June 2, 2006
Saudis hope stones mystery will appeal to tourists
By Andrew Hammond
RAJAJIL, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - The stones of Rajajil
form a striking pattern against the clear desert sky, the
fallen and tilting sand-colored slabs conjuring up visions of
each are clustered on the edge of the Nafud desert in
northwestern Saudi Arabia. Local legend says they are a lost
tribe punished by God.
Whatever their origin, local authorities hope the standing
stones and the history-rich al-Jouf region will form the
centerpiece of a new tourism drive.
"Because of the political situation, tourism has been low
but the strategy is to revive it and we are hoping to make
al-Jouf a tourist attraction," said Hussein al-Mubarak, a
former museum director who now heads a committee to encourage
Archeologists believe the Rajajil stones date from before
3,000 BC -- when human civilization first began to thrive in
ancient Egypt and Iraq. The stones also have graffiti linking
them to pre-Islamic deities such as the female goddess Widd.
As with Stonehenge, there is no consensus on whether the
site was a temple, a burial ground, a place used for astronomy
or something else. Scholars believe Stonehenge was built
between 3,000 and 1,600 BC.
Mubarak says the stones were placed on the desert's edge
deliberately, probably to worship the sun.
"The sun was worshiped in the North of the Arabian
peninsula and the moon was worshiped in the South. High ground
was normally chosen for worship," he said, surveying the site
near the Skaka oasis, 750 miles from Riyadh.
"Some people say it was a tribe turned to stone for doing
unclean things, like using bread to clean with or washing with
milk," Mubarak said. "But these are just myths. We don't want
to connect the site now with religious things since we want to
Rajajil could be related to "rijal," modern Arabic for men.
"We have several mysterious sites all over the Arabian
peninsula...but we have failed to know the reason why they were
made and who made them," said Majeed Khan, a Semitic script
expert who has spent 30 years studying Arabian sites.
Khan said the stones of Rajajil were part of the mystery.
"They have something to do with religion, maybe it has an
astronomical connection. There is no archeological evidence to
prove the date -- we excavated and there is no pottery."
Rajajil could date from a time when the peninsula was
changing from a land of lakes and trees -- depicted in hundreds
of rock art sites -- into today's dry, desert region.
Al-Jouf was a center of early Arab civilization, dominated
by powerful queens who are listed in the annals of invading
Assyrians. The area was also the staging-post for the Arab
conquest of the Middle East in the 7th century.
The ancient city of Dumat al-Jandal, where the word "Arab"
was first recorded by Assyrians, is still standing near Skaka.
Many say al-Jouf, which borders Jordan, has been neglected
since it became part of the Saudi state in 1932.
TOURISM BRINGS HOPE
Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, is not known as a
popular tourist attraction, partly because of its adherence to
the austere Wahhabi form of Islam.
Plans to bring tourists to al-Jouf ran aground when
militants linked to al Qaeda began attacking foreigners in a
campaign to topple the Saudi monarchy launched in 2003.
However, the violence has largely died down and Saudi
Arabia, which already receives millions of Muslim pilgrims to
the holy cities of Mecca and Medina each year, said last month
it would begin issuing tourist visas to foreigners.
Tourism could be a lifeline for al-Jouf's youth.
"Some young people round here have gone crazy from not
finding a job, even graduates," said 24-year-old police recruit
Bassam, driving along new tarmac roads that have been built
recently as part of the tourism development drive.
Young people say they hope King Abdullah will make good on
his promise to create more jobs in the civil service. There are
also plans to set up a university in the region.
Analysts say Saudi Arabia's political system and cultural
mores have fed unemployment and huge disparities in wealth
which are threatening to become a serious problem as the
population of 17 million Saudi nationals grows.
Mubarak said there were limits to how much attention the
remote northern region inhabited by 300,000 people could demand
of the capital Riyadh.
"I can't compare the money put into Mecca, with its pilgrim
visitors, or Riyadh, as the major population center," he said.
"I really hope we can bring tourists because it will help
develop the region, it will bring good income for young