Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- Although it’s only a stone’s throw away from the capital of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, nobody had heard much about the ancient city of “Diriyah” before its Al-Turaif quarter became a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Although most people from Riyadh were originally descendants of Diriyah, the history of the city has yet to be recorded, and Diriyah’s al-Turaif Quarter being named a UNESCO World Heritage site represents an opportunity for the antiquities and history of Diriyah – which is located only a few kilometers north-west of Riyadh – to be documented. Diriyah is the city that witnessed the foundation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and it was Saudi Arabia’s first capital, prior to the construction of the city of Riyadh.
For over two centuries, the Wahabi reform movement originated from the heart of the city of Diriyah, which is located upon the banks of the fertile valley known as Wadi Hanifa. The houses, palaces and mosques built in the ancient city of Diriyah were built using mud bricks, along with palm tree leaves, and even the trunks of palm trees. The city became a living example of the harmony between the environment and its elements. The large amount of archaeological ruins that can be found in Diriyah is due to the fact that its houses and palaces continuously flourished in times gone by, and its gardens and parks continued to expand, indicating the extent of the fertile land, and the hard work of its people.
In any case, it is essential for a documented historical archive to be established, not only with regards to Diriyah, but for all of Saudi Arabia’s antiquities, and for this to be made available for the public and scholars to access anywhere. The documents should also be available in two languages, Arabic and English, in order firstly to identify the Kingdom’s artifacts, and then to preserve them from extinction.
I hope that the day will come when all Arab countries attempt to combine their archaeological and historical archives, with regards to their cities and antiquities, to further the concept of a global human cultural heritage. Any heritage, regardless of the country it is located in, is the property of all humanity, and it is the duty of the whole world to maintain and protect it.
In Egypt, we have lots of experience of encouraging the international community to participate in preserving Egypt’s cultural heritage. Perhaps we all recall the international campaign, sponsored by UNESCO, to preserve the monuments of Egyptian Nubian region, which were in danger of being submerged following the completion of the Aswan Dam. The whole world came together to assist, either technically or financially, to save the temples and monuments of Nubia. Also, we have expertise and experience, regarding all aspects of the administration of archaeological sites. First and foremost, Egypt has experience of managing submerged artifacts. We trained archaeologists to dive in the sea and rivers in order to record and recover sunken artifacts. Other Arab countries are in need of such departments, for example the Sultanate of Oman, where there is a number of archeological artifacts located underwater just waiting to be discovered!
Integration between the countries of the Arab world, from east to west, has become necessary, and important in order to preserve our cultural heritage. We must stand together as one voice in international forums, to defend our antiquities against the numerous attempts from other countries that have a reputation of seeking to undermine our heritage.
My worst fear is that modern construction companies will compete with one another in the ancient city Diriyah, changing the city’s features, especially after I read about the initiation of projects to pave the roads and streets of Diriyah – on the Saudi Embassy in Egypt’s website – in order to facilitate tourism; this is an extremely serious matter that has many negative side effects. In Egypt, we are now removing asphalt paved roads, and restoring them to their original state, in order to prevent buses and cars from driving in this area, making sure that museums are accessible by walking. The historic project in Cairo is the best example of this.