Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Robbing the Desert | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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There are treasures more precious than oil in Saudi Arabia’s out-stretched deserts…buried antiquities and ruins of ancient cities which – despite their frailty – stand tall in the face of time, telling stories about ancient civilizations that withered and died away long ago. The deserts of Saudi Arabia have preserved the country’s cultural heritage for thousands of years until the ferocious campaign against the Arab Orient began in the 19th century, with western Orientalists flooding into our region to try and uncover its history. Even though the priority of some of these Orientalists was to achieve their scientific objectives, even writing books on what they saw and learnt in terms of antiquities, customs and traditions – thereby preserving an important part of the Arab Orient’s history during the 19th century – others were nothing more than treasure hunters and adventurers. Even the first wave of explorers thought nothing of collecting rare antiquities and shipping them to their own countries or selling them to whoever would provide them with the funding required for their journeys and research into the Arab Orient.

The second half of the 19th century witnessed a ransacking of priceless antiquarian heritage that was plundered from the desert of the Arabian Peninsula. The case of the famous Taima Stele smuggled from Saudi Arabia into France in 1884 to be placed in the Louvre Museum serves as a glaring example of the plundering of Arab heritage. The stele was discovered by explorer Charles Huber on his first journey through the desert which led him to the Oasis of Taima where he discovered the famous stele amongst the ruins of an ancient citadel. The stele is a stone construct approximately one meter high with a semi-circular peak and inscriptions in the ancient Aramaic language. Huber kept the stele among other antiquarian acquisitions until the date of his mysterious assassination near Jeddah in 1884. Afterwards, German explorer Julius Euting tried to get hold of Huber’s acquisitions however, the then French consul managed to smuggle them into France.

We should document the story behind every antiquity stolen from our region as this could act as a reference for us when we demand the restoration of our plundered heritage.

Even after the Orientalists’ onslaught, Saudi Arabia’s heritage continued to be plundered, but this time the exploiters were some mining and oil- extracting companies. Foreigners hired by those companies found a favourable opportunity to exploit the Saudi desert and loot its treasures through illegal excavations. Subsequently, thousands of antiquities were smuggled out of the country to finally end up in world museums and some private galleries.

I have a dream that our antiquities would return to their homeland and that we would be the custodians of our own heritage. And this dream is becoming closer and closer to reality. This dream grew after the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia finally succeeded in restoring a considerable portion of its plundered antiquarian heritage. A few months ago, and in celebration of the occasion, Saudi Arabia held an exhibition of the restored antiquities. It housed around 14,000 antiquarian pieces restored from the US and the UK. The exhibition was inaugurated by the man who orchestrated the entire magnificent symphony on behalf of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, namely Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz. Apart from the major goal of the exhibition, which was to introducing the Kingdom’s cultural heritage and raise awareness regarding its archaeology, the second undeclared goal was to send a civilized message to all countries housing stolen antiquities that Saudi Arabia is intent on restoring its antiquities and protecting its heritage. This message has definitely sunk in, and honourable Europeans started to voluntarily return the antiquities in their possession. Even international museums showed preparedness to ship back the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s usurped antiquities to their country of origin.

Behind this achievement stand loyal men who adore their country’s heritage. I believe it is our duty to refer to and honor them for their role in preserving our national heritage. The list of names includes Dr. Saad bin Abdul Aziz al-Rashed, Dr. Ali bin Ibrahim al-Ghaban, Mr. Jamal Saad and Mr. Nayif al-Qanour. Needless to say, there are many others who cannot all be mentioned here, but I have witnessed the fruit of their efforts and I would like to take this opportunity to salute their work, and express my appreciation.