a corridor with 7,000 years of history

In Saudi Arabia, the region of Hegra is home to an exceptional Nabataean site, listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2008. A reminder of its history, on the occasion of the exhibition "Al-Ula, wonder of Arabia ", at the Institute of the Arab World, Paris.

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In the great promotional campaign just launched by Saudi Arabia to accompany the opening of the country to tourism, the Nabataean site of Hegra plays the spearheads, with the "pearl of the desert" that give it his procession of monumental tombs and its inscription, in 2008, on the list of World Heritage of Unesco. Yet, as evidenced by the exhibition "Al-Ula, marvel of Arabia", which opens its doors to the Institute of the Arab World, the Hegra region is rich in a cultural heritage that goes beyond the two small centuries where the Nabataeans dominated the area, and there are other jewels, older for many of them.

Thus, even before the Arabian Peninsula enters the history, well before its animal totem, the dromedary, is domesticated, nomadic human groups borrowed the natural corridor where stands today the modern city of Al -Ula, obligatory passage between two mountains. It was at least 7,000 years ago. As in Hegra, the testimony of these Neolithic peoples is essentially funerary. Built with care, several hundreds of cairns, circular but also triangular, are often found on the highest points. As writes in the catalog of the exhibition, Wael Abu-Azizeh, from the Archéorient laboratory, "They form necropolises that seem to be a way of expressing an increased demand on a territory and, thus, its control, even its appropriation".

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Presented for the first time

Later, at Ist millennium BC AD, the kingdoms of Dadan and Lihyan take possession of the Al-Ula corridor. Even if they have only concerned a small part of the archaeological site for the moment, the excavations carried out in Dadan have already brought to light many carved elements, many of which are exhibited for the first time outside Arabia: statues of men larger than life, where the musculature is impressive if not exaggerated, but also the amazing bas-relief of a lioness breastfeeding one of his little ones or a multitude of small ex-voto.

Nabatean tombs at Hegra.
Nabatean tombs at Hegra. Arab World Institute

In the chronological itinerary that was chosen by the curators of the exhibition, archaeologists Laïla Nehmé and Abdulrahman Alsuhaibani, it is logically Hegra who succeeds Dadan. The focus is on funeral practices of the Nabataeans, including two educational animations, the first showing how, in less than a year and with few men, the tombs were made: from the top of the building, the workmen and sculptors laid out a platform under their feet, which descended with them as they cleared the facade of the mountain, which spared the construction of a scaffolding. The second animation shows the preparation of the body of the deceased.


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