Follow by Email

Friday, January 4, 2013

Some Thoughts on Historical Sites in Saudi Arabia

Just as a note, I doubt that many of my other posts until the end of this trip will be very chronological, and I'll try and work more on themes rather than days.  This also will allow me to skip talking about things I'm not really informed of or don't really care about without as much guilt.

Anyway, historical buildings and stuff...

When driving [or sitting as a passenger if you're an apathetic female reader] through Riyadh, you are surrounded by futuristic and opulent architecture.  You can really understand frequent Saudi boasts about the modernity and development of infrastructure in the Kingdom.  Oil wealth is funding the Al Saud ambitions of presenting a new image of Arabia and a rival to other up-and-coming Gulf cities like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Manama.  However, this development has costed and characterized the appreciation and understanding of Saudi Arabian history.  You will see no historical buildings around town, quite unlike the typical Western capital that always has some throw-back to the early history of the city.  In Saudi Arabia, it seems that people have no interest in the land's incredibly rich history, especially that which predates King Abdulaziz (the first king of Saudi Arabia, also called Ibn Saud...I can explain the parts of an Arabic name later maybe).

In Riyadh, the two exceptions to this rule that I got to see are Musmak Palace and Old Dir'aiyah.  Musmak is a palace/fort in Riyadh.  It is the fortress that Abdulaziz (Ibn Saud) took to solidify his hold on Riyadh.
Colored lights on Musmak Palace
How Ibn Saud unified Arabia after conquering Riyadh

The museum included many weapons related
to the taking of Musmak Palace and
anything that generally made Ibn Saud look good

We arrived at night to find colored lights flashing on the facade of rough stone.  The lights and the amount of people milling around made the fort look like a themed section of Disney World.  The museum inside was open, and we were led on through to see generally self explanatory and expected exhibits of weapons and traditional Arabian crafts.

Another historical site in Riyadh is Old Dir'Aiyah, which is a section of NW Riyadh where you can still see buildings like those so romanticized in films and literature.  Old Dir'Aiyah consists of old palaces and houses in various states of both decay and restoration.  The restoration work is currently under way and construction equipment in the area made our bus ride rather tricky.  I'd like to revisit the area in a few years when the trucks have rolled out and the buildings are open to the public.

Riyadh seems it can erect modern architectural masterpieces much quicker than it can complete restoration work, though that is certainly understandable.  I wonder if, when completed, these restored areas that seem so akin to the restored areas of American cities like Williamsburg, VA will have admission fees or not.

Tonight, I am in Jeddah and am again in awe at the modernity, traffic, and cosmopolitan lifestyle here.  The group did get a bit of culture in Jeddah's beloved old souks.  The buildings housing stalls of prayer beads and spices certainly give a feeling of being in a different time, but the prevalence of clearly Westernized items, mostly cheap knock-offs, detract from the beauty of the experience, though I feel the permeating odor is somewhat similar to that experienced by camel traders of yore.

There are of course many historical sites that are simply not in my 10-day program as planned by the Ministry of Education in Saudi Arabia.  The holy cities of Mecca and Medina house sites most relevant to Muslims, but also to Christians and Jews also descended from Abraham.  Unfortunately, Mecca and Medina are off-limits to non-Muslims and so visitors cannot view the Kabba or the beautiful Masjid Nabawi.  Also not on the program was Medain Saleh and the famous Al Hijr archaeological site, of course we also will not see the various lesser archaeological sites present in the Kingdom either.  I think that a visit to these sites would have altered my conceptions of how Saudi's view their history.  Similarly, I believe that spending some time in the desert would leave the traveler feeling more tied to Arabia's ancient roots than touring major cities would.  I'm certainly not complaining--just saying that I may feel differently about this idea were I to see more of the Kingdom.

While I love the city life, development, and optimism in KSA, I'm finding myself nostalgic for a time I never experienced in this place I've never been to before.  When questioned about misconceptions I had about KSA before coming, I don't include this idea because I was already pretty aware of the cultural situation here.  Saudi cities don't center on their own histories like American cities often do; they are much more concerned about the future and ancient ideas clogging up their goals.  I do hope that, on this trip or any future visits to the Kingdom, I find a place that, to use a perturbing phrase, looks to its future without forgetting its past.  I think I could find places like this in the Eastern Province or maybe in the north and south, and though we won't be taken there on this visit, maybe on a future trip, I'll find that ideal city that can progress while allowing its people to remember their history through some architecture and infrastructure.

No comments:

Post a Comment

About Your Author

My photo
Troy, AL, United States
I am a Political Science student at Troy University in southeastern Alabama. I have been given fantastic opportunities to travel to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, among other brief trips, to study and glimpse other cultures. I believe there is much to be learned about other people while studying, and I want to share my experiences with you.