Saudi Arabia to restore cultural sites
Asir, Saudi Arabia - If Rijal Almaa, a stone village tucked into a fold of Saudi Arabia’s southern mountains, showcases the polished end-point of new efforts in the kingdom to preserve cultural heritage, the hamlet of Watan Emsoudah represents the difficulties faced.
Its low-covered alleyways lie thick with debris of decades of abandonment, some stone roofs have caved in and thistles grow high between the hamlet’s walls. Near the entrance three men work to save a house.
Saudi Arabia has allocated nearly $1 billion to preserve its heritage in a reform plan but, after decades of neglect and in some cases deliberate destruction, saving its cultural treasures will prove complex and expensive.
While the funds were allocated in a National Transformation Programme unveiled in June, no details were given as to how it would be spent and the only tourism projects listed in the plan were for a few large sites.
“For maybe 40 years we stopped using these old houses and every five years you need to rehabilitate them,” said Abdulaziz al-Ghanem representative of Asir’s architectural heritage centre at the government’s General Commission for Tourism and Antiquities. “I hope we get more money. We need it.”
Rehabilitating Watan Emsoudah, the village in Asir province swaddled by terraced fields in a shallow bowl on a mountain plateau, will cost around $1.6 million, said Ibrahim al-Almiy, a former history teacher and the local investor behind the projects.
Although Riyadh is a low-rise sprawl of highways and modern, concrete shopping malls, the towns of the Red Sea coast and the southern highlands still contain fine buildings in their historic old quarters.
In its efforts to end reliance on oil for economic wealth, Riyadh wants to invest in tourism, aiming to increase spending by Saudis at home instead of on holidays abroad and by pilgrims to Mecca at other attractions around the country.
There is also an ideological agenda to such efforts: Restoring cultural sites occupied a prominent place in Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz’s Vision 2030 reform plan as a means of boosting national pride.
The spectacular rock-hewn Nabatean tombs of Madain Saleh, the ornate façades of Jeddah’s coral-built old town and the ancient rock art hidden among boulders in the northern deserts constitute an inheritance unique to the kingdom.
Ironically, given the focus on religious tourism, recent destruction has mostly been in Mecca. Its old houses, including some dating to the time of the Prophet Mohammad, have been razed for development projects to increase pilgrimage.
That approach was partly a result of the austere local Sunni Muslim tradition, which regards the veneration of objects, including buildings associated with Islam’s earliest days, as tantamount to idolatry. The focus on national and even pre-Islamic heritage shows one way in which religious strictures are loosening.
The road from Watan Emsoudah to Rijal Almaa descends Mount Souda in hairpin bends as the juniper scrub of the cool upper slopes gives way to the humid heat of the Red Sea coastal plain.
The example of Rijal Almaa, where investment of $1 million over the past three years has created from the village an attraction that is prominently featured in Asir province’s tourist literature, shows how restoration projects can succeed.
Its spectacular setting in a mountain valley and the towering size of its stone houses, decorated with chequerboard patterns in quartz give it advantages some other old villages lack. Almiy said this model could be emulated.
Money is a big problem. Almiy, who lived in an old house in Rijal Almaa until the age of 16, is an independent investor and his projects were carried out in partnership with government agencies, which provided some funds and official blessing.
Still, the government has invested so little in local heritage that it does not even have a register of traditional architecture in Asir or neighbouring provinces where most towns and villages have crumbling old houses.
It is a pattern repeated across the country: In Najran, a fertile valley running between steep dry hills into the Empty Quarter desert, clusters of adobe tower houses with distinctive horizontal ribs nestle among the fields.
Some are clearly looked after by their owners but most are slowly eroding, their lack of care causing such structural damage that wide cracks are opening down their flanks or that the towers are listing dangerously.
The spending envisaged on tourism and heritage in the new reform plans, however, seems likely to focus mostly on big projects. Wide-scale investment is planned near Madain Saleh and on some Red Sea islands rich in marine wildlife.
Saudi heritage was given a boost in 2014 when the UN cultural body UNESCO listed old Jeddah as a World Heritage Site. It presents some of the same preservation challenges as the villages of Asir, where, like in Jeddah, most old houses are privately owned and some are in grave disrepair.
“When I was young we didn’t know the importance of these buildings. In those days we cheered when they knocked them down for a new road but now we have managed to safeguard the architecture,” said Sami Nawar, mayor of Jeddah’s old city.
The UNESCO listing has helped to ensure a brighter future for old Jeddah’s 600 historic houses, built of coral and with delicate wooden screens ornamenting their imposing façades. It galvanised state investment and a restoration plan.
In Asir, any such holistic approach appears a long way off. “Saving our heritage is a national project. It’s for the whole nation but I don’t think there’s going to be any investment soon,” said Almiy.