The relationship between the government of Saudi Arabia and the country’s sites of historic and archaeological importance is a long, complex and often controversial one. In 2002 the construction of the Abraj Al Bait towers, the world’s second tallest skyscrapers, resulted in the demolition of an Ottoman fortress dating back to the 18th Century, while Medina’s Al Baqi cemetery, burial place to the Prophet Muhammad’s wives, was levelled in the 1920s under the orders of King Ibn Saud.
The reason for this is that Wahhabism, the school of Islam practised in the country, forbids the worshipping of shrines and relics. Even so, there has been a growing campaign in recent years, both within Saudi Arabia and internationally, for the country’s historic sites to be preserved.
Here, then, are five of the best surviving archaeological sites in Saudi Arabia.
Not as famous, perhaps, as the stone structures at Petra, this pre-Islamic site is a good half a day’s drive from Medina and more or less a day’s drive from Jeddah, but it’s certainly worth it. The tombs here date back to the Nabatean Kingdom (of which Petra was the capital), which dominated the region over 2,000 years ago, and these imposing landmarks are about as dramatic as any to be found in the Middle East.
2) Hijaz Railway, Mada’inSaleh
While you’re in the neighbourhood, why not visit the Hijaz Railway Museum? It may not house the world’s most extensive collection of antique railway stock, but it offers a glimpse of a fascinating chapter in the history of Saudi Arabia. The Hijaz railway itself was one of the most ambitious projects attempted in the region, the brainchild of German engineer Meissner Pasha. The depot at Mada’inSaleh, now home to the museum, was once a vital link in the Hijaz railroad.
3) Salwa Palace, Diriyah
There are a number of big, impressive buildings in Diriyah, and perhaps the most impressive of all is the palace of SaadIbn Saud, but appearances can be deceptive. While it may look ancient, the SaadIbn Saud Palace dates back only as far as the 1990s! History buffs may prefer to visit the Salwa Palace which, while not exactly ancient, can at least trace its pedigree back to the early 19th Century, when it was the home of the very earliest Al Saud imams and amirs (ancestors to the present day royal family).
4) Dumat Al-Jandal, Al Jawf
Dumat Al-Jandal has been the location of settlements and cities since as far back as the 10th Century BC, when the province of Al Jawf, where it’s located, was a part of the Assyrian Empire. Like Hegra, Dumat Al-Jandal also provides us with a window into the world of the Nabatean Kingdom, and in the 1970s was the location of a rare find of Roman and Nabateanartifacts, including a great deal of pottery. Today you will find the ruins of Mard (or Ma’ard) Castle (dating back to the 3rd Century AD) and the more “modern” Omar Bin Al Khattab Mosque (built in the 7th Century!)
5) The Island of Tarout
Situated off the coast of Qatif, in the Persian Gulf, Tarout has been inhabited since at least as far back as 5,000BC. As well as pottery and early examples of steatite carvings and sculpture an ancient Jewish cemetery, dating back to pre-Christian times, was discovered there in the early 1960s. Tarout was also, in 1915, the location of the signing of the Treaty of Darin, between the British government and the House of Saud.
Author Bio: David Llewellyn writes about travel and tourism for Anjum Hotels.