Protecting Arab Heritage from the Sands of Time

A snake temple. A dead poet’s home. Ancient rock art. The Arabian lion. These are just some of the treasures of Arabian heritage that have been destroyed, threatened, or forgotten by the incessant march of modernity – or simply lack of awareness.

In parts of the Arabian Gulf, however, heritage is finally getting its due.

For decades, natural, historical, and archaeological sites were not a priority in the Middle East, especially in countries that had economic, political, and security instability. Not surprisingly, important sites have been neglected, destroyed by conflict, looted, and even built over.

Of the 1,199 sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List, just 93 – 8 percent – are in Arab states – the lowest of any region.

Part of the reason is bureaucracy. It takes a lot of paperwork and proper documentation to have one’s heritage added to UNESCO’s international list. Many worthy sites are never recognized, as insufficient information makes verification impossible.

Yet political will is also an essential ingredient to cultural preservation. In several Gulf states, that inclination has arrived.

In recent years, Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have put significant energy into pushing for the preservation and recognition of places and traditions. National heritage-related celebrations – such as festivals for Saudi coffee and exhibitions for Emirati and Omani handicrafts – highlight the importance of regional culture far beyond national borders. 

A particularly important milestone in these efforts was celebrated in September, when Saudi Arabia registered its first UNESCO natural heritage site, the Uruq Bani Ma’arid Reserve.

“The inscription of the reserve on the UNESCO World Heritage List as the first natural heritage site in the Kingdom contributes to highlighting the importance of natural heritage on a global scale and reflects the outstanding value of the reserve,” said Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Farhan Al Saud, the country’s culture minister.

Encompassing the western part of the Rub Al Khali, or Empty Quarter, the greatest expanse of windblown sand on Earth, the Uruq Bani Ma’arid protected area is rich with desert landscapes and wildlife habitats. It is home to iconic desert animals including the Arabian Oryx and the Arabian Sand Gazelle.

Another milestone came this month when the popular traditional dish Harees was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list for Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Oman. Made with wheat, meat and ghee, the creamy dish is represented in folk stories and poetry.

Securing a UNESCO listing is important for many reasons. First, it helps ensure international recognition, which means more tourism, better legal protections, and conservation support from the World Heritage Fund. Listing also helps with reconstruction or rehabilitation. Many important sites in Syria and Iraq, for instance, are dependent on the attention international recognition affords. 

Being listed doesn’t guarantee safe keeping. Recent demolitions tied to construction near historic Cairo’s City of the Dead, a site listed since 1979 as “one of the world’s oldest Islamic cities,” have drawn local and international condemnation. Egypt had asked for “revisions” to the boundaries of historic Cairo so the city could carry on with demolitions. The issue is still under heated discussions. 

The country’s rationale – construction in the name of progress – is incredibly short-sighted. The story of a nation and its heritage is embodied in its artifacts, physical and figurative. Protecting them should be the rule rather than the exception.

Many recognize this. International museum repatriations are accelerating amid demands for the return of treasures looted or stolen by colonizers of African and Arab states. 

To be sure, much work remains. Thefts at museums and galleries around the world have resulted in national treasures ending up at auction, sold for millions to private collectors.

In one particularly egregious case, a Ni’isjoohl memorial pole, a hand-carved totem pole dating to the mid-19th century, was stolen in 1929 from a Canadian Indigenous community and sold to the Royal Scottish Museum (now the National Museum of Scotland). Fortunately, in that case, the artifact is now back with its rightful owners in British Columbia.

Yet many other looted artifacts remain in the hands of thieves. 

Perseveration and promotion of heritage, in all its forms, needs champions at the grassroots and national levels. Without supporters, cultural artifacts will disappear with time.

In some cases, a legend is all that is left. The lost city of Ubar, also known as Iram of the Pillars, was said to be a towered city from thousands of years ago of wealth, jewels, incense, and gold. Mentioned in the Quran and retold in the timeless tales of One Thousand and One Nights, Ubar was said to have been destroyed by God, toppled by strong winds and buried in the sand.

Excavations and archaeological finds over the years have placed the legend of Ubar in different locations; these include modern-day Oman, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and the desert of the Rub’ Al Khali. 

For now, Ubar remains a myth, lost in the sands of time. Our more tangible heritage doesn’t need to suffer the same fate.

Rym Tina Ghazal is an editor-in-chief of a cultural magazine, a peace and cultural ambassador, a thought/youth leader, documentarian, lecturer, and author for young readers. X: @Arabianmau


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