Saudi’s Petra, Madain Saleh, last year became the country’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. What few tourists there are in Saudi Arabia now head up to the north edge of the Hejaz for a glimpse into the ancient Arabian Peninsula, what was possibly the southern extent of the Nabatean kingdom at Petra. But the politics of digging in Saudi, where for some extreme conservatives the discovery of Jewish or Christian ruins is an affront to Islam and its holy geography, is another matter. The AP recently ran an excellent feature on the slow movement to excavate in the Kingdom, and the pitfalls of finding a cross, or a star, or a depiction of the Prophet, in a country whose ruins remain essentially untouched.
The sensitivities run deep. Archaeologists are cautioned not to talk about pre-Islamic finds outside scholarly literature. Few ancient treasures are on display, and no Christian or Jewish relics. A 4th or 5th century church in eastern Saudi Arabia has been fenced off ever since its accidental discovery 20 years ago and its exact whereabouts kept secret.
In the eyes of conservatives, the land where Islam was founded and the Prophet Muhammad was born must remain purely Muslim. Saudi Arabia bans public displays of crosses and churches, and whenever non-Islamic artifacts are excavated, the news must be kept low-key lest hard-liners destroy the finds.
“They should be left in the ground,” said Sheikh Mohammed al-Nujaimi, a well-known cleric, reflecting the views of many religious leaders. “Any ruins belonging to non-Muslims should not be touched. Leave them in place, the way they have been for thousands of years.”
In an interview, he said Christians and Jews might claim discoveries of relics, and that Muslims would be angered if ancient symbols of other religions went on show. “How can crosses be displayed when Islam doesn’t recognize that Christ was crucified?” said al-Nujaimi. “If we display them, it’s as if we recognize the crucifixion.”
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