RIYADH, November 8, 2017 – When we think of archaeology and exploration of ancient civilisations and artefacts, Saudi Arabia does not usually come to mind. Despite the Kingdom’s geographic location on the crossroads of the great human migration that took place many millennia ago, little did we know about the country’s distant past – until a few years ago, when archaeological research started to yield a wealth of information and reveal stories we never heard before.
Zahi Hawass, the famous archaeologist and former Egyptian Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs, says some of the treasures that have been unearthed in Saudi Arabia have immense significance, not just for the Kingdom but for the entire region and beyond.
The archaeologist, who is credited with many recent discoveries, including the tombs of the pyramid builders at Giza and the Valley of the Golden Mummies at Bahariya in Egypt, is in Riyadh for the November 7-9 Saudi Archaeology Convention, a first-of-its-kind event organised by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage to highlight its history and heritage, as well as the efforts of the government and individuals in preserving that heritage. Below are excerpts from an interview on Wednesday with the Center for International Communication (CIC) of the Ministry of Culture and Information:
What is the significance of the Saudi Archaeology Convention in Riyadh?
When I came here a few years ago, I found out that Prince Sultan bin Salman [President and Chairman of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage] had a vision. That can be seen in museums.
I think the Saudi people need to develop an understanding of the country’s ancient heritage. These museums will help in doing that. They already understand that any stolen artefacts must be returned to the state. I am very impressed by this.
I think this archaeology conference is very important as it has provided a platform for the heads of antiquities departments from across the Arab world to interact and exchange ideas. This is the first time such an event is taking place here.
I tried to do this for 11 years during my tenure at the helm of Egypt’s antiquities department. I know how important it is to understand each other and help each other. I always say that we have to explore and preserve our monuments and let people know about their significance. We have to be the scientists of our monuments, rather than allowing foreigners to be the scientists of our monuments.
To do so, what’s most important is training. If every country has a training programme for young people then they can compete with foreigners in exploration and conservation efforts. We do not need to stop foreigners from coming to our countries and working; we need to encourage them, but at the same time we need to be equal to them so we can do some important work ourselves.
What do you have to say about the archaeological excavations taking place in Saudi Arabia?
The archaeological work being carried out in Saudi Arabia is very important and the archaeologists follow the right techniques. A seal bearing the name of Ramses II of Egypt has been discovered in Saudi Arabia. It shows that there were trade relations between the new Kingdom in Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula.
We need to do more excavations, because if something of Rameses II can be found here there is every possibility of finding something even more important and interesting. In my opinion, Egypt and Saudi Arabia should collaborate on exploring this country.
You have made many discoveries inside and outside Egypt. How are those discoveries different from those in Saudi Arabia?
I think Saudi Arabia has started to be known to the world, especially to the western world, for the first time. No one knew anything about this country before. It kept everyone in the dark. To study its monuments was impossible. No one could imagine coming here to do excavations. Now, there are 34 foreign explorers working in this country. That is really good. Their work will encourage others to make more discoveries. Some of the artefacts found here have been exhibited in 10 cities across the world. That is incredible. These will inspire people to undertake more explorations.
We need field schools in Saudi Arabia to teach young people about excavation techniques. That will help them in their efforts to discover the secrets of the Arabian Peninsula.
I have spoken to Prince Sultan about the need to train young Saudis on excavation techniques. I have trained 500 Egyptians and next week I am starting with some of them my first excavation in the Valley of the Kings [in Egypt]. I am looking for the tomb of the queen of Tutankhamun.
The United States has recently withdrawn from UNESCO. Is it going to affect conservation efforts here and elsewhere in the region?
No, this country has enough resources, so it does not need UNESCO for anything at all.
But this withdrawal is very bad, because UNESCO is completely reliant on US funding. I think Arabs should start giving more funds to UNESCO, because the organisation would be useless if it doesn’t have funds.
I had really hoped that this time the UNESCO head would be an Arab.
Which discovery in Saudi Arabia do you think has been most significant so far?
When I saw the beautiful headless statue of a king, on display at Riyadh Museum, I was very impressed. It was discovered by a young Saudi. Another statue that was found may be the queen. They also found her tomb containing her jewellery and some beautiful artefacts. In my opinion, these two are the most important discoveries made so far in Saudi Arabia.