Hima Cultural Area: An Open Museum In Saudi Arabia’s Najran

In a mountainous area of southwest Saudi Arabia, lies the Hima Cultural Area, one of the region’s ancient caravan routes, and the world’s wonders. Ḥima Cultural Area features a substantial collection of rock art images depicting hunting, fauna, flora and lifestyles in a cultural continuity of 7,000 years.

Every nation endeavors to shed the light on the history of its ancient civilizations. Saudi Arabia showed unwavering interest in preserving every bit of the Kingdom’s cultural heritage, in the Hima Cultural Area and elsewhere.

The wise leadership in the Kingdom succeeded in making this a tangible reality by successfully enlisting Hima Cultural Area in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage List of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, to become the sixth Saudi site included in the list.

This success would not have been achievable without the endless support from the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

Najran’s Hima Cultural Area is one of the largest open museums for archaeological rock inscriptions. The includes a series of seven freshwater wells covering an area of 30 km, dubbed “Al Hamata”, “Suqia”, “Jannah”, “Umm Nakhla” and “Al-Qarayen”, surrounded by caves and mountains filled containing rock inscriptions, drawings, graves, and stone circles.

The cultural rock art area in Hima extends over ​​557 square kilometers and includes 550 rock paintings containing hundreds of thousands of rock carvings and drawings.

The Hima site includes tens of thousands of rock inscriptions written in several ancient texts, including inscriptions in the Thamudic, Nabatean, Southern Musnad, Syriac and Greek inscriptions, in addition to the Ancient South Arabian script and the Kufic script.

The Hima rock art and inscriptions represent an invaluable source for written, artistic, historical and even ethnographic documentation of climate change events during the prevailing period. It sheds light on the succession of civilizations. as evidenced by the vast archaeological remains that were found at the Hima site in the Najran region in the form of tentacles, installations, tombs, and workshops for the manufacture of stone tools.

Ancient Settlement of Najran

Hima Cultural Area near the modern city of Najran has much to offer in terms of history, heritage, and rock art research.

According to the latest figures, it includes 1,293 human drawings, 5,121 animal drawings, 3,616 Thamudic inscriptions, 2,775 Ancient South Arabian script inscriptions and three Nabataean inscriptions.

The ancient settlement was an important trading center along the Incense Route.

According to historians, ancient trade caravans coming from Yemen used to pass through the ancient settlement in Najran before continuing northward.

The area had two branches, the western one which was was destined for Egypt, the Levant, Greece and Rome. While the eastern branch headed for Mesopotamia.

During the peak of the incense trade between 800 BCE-600 CE, the glorious ancient citadel of al Okhdood was constructed.

Al Okhdood citadel lies on the southwestern edge of today’s city of Najran, was constructed in the 7th-6th century BCE.

The citadel’s huge building blocks in the entrance feature a depiction of a heavily built horse similar in form to the Nisean breed of the 6th century BCE. This breed is known to be used by Persians. There are also serpent depictions on the blocks.

The ancient history of human occupation of Bir Hima is credited to its resources of wildlife, water and limestone terrain. Saudi Arabia’s rock art, which has found appreciation in recent years, is considered among the richest in the world along with other examples found in Australia, India and South Africa. The area was explored by the Philby-Ryckmans-Lippen expedition of 1951 and published by E. Anati (1969–72). It was then noted that the images on the rocks were inscribed with inset into the sandstone formation, dated 300–200 BC. Its rich heritage of rock petroglyphs caught the attention of Saudi Arabia’s Department of Antiquities only after 1976 when Jubba and other sites were investigated. One of the expedition members investigating this art form found a site west of the ancient wells of Bir Hima where he recorded 250 images.

Saudi Arabia’s Strategic Tourism Plan

The first pillar of the area’s tourism plan by the government of Saudi Arabia is the strategic approach.

Several key elements make up the holistic strategy for tourism at the Cultural Rock Arts in Himā Najrān, including:

1. The significance of the linkages to Najrān wider area and region.

2. The benefits of integration with wider tourism frameworks and activities.

3. The scope is derived from the fundamental principles of sustainable tourism and eco-tourism, including social, economic and environmental factors.

4. A desire to retain the sense of authenticity and unspoiled beauty of the site, with a “minimal footprint” approach to tourism infrastructure and interventions.

The second pillar is linkages and connections. A very important component of the Cultural Rock Arts in Hima Najran is the way it has linkages, connections and significance to the wider area of Najran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Region.

These include physical, historic, cultural, economic and social connections, for example:

1. The importance of the wells in being a vital station on the trade routes through the area.

2. The stories and narrative conveyed in the inscriptions relating to important historic events.

3. The record of previous landscape and climatic conditions that are depicted in the animals included in the rock arts.

4. The social and economic history inherent in the generations of contributors to antiquities in the area.

5. The inter-relationship between the individual sites and their landscape setting.

Any tourism proposals for the area must build on these connections to integrate the Cultural Rock Arts in Himā Najrān into a wider framework of understanding and interpretation.

The third pillar is integration with wider tourism frameworks.

Cultural Rock Arts in Himā Najrān, together with the local landscape setting, the wider context of Ar-Rub’ Al-Khali Desert, the spatial and historic linkages with Al-Faw, and the social character of Uruq Bani Ma’arid reserve, form a unified framework of places that have particular qualities of unspoilt, natural beauty and environmental authenticity.

Collectively they create a cluster of places of interest and attraction that are more than the sum of the parts. They reinforce and strengthen the significance and understanding of each other, by virtue of their physical, historic and cultural connections.

For example:

1. The sheltered and tranquil environment of the wells is seen as more significant and strategic when contrasted with the harshness of the Ar-Rub’ Al-Khali Desert.

2. The climatic changes that impacted the landscape over the millennia are reflected in the types of animals depicted.

3. The ongoing use of rock art to express Bedouin culture shows archaeology as being a ‘living’ record of the communities that inhabit and pass through the area.

The fourth pillar is Sustainable tourism and ecotourism.

Sustainable tourism can be defined as “Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment, and host communities”.

The U.N Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. They address the global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate, environmental degradation, prosperity, and peace and justice.

Several of the 17 goals are particularly relevant to tourism development, including SDG 8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and

productive employment and decent work for all.

Tourism is one of the driving forces of global economic growth and currently provides for 1 in 11 jobs worldwide. By giving access to decent work opportunities in the tourism sector, society – particularly youth and women – can benefit from increased skills and professional development.

The fifth pillar in Minimal Footprint” Approach.  The over-arching character intended for the Cultural Rock Arts in Himā Najrān is of a natural and authentic place where rock art and archaeology is an integral part of the social and environmental narrative of the area.

A significant component of the enjoyment of visiting the area is in the tranquillity and unspoiled beauty of the desert landscape, the subtle inter-relationship between nature and historic interventions of rock art, inscriptions and prehistoric structures.

The enjoyment of the sites can be significantly impacted by the intrusion of fences and other tourism infrastructure, particularly the views to the surrounding area and the natural setting that enhances the appreciation of the sites.

There is little evidence of historic damage to the sites and, seemingly, a respect for the rock art and archaeology by the Bedouin. This can be strengthened through engagement with local communities and by their role as genuine stakeholders and direct beneficiaries from the increase in visitors to the site.

The great majority of the area of archaeological interest – and the buffer zone area as a whole – is inaccessible from the highway network, uninhabited, and free from existing or future development pressures.

Interpretation and tourist information can largely be non-intrusive and take the form of accompanied visits – with trained Bedouin guides and/or self-guided tours using Augmented Reality applications on smartphones and tablets.

The sixth pillar is adopting a strategic tourism plan.

The rationale for, and definition of, the proposed buffer zone for the Cultural Rock Arts in Himā Najrān is somewhat different to the more conventional approach to World Heritage Site management, where typically the buffer zone provides a protective zone within which potential negative impacts on the core area can be minimized, controlled and mitigated.

Rather, the proposed buffer zone for Hima incorporates a wider area of interest and archaeological

significance, offering the opportunity for a level of protection that the buffer zone status dictates and bringing together the great majority of sites of archaeological interest into what might be classified as an ‘Archaeological Park’.

Whilst the six core sites represent some of the most valuable and interesting individual sites within the buffer zone, the area as a whole can be seen as collectively offering a cultural and heritage resource that can be experienced both in individual sites, carvings and petroglyphs, and in the combined and

cumulative narrative of the ‘library on rock’.

The buffer zone is presented as an Archaeological Park – a protected area with archaeology as the core asset to be protected. The buffer zone should be considered as two separate, distinct areas with different

characteristics and consequent differences in the approach to development, tourism activities and behavior.

The southern part of the buffer zone is the ‘developed zone’ that is served by highways providing access to dwellings, as well as the public buildings of Hima Township including Mosque,

former school, government office and the Visitor and Management Centre for the area.

This area is in contrast to the remainder of the buffer zone, which can be categorized as the ‘undeveloped zone’ that is largely natural and undisturbed in character. There are several Bedouin homes within this area, but they are not intrusive within the landscape and they are not permanent dwellings.

The developed zone includes the sites of Abar Himā and Saidah that incorporate a broad range of the archaeological assets of the Cultural Rock Arts in Himā Najrān including rock art, petroglyphs and the famous ancient wells.

This area thus gives a very good “overview” of the site’s heritage quality. The existing visitor center is to be replaced by a larger facility that offers museum displays, exhibition space, and reception area for visitors, toilets, and washrooms. Two possible locations for the new visitor center are identified – the

former Himā School and the former Amara building within the Township.

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