, we strive to take our local talents from local to global and create a unique stamp in the industry.

Nada Al-Tuwaijri, Merwas cofounder and CEO

Championing audiovisual pursuits, the studio has made space for high-quality podcasts and videos to come to life.

The podcast suite and FM radio recording spaces are tailored to immerse listeners with unbeatable audio clarity, while the 25-meter-long Green Screen room helps ideas come to life, whether commercial, film, or music video.

Spread across almost 5,000 square meters, Merwas fosters creativity, collaboration, and the production of multimedia content, along with hosting workshops, networking sessions, and community events. (AN photos by Abdulrhman Bin Shalhoub/Supplied)

Material can then be edited at the color-grading suite, which is essentially a small theater with 4K projector. Producers, directors, writers, and engineers gather here to put the final visual touches on video projects through its DaVinci color grading software and hardware.

Academy Classes offers local creatives and artists direct access to seasoned expertise. These feature advanced stations for sound production, engineering, and technical programs, with everything necessary for a basic understanding and training of music production.

The studio hosts workshops, networking sessions, and community events in an effort to flourish the music industry locally while making it a magnet for international talent. Anyone can be a part of this community by booking a suite or signing up for a workshop on their website merwas.sa.

Merwas has positioned itself at the the forefront of the entertainment industry being the first of its kind in the MENA region. In less than a year since its launch, it has already became a hotspot for musicians across the globe to visit and utilize its services, from rising talents to international A-listers.

Founded by Al-Tuwaijri and Chief Content Officer Rumian Al-Rumayyan in partnership with Sela, Merwas treasures Saudi creativity and is a vital part of building an ecosystem and community for local artists.

Their partnership with the Saudi Authority for Intellectual Property has set a new focus on preserving the rights of local creatives, pillared by the aim to enrich the culture of the Kingdom while empowering its citizens and their creativity in an environment of abundant knowledge, education in culture, art, entertainment and music.

 


15k held for labor, residency, border violations in Saudi Arabia

Saudi police have arrested hundreds of illegals breaching country’s law. (SPA)
Updated 21 April 2024
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15k held for labor, residency, border violations in Saudi Arabia

  • The report showed that among the 996 people arrested for trying to enter the Kingdom illegally, 64 percent were Ethiopian, 33 percent Yemeni, and 3 percent were of other nationalities

RIYADH: Saudi authorities arrested almost 15,000 people in one week for breaching residency, work and border security regulations, the Saudi Press Agency reported on Saturday.

According to an official report, a total of 9,479 people were arrested for violations of residency laws, while 3,763 were held over illegal border crossing attempts, and a further 1,430 for labor-related issues.

The report showed that among the 996 people arrested for trying to enter the Kingdom illegally, 64 percent were Ethiopian, 33 percent Yemeni, and 3 percent were of other nationalities.

A further 37 people were caught trying to cross into neighboring countries, and six were held for involvement in transporting and harboring violators.

The Saudi Ministry of Interior said that anyone found to be facilitating illegal entry to the Kingdom, including providing transportation and shelter, could face imprisonment for a maximum of 15 years, a fine of up to SR1 million ($260,000), as well as confiscation of vehicles and property.

Suspected violations can be reported on the toll-free number 911 in the Makkah and Riyadh regions, and 999 or 996 in other regions of the Kingdom.

 


Authorities bust drug smugglers across Saudi Arabia

Updated 20 April 2024
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Authorities bust drug smugglers across Saudi Arabia

  • The Saudi government urges anyone with information related to suspected smuggling operations or customs violations to call the confidential hotline 1910, the international number +966114208417, or to email [email protected]

RIYADH: Saudi authorities recently made several drug-related arrests and confiscations in operations across the Kingdom, the Saudi Press Agency reported on Saturday.

Border Guard land patrols in Al-Ardah governorate, Jazan region arrested a Yemeni national attempting to smuggle 60 kg of qat.

In the Saqam sector of Najran region, the land patrols thwarted the smuggling of 58 kg of hashish.

The General Directorate of Narcotics Control arrested a Bangladeshi resident in the Hail region for attempting to sell methamphetamine, a narcotic substance commonly referred to as “shabu.”

The authorities also arrested a citizen in Jazan for selling amphetamines, highly addictive drugs that stimulate the central nervous system.

Preliminary legal procedures have been completed for all the individuals involved and all seized items have been handed over to the relevant authorities.

The Saudi government urges anyone with information related to suspected smuggling operations or customs violations to call the confidential hotline 1910, the international number +966114208417, or to email [email protected].

Tips received relating to smuggling and breaches of common customs law are treated with strict confidentiality. Financial rewards are offered for valid tips.

 


Saudi deputy FM meets Colombian counterpart in Bogota

Francisco Coy Granados receives Waleed Elkhereiji in Bogotá. (Supplied)
Updated 21 April 2024
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Saudi deputy FM meets Colombian counterpart in Bogota

  • The two reviewed bilateral relations and ways in which they could be strengthened, along with the latest developments and issues of mutual concern

BOGOTÁ: Saudi Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Waleed Elkhereiji recently met his Colombian counterpart, Francisco Coy Granados, the foreign ministry reported on X on Saturday.

During the meeting, the two reviewed bilateral relations and ways in which they could be strengthened, along with the latest developments and issues of mutual concern.

The meeting was also attended by Acting Charge d’Affairs of Saudi Arabia’s Embassy in Colombia Mohammed Al-Shatri, and the director general of the deputy minister’s office, Mutashar Al-Enezi.