How France played a role in promoting AlUla in Saudi Arabia

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DUBAI: When the Institute of the Arab World launched its immersive exhibition “AlUla: wonder of Arabia” in October 2019, more than 10,000 Parisians and international visitors had the rare opportunity to discover an unknown slice of Arab archaeological history in the French capital.

Co-organized by the Saudi archaeologist and consultant to the Royal Commission for AlUla, Dr. Abdulrahman Alsuhaibani, the exhibition was the first of its kind, designed to highlight the multiple histories and remarkably preserved Nabatean architecture of the city of ‘AlUla through a diversified exhibition of 265 artifacts and interactive screens.

In a dimly lit atmosphere, visitors laid eyes on human and animal sculptures in sandy tones, inscribed rocks, delicate pieces and incense burners that were unearthed by Franco-Saudi excavation teams and King Saud University. A feast for the eyes, much of what was on display was made available to the public for the first time.

After being extended for almost six weeks after its closing date on January 19 this year, the museum was able to attract everyone, from children and parents to curious tourists, including members of the international press. Even President Emmanuel Macron was treated to a private guided tour of the exhibition, which took place on two floors of the museum.

Almost all the details of the exhibition – from its important location to the choice of the expertise invited to participate and loans from other French museums – marked a renewed strengthening of Franco-Saudi cultural relations.

“Culturally speaking, I think the exhibition has crossed many barriers,” said Alsuhaibani in an interview with Arab News. “Culture is generally the quickest, strongest and most effective way to break down barriers between nations in general. The exhibition was a success and an excellent platform not only to introduce people to AlUla but also, overall, the land of the Kingdom. ”

One of the highlights of the exhibition was the invitation from French aerial photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand to film the natural landscapes of AlUla, including the massive tombs of Hegra and the verdant oasis of Dadan. The detailed animated films were shown on large screens, transporting the viewer to the heart of AlUla.

“The rich environment of AlUla was a key point and we wanted to display it,” said Alsuhaibani. “Yann Arthus-Bertrand was a world-renowned professional, able to allow visitors to experience this place virtually. Given his previous relationships with the Arab World Institute, we were able to sign a contract with him and he did an incredible job. ”

History shows, however, that this is not the first time that the French (including other European nationals) have expressed interest in the history of the Hedjaz (which is now part of modern Saudi Arabia). In fact, during the 19th century, several French travelers traveled to the region, documenting what they encountered.

The head of them was Charles Huber, whom Alsuhaibani described as one of the first French to visit in 1878. Collecting specimens of rocks from the region, Huber’s journeys to Hedjaz and north of Najd were supported by the French government, which also sponsored the publication of its maps and trips. accounts, “Journal of a trip in Arabic, 1883-1884”.

The other important travelers to AlUla, in particular, were the French priests and archaeologists Antonin Jaussen (1871-1962) and Raphael Savignac (1874-1951). Residing in Jerusalem as members of the French Biblical School, the couple’s visit to Madain Saleh (Hegra) in 1907 was facilitated by the then newly created Hejaz railway, which runs from Damascus to Medina.

“The existence of trains allowed Jaussen and Savignac to take their photographic equipment with them. So they took the very first images of AlUla that we have, ”said Alsuhaibani. In addition to their insightful photographs of life at AlUla, the two men published a basic five-volume publication on Middle Eastern archeology, entitled “Archaeological Mission to Arabia”, in 1909.

In retrospect, the genesis of the French Agency for the Development of AlUla (AFALULA) based in Paris in 2018 has led Saudi Arabia and France to work together to make AlUla a leading tourist destination in the Arab region and the largest living museum in the world by 2035.

In addition to carrying out excavation plans on the ground led by 50 French archaeologists, AFALULA also aims at conservation training for the young generation of Saudis, the construction of a museum complex, the development of a sustainable agriculture and security strategy and the design of a sophisticated hotel complex by a renowned French architect. Jean Nouvel at the Shaaran nature reserve.

“We want to show that people can live in AlUla,” said Alsuhaibani, who received his doctorate in architecture from the Dadan kingdom at the University of the Sorbonne in Paris. “The place itself has been inhabited since prehistoric times to this day. AlUla has a past, a present and a future. We have a land of historic depth and we want to share it with the world. ”

Despite the challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic, AFALULA executive president Gerard Mestrallet assured that agency teams were in constant contact during the containment period, discussing master plans for AlUla. “In just two years, cooperation between our two countries has become stronger and more assertive,” he said. “We are satisfied with the work we have accomplished and are enthusiastic about meeting the many challenges ahead together.”

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