Even as Saudi Arabia is determined to write a beautiful chapter in its next story, defined by its Vision 2030 blueprint for the future, it is now rediscovering and embracing a cultural and archeological past destined to play a central role as it opens up to the outside world.
Each of the six World Heritage sites shows that Saudi roots go deeper than many might have imagined, as, since 2008, the country has had no fewer major six sites of “outstanding universal value” inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.
Also, each piece of a fascinating mosaic is a living history — playing an important role in making the Kingdom a destination for cultural tourists from around the world.
However, there is an astonishing collection of over 100 hand-carved tombs, many with elaborate facades and inscriptions, which are cut into sandstone outcrops.
One team, from the University of Western Australia, has spent the past four years identifying and cataloging all the visible archaeology of AlUla county and the nearby Harrat Khaybar volcanic field. It is among the tens of thousands of structures found, most between 4,000 and 7,000 years old — telling a story of a landscape and a climate that was once lush and temperate.
After all, the Aerial Archaeology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia project has identified 13,000 sites in AlUla and an extraordinary 130,000 in Khaybar county, dating from the Stone Age to the 20th century, with the vast majority from the Kingdom’s prehistory.
Among the most intriguing finds cataloged by the AAKSA team are the mysterious mustatils — often huge, rectangular structures, built by an unknown prehistoric people over 8,000 years ago. Possibly unique to the Arabian Peninsula, they are thought to have had some kind of ritualistic purpose.
More than 1,600 are now known to exist across 300,000 square kilometers of northwestern Saudi Arabia, concentrated mainly in the vicinity of AlUla and Khaybar.
It was on the hills of Umm Sinman, in the words of the UNESCO nomination document, that the ancestors of today’s Saudis “left the marks of their presence, their religions, social, cultural, intellectual and philosophical perspectives of their beliefs about life and death, metaphysical and cosmological ideologies.”
Saudi Arabia’s other UNESCO sites include the most recently inscribed, the Hima Cultural Area, listed in 2021. It also consists of a substantial collection of rock art images made over 7,000 years ago by armies and travelers who passed this way along an ancient desert caravan route in the southwest of the country.
Moreover, the $50 billion plan to transform Diriyah into a global historical, cultural, and lifestyle destination will go a long way in creating 55,000 job opportunities and attracting 27 million visitors every year. They will be able to immerse themselves in the history and culture of a kingdom that, in less than 300 years, has grown from an idea born in a small desert community to become one of the world’s most influential nations.
Awaiting visitors on the site of 7 square kilometers will be museums, galleries, world-class hotels, restaurants, shops, homes, and educational and cultural facilities, all created in the traditional Najdi architectural style.
But at the Kingdom’s heart will be Turaif, which, like so many of Saudi Arabia’s historic sites, is a priceless piece of the past now helping to shape the future of this country — whose walls are built out of the desert sands.