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SAUDI ARABIA: First pharaonic inscription sheds new light on pre-Islamic past

November 8, 2010 |  8:31 am

Saudi inscriptionSaudi archaeologists recently discovered the first royal pharaonic inscription on a mountain face near the ancient oasis city of Tayma, evidence, experts say, of the major trade networks that criss-crossed the region thousands of years ago.

The discovery comes on the heels of a major push by Saudi authorities to foster wider appreciation for the Arabian peninsula's pre-Islamic history, which has often been glossed over or ignored in official narratives. In September, the Louvre in Paris wrapped up an exhibition of pre-Islamic Saudi artifacts, most of which had never been displayed before, according to an article in Le Monde at the time (a translation appeared in the Guardian).

The attention on the country's pre-Muslim past has proved controversial in the ultra-conservative kingdom. Some Saudis believe that displaying non-Muslim artifacts, whether Pagan, Jewish or Christian, should be forbidden, even if these artifacts pre-date Islam. In 2009,  the well-known Saudi cleric Mohammad al Nujaimi said such artifacts should be "left in the ground."

But the archeologists are continuing anyway. In 2008, Madain Saleh, an ancient pre-Islamic Nabatean city, was named a UNESCO World Heritage site, despite some local reservations.

"Saudis don't want to run the risk of turning a site into a place of idolatry," the Saudi journalist Sabria Jawhar explained in a piece published last year on the Huffington Post.

"Like most Saudis, I know little of pre-Islamic sites, although occasionally amateur archaeologists come across such places," she wrote. "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."

The latest find "sheds more light about the role of Tayma as a very important site in the international trade road at that time, not only from Egypt but also Mesopotamia and Syria," Dr. Ali Ibrahim al Ghabban, from the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, told Babylon & Beyond.

Tayma, he said, was the mPicture 7ost important economic city in northern Arabia. Even the frankincense that came from the Arabia peninsula was shipped from Tayma to the rest of the world, he said.

The inscription found bears the name of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses III, who ruled in the 12th century BC, and probably functioned as an ancient road sign to travelers, guiding them on their way to Tayma.

Display won't be an issue for the inscription outside Tayma -- it's carved into the side of a mountain. But the news conference held Sunday at the National Museum sought to cast the discovery as a major archaeological find, indicating a clear effort by authorities to set an example by celebrating Saudi Arabia's pre-Islamic past.

"This is the first royal inscription found, and not just for anyone, for one of the most important kings," said al Ghabban. "This is the past, the history of the country, and we give the same importance to all of it and people understand that this is historical evidence."

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photo: Dr. Ali Ibrahim Al Ghabban shows a picture of the first pharaonic inscription found carved into a mountain in northern Saudi Arabia. Credit: Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities

Photo: A close-up of the inscription shows the royal seal of the pharaoh Ramses III. Credit: Arab News