National Museum, Saudi Arabia

December 6 2014

This is worth visiting. Architecture good (Raymond Moriyama), museology good. And I like dioramas. There are historical films too, and what must be the only cinema in the Kingdom outside a royal palace.

A visit reminds you, who are conscious of hotel lobbies and shopping malls, that Arabs of the subcontinent used to live in a vast, beautiful and varied landscape. They have lost the macrocosm and are imprisoned in a microcosm. The night sky is gone, too. Perhaps some tours can bring you back to them. Driving from Riyad to Bahrain, as I have done, does not. Plastic bags blow over the desert, which looks as beautiful as one of their ubiquitous dusty spaces between buildings with empty PET bottles rolling around them.

Out of that macrocosm the Arabs wrested, to paraphrase Toynbee, their conception of the unity and omnipotence of God. That seems a small affair, too, now, as reflected in the Islam we usually see, though the call to prayer can remind you of it.

Apart from the museum, there isn’t much to do in Riyad. You can go to a Friday morning public beheading by the sword in Deira Square if you really want to. It is easy to meet locals, which is not the case in some of the smaller Gulf states. They are often charming.

Don’t ignore the King Abdulaziz Memorial Hall just because it sounds boring: there are wonderful photographs of 20th-century Arabia.

Other Gulf museums: Museum of Islamic Art, Doha. Dubai Museum. The Louvre and the Guggenheim on Abu Dhabi’s Museeninsel, Saadiyat Island, have yet to open.

When did the Arabs ride into history? According to the museum, in 853 BC at the Battle of Qarqar, in which Assyria, conquering Syria, fought Aram-Damascus and Israel. A camel cavalry under King Gindibu fought on the side of Damascus.

After some cosmic and anthropological material (Man and the Universe), the museum has a section on the Old Testament of Arab history which, if it ended at the Hijra, lasted 1475 years, a few years longer than the New Testament has lasted so far.

It places the kingdoms, towns and religions of that period in a regional context. The rest of this is based on notes (nothing more) made during two visits, with some fact checking.

Tarout Island. Off the Eastern Province in the Gulf. A very early settlement.

Dilmun. The early civilisation of Bahrain.

Qurayyah. Location of the earliest Midianite pottery, 13th century BC. Cities of Midian: northeast edge of the subcontinent near the Gulf of Aqaba and northern Hejaz.

Tayma. Same area. In 2010, the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities announced the discovery of a rock near the oasis bearing an inscription of Ramesses III (early 12th century BC): the first confirmed discovery of a hieroglyphic inscription on Saudi Arabian soil. Tayma must have been on a land route between the Arabia and the Nile valley. The earliest mention of it is in Assyrian inscriptions of the 8th century BC. From the 1st century CE (earlier?), it had a significant Jewish population.

Gerrha. Persian Gulf coast. To the Greeks, East Arabia (present al-Hasa province), or its capital city, was known as Gerrha, a corruption of the Arabic Hagar (present Hofuf). Hagar/Gerrha was destroyed by the Ismaili Shiite Qarmatians, rebels against the Abbasid Caliphate, at the end of the 9th century CE.

Al-ʿUla, southwest of Tayma on the incense road from Yemen to Damascus. The Dedanite kingdom flourished in the 7th and 6th centuries BC. Nabonidus, king of Babylon, conquered Tayma, Dedan and Yathrib, the old Medina, in 552 BC or later. The next few hundred years, until around 100 BC, were the time of the Kingdom of Lihyan. Then Nabataean Arab frontiersmen controlled the region, until at least AD 106, when Trajan conquered their capital Petra. They made Madaʿin Saleh or Hegra, 22 km to the north of Al-ʿUla, their second capital. In 2008 Madaʿin Saleh became Saudi Arabia’s first World Heritage Site.

Thaj. Northwest. Perhaps Seleucid-era.

Qaryat al-Faw. Between Mecca and Yemen, but further inland than Mecca, at a pass overlooking the northwestern edge of the Empty Quarter. Capital of the Kindah Kingdom from the 1st century BC to the 4th century CE.

Ruwafa. Nabatean.

Dumat Al-Jandal. Nabatean, with a pre- and post-Nabatean history.

Ain Jawan. Pre-Islamic necropolis in eastern Arabia.

Al-Uyoon, eastern Arabia.

Najran. Oasis near Yemeni border. Now mainly Ismaili Shiite. On the incense route. Conquered c 685 BC by the Sabean King Karibʿil Watar I of Yemen. Najran was under Yemeni – Minaean or Sabean – rule at different times during the next centuries and remained part of Yemen. Aelius Gallus, Roman prefect of Egypt, led an unsuccessful expedition to conquer Arabia Felix and won a battle near Najran in 25 BC. He used it as a base from which to attack the Sabaean capital at Maʿrib. When the Ḥimyarites conquered the Sabeans in AD 280 they probably also took control of Najran. The north Arabian Lakhmids attacked Najran in 328. There was a Christian community from the 5th century CE under the influence of Axum. Under the Caliph Umar, the Christian community of Najran was deported to Mesopotamia, on the ground that no non-Muslims were to live in the Arabian peninsula. Najran had a pre-Islamic Jewish community as well, historically affiliated with the Yemenite Banim Chorath. Saudi Arabia conquered Najran in 1934. Two hundred Jews fled from persecution to Aden in September and October 1949. They were later airlifted to Israel.

Khaybar. Oasis 153 km north of Medina (Yathrib). Before the rise of Islam, a fortress town inhabited by Jewish tribes. It fell to Muslim forces in 629. Soon afterwards Umar expelled the Jews.

Lakhmids. Arab power on the frontier of Iraq, c AD 300 until their conquest by the Sasanids of Persia in 602.

Ghassanids. Similar client state of the East Roman Empire. Both were swept away by the Muslim invaders in the 7th century.

Jerash, Asir.

Al-Qullays, a pre-Islamic pilgrimage site.

The first mention of Jews in the area of modern-day Saudi Arabia dates, by some accounts, to the time of the First Temple. Immigration to the peninsula began in earnest in the 2nd century CE, and by the 6th and 7th centuries there was a considerable Jewish population in the Hejaz, mostly in and around Medina. They were expelled in the early days of Islam.

On pre-Islamic Mecca and Medina, see this old post.

And see:

Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities

Museum site.

Wikipedia:

Ancient towns in Saudi Arabia

Judaism in Arabia

Christianity in Arabia.

___

The rest (upstairs) deals with the Prophet; the wars of Islam; Caliphs, Mamluks, Turks; calligraphy; the Haj; the unification by King Abdulaziz. In the middle of the 18th century, Wahhabi reformers brought a strict version of Islam to the Nejd, which had sunk into irreligion – and it was the Nejd under the Saud family which unified the peninsula, or most of it, between the wars.

There had been two Saudi states before that. The First Saudi State or Emirate of Diriyah lasted from 1744 to 1818. The Ottomans, who had controlled the Holy Cities since 1517 (through the Hashemite sharifs of Mecca), felt threatened. In the winter of 1818 Diriyah fell after a siege (of which the museum makes much) to Ibrahim Pasha, the son of their Egyptian viceroy.

The Second Saudi State or Emirate of Nejd, founded by Turki, lasted from 1818 to 1891. It was brought to an end by the Rashidis of the Emirate of Jabal Shammar, the arch-enemies of the House of Saud.

___

Since the domestication of the Arabian camel, nearly 2,000 years before Muhammad’s day, Arabia had been traversible, and ideas and institutions had been seeping into the peninsula from the Fertile Crescent that adjoins it on the north. The effect of this infiltration had been cumulative, and, by Muhammad’s time, the accumulated charge of spiritual force in Arabia was ready to explode.

The horse was used in Arabia from about the same time. Elephants were brought into the peninsula by the invading Axumites in the 6th century. The Year of the Elephant (Wikipedia).

Old posts here:

Seepage into Arabia

Roads to Mecca (including the grotesque part about the Makkah Hilton in a comment)

Tales from the India Office.

Regions of Arabia

Historical regions of Arabia, early 20th century

Mankind and Mother Earth, OUP, 1976, posthumous

4 Responses to “National Museum, Saudi Arabia”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    To the assertion that Islam was traditionally tolerant of other religions, one must reply: “Not in Arabia”.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    Around Arabia: Africa, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia.


  3. […] a momentous and troubling relationship. A remarkable photograph was taken, which I saw consciously for the first time last year in the King Abdulaziz Memorial Hall in […]


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