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Ancient rock art to draw modern tourists to Saudi Arabia

Dr Majeed Khan has been researching Saudi rock art for more than 30 years Supplied
Dr Majeed Khan has been researching Saudi rock art for more than 30 years
  • Thousands of artworks found
  • Date back to 7,000 BCE
  • Growing interest in Arabia’s ancient history

Saudi Arabia is funding research and excavation of the ancient rock art in its caves and mountains as it seeks to develop cultural tourism, an archaeologist has told AGBI.

Dr Majeed Khan, who acts as a consultant to the kingdom’s Ministry of Culture, has been researching its petroglyphs – images carved out of rock thousands of years ago (as distinct from cave paintings) – for more than three decades.

He says Saudi Arabia is one of the richest countries in the world for carvings that depict ancient gods and warriors, or local flora and fauna – and its government is now investing “unbelievable funds” to study them and make them more accessible to visitors.

The rock artworks date back to before 7,000 BCE, when the Arabian peninsula began to desertify. It later lost the diverse ecosystem based around rivers and lakes, though its traces can be seen in the rocky escarpment to the northwest of Riyadh. 

“Saudi Arabia is not only rich in oil, it is the fourth largest rock art region in the world. They have thousands of petroglyphs and inscriptions,” said the 82-year-old Khan. 

“They were documented before, but in the old days we didn’t have good cameras. Now we are surveying the same areas finding the exact locations with modern technology.” 

Some of the finest carvings are in the kingdom’s northwest, including the Tabuk province where the giga-project city Neom is being built. More can be found among the pre-Islamic Nabataean ruins at Madain Saleh near AlUla – which is being developed into a major tourist destination on a par with Petra in Jordan. 

Rock art of Saudi Arabia
Rock art of Saudi ArabiaAll photos: Dr Majeed Khan
Camels and big cats, gods and warriors, carved on rocks at sites across Saudi Arabia

The southern region of Najran near Yemen also has thousands of inscriptions on rocky outcrops that shed light on pre-Islamic political and cultural life in the Arabian peninsula. 

The mountainous region south of Mecca has less rock art because it was once densely forested, according to Khan.

There is even less in the eastern region because of a lack of mountains, but archaeologists have been given access to pre-Islamic and early Islamic sites there. 

This work is made possible by what Khan describes as a huge change in the government’s approach to Arabia’s ancient history, which he has witnessed through his work for the culture ministry’s Heritage Commission.

“I’ve been here for the last 40 years. When the department was newly established, that was a really hard time. But now we have good facilities. We have lots of funds – unbelievable funds – to do excavation surveys and develop some sites for tourism,” Khan said.

The kingdom is also developing local expertise in archaeology. “In the past we brought people from England and France, but now they are Saudis and well-trained. There are a lot of Saudi women working in the field too,” he added.  

Khan said the ancient carvings have an immediacy that will attract significant interest from visitors. 

“People don’t understand archaeology, but rock art is easy to see and understand. It’s more attractive to people, so the government is paying a lot of attention to it for tourism,” he said.  

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