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Saudis Struggle With How to Treat Pre-Islamic Artifacts Unearthed in Saudi Arabia

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Last year a Saudi/French archeological team made a major discovery at Madain Saleh. Pottery and metal and wooden tools were unearthed at Al Diwan and at Ethlib mountain.

The discoveries at Madain Saleh pose something of a dilemma for Saudis. We Saudis are not particularly eager to look for pre-Islamic artifacts. There's a prevailing opinion among the conservatives that items not Islamic belong in the ground because displaying them risks a tacit endorsement of the culture or religion the artifacts represent.

We have a habit sealing off ancient sites from public view whether they are Islamic or non-Islamic. We have been known to neglect or destroy them. Saudis don't want to run the risk of turning a site into a place of idolatry. As a rule we minimize the publicity of such discoveries.

But as with most things, Saudis can't stop progress. And today there is a significant and successful campaign to develop an economically viable tourism industry that will create jobs and stimulate the economy, particularly in rural areas.

Add to that is the fact that Madain Saleh was named in 2008 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Madain Saleh is now open to visitors. The Saudi Commission on Tourism and Antiquities, under Secretary General Sultan Bin Salman, and the National French Research Center are continuing excavation efforts. An American team also is participating.

The teams are restoring what has been found and electronic software is being used to record the excavation and restoration efforts. The work is continuing and it's certain that more items will be unearthed.

Once the Saudi government finds its footing in establishing a consistent tourism program and becomes more flexible in granting visas to Muslims and non-Muslims to visit the Kingdom, Madain Saleh should become a key component in developing a thriving tourism sector.

But offering Madain Saleh as a tourism stop is not a problem. It was first inhabited by the people of Thamud who are mentioned prominently in the Qur'an. But what of the non-Muslim sites? Like most Saudis, I know little of pre-Islamic sites, although occasionally amateur archeologists come across such places. Frankly, it's gross negligence to destroy or hide these discoveries. The government in recent years has taken positive steps to recover and catalog artifacts, but there's a disagreement with what to do with them once they are found.

It's right that churches are not permitted in the Land of the Two Holy Mosques. But what's less certain is whether crucifixes, if found, should be destroyed or hidden. More precisely is the issue of whether Christian or Jewish artifacts can be displayed in the proper context in a Saudi museum as an acknowledgment of a people who called pre-Islamic Arabia their home.

My guess is that most Saudis will say no. Many Saudis believe there is no place in the Kingdom for such relics.

The Associated Press the other day reported that Sheikh Mohammed Al Nujaimi said non-Muslim artifacts "should be left in the ground." He said that Muslims would not tolerate the display of non-Muslim religious symbols. "How can crosses be displayed when Islam doesn't recognize that Christ was crucified?" he said. "If we display them, it's as if we recognize the crucifixion."

Most Saudis probably agree, although the argument can be made that displaying an ancient cross doesn't necessarily recognize that Christ was crucified but only acknowledges a previous non-Muslim civilization.

Religious symbols aside, there is a precedent in showcasing pre-Islamic items. The museum in Riyadh has a number of pre-Islamic statues. And Riyadh's King Saudi University has similar items.

This is a sensitive time for Saudi Arabia. We have made tentative steps with the international community by promoting inter-faith dialogue. We have been diligent in sending young university students to other countries where they learn of other cultures. We are throwing open the doors of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology to the world's best researchers and scientists. Developing a policy to deal with non-Muslim antiquities is a logical step towards continuing to bridge cultural gaps.

Perhaps displays of such artifacts are not the solution, but it's not unthinkable.

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