Despite living in a largely hostile environment
the inhabitants of Saudi Arabia have developed a vibrant culture.
Looking out across the vast stretches of empty sand and scrub desert that make up most of Saudi Arabia, one wonders how man over the ages could manage to maintain a presence in this beautiful yet harsh land. That people have lived here for millennia and prospered, and in the process developed a vibrant and rich culture is testament to their resilience.
The first concrete evidence of man’s presence in the Arabian Peninsula dates back fifteen to twenty millennia. As in other places in Africa, Asia and Europe, bands of hunter-gatherers roamed the land, living off whatever game they could catch and edible plants they could find.
The scenery back then was in stark contrast to the landscape today. Grasslands and parklands similar to the ones now seen in Tanzania’s Serengeti Plains covered most of the peninsula and were home to a profusion of animals. Petroglyphs that the Paleolithic inhabitants etched on rock faces and cliffs across the peninsula provide a glimpse of the land and its animals — forests and meadows inhabited by oryx, gazelles, antelopes, wild ovids and other herbivores, as well as the carnivores that preyed on them.
Women comprise about half the
student body in Saudi institutes of
Islamic beliefs and Arab
traditions help Saudis
successfully deal with the
challenges of the modern world
As the European ice cap melted during the last Ice Age, which ended some 15,000 years ago, the climate in the peninsula and the rest of the Middle East as well as North Africa became progressively dry. The vast plains that were once covered with lush grasslands and brush gave way to scrubland and later to desert. The large river systems that fed expansive deltas and marshes disappeared, leaving only traces of their passage in the wadis (dry river beds) that are prevalent in the peninsula. The vast herds of game animals vanished.
This dramatic change forced Neolithic man to seek a living in the receding lush areas in the mountain valleys and small oases that dotted the landscape. No longer able to survive as a hunter gatherer, man was forced to develop an alternate lifestyle. It was at this period that agriculture was developed in Mesopotamia and later in the Nile River Valley, and spread across the Middle East starting some eight thousand years ago. The later development of irrigation and crop rotation allowed the inhabitants to settle in specific localities instead of seeking new land as the plots they farmed lost their fertility. Pottery was developed, allowing farmers to store surplus food for times of need. Animals, including goats, cattle, sheep, horses and camels, were domesticated, and people abandoned hunting altogether. These advances made possible intensive farming, making settlements more permanent, and leading the way to the emergence of components of what we now call civilization — language, writing, political systems, art and architecture.
Most Saudis live in ultra-modern urban centers
Located between the two great centers of civilization — the Nile River Valley and Mesopotamia — the people of the Arabian Peninsula benefited from the new advances through trade contacts. Indeed, there are few places on the face of the Earth where trade has played as important a role in the livelihood of its people and in the development of an indigenous culture as it has in the peninsula. In this context, caravan routes were the arteries of trade that made possible life in the sparsely populated peninsula and enhanced cultural exchanges among the local inhabitants, as well as with surrounding communities.
It was also through trade contacts between the nomadic people of the northern peninsula and the settled inhabitants of Mesopotamia that agricultural techniques spread throughout the region. Evidence of this runs back thousands of years and can be seen in the oases and fertile valleys that have since been intensively farmed.
The history of the people of the Arabian Peninsula and the development of an indigenous culture can be divided into two broad eras — pre- and post-Islamic.
Ancient customs, including traditional dances,
have been preserved in modern Saudi Arabia.
Petroglyphs dating back
thousands of years chronicle
the presence of man in the
During the pre-Islamic period, the peninsula played a peripheral role in the history of the Middle East and North Africa. Through the rise and fall of ancient civilizations and empires it remained largely isolated from upheavals in Mesopo-tamia and Asia Minor to the north and Egypt and Palestine to the west. During the period when the great city states of the Tigris-Euphrates valley — including Sumer, Assyria and Babylon — waxed and waned, the people of the peninsula developed a complex network of trade routes that transported agricultural goods, such as almonds from Taif, dates from the many oases and more importantly, the famed frankincense and myrrh — aromatics that were in great demand in the cultural centers of Mesopotamia, the Nile Valley and the Mediterranean Basin. Among the other important trade items were the spices that were shipped in dhows across the Arabian Sea from the Indian Subcontinent and were then transported by caravans to the trade centers of the north.
These aromatics, spices and other commodities were brought by huge caravans from what is now Oman and Yemen, along the great trade routes running through Saudi Arabia’s Asir Province, Makkah and Madinah, and eventually to the urban centers to the north and west.
The government actively encourages
preservation of age-old crafts and
Saudi students benefit from
including calligraphy, as
well as modern education
in schools and universities.
The upheavals that brought about profound changes in Mesopotamia, the Nile Valley and the eastern Mediterranean hardly touched the people of the peninsula. Their services and trade goods were in great demand regardless of which power — whether Babylon, Egypt, Persia, Greece or Rome —dominated the politics of the great centers of civilization.
To the inhabitants of the turbulent centers of power to the north and west, the peninsula was an area of stability and calm. The Romans called the region Arabia Felix, or Arabia the Fortunate, from the prevailing misconception that the lower reaches of the peninsula, which few Romans had ever seen, was an area of prosperity and ease.
A Saudi girl holds flowers grown in
the desert environment, testament to
the profound advances the nation has
has achieved over the past few
To the Arabs themselves, the peninsula has long been known as Jazirat Al-Arab, the Island of the Arabs. In truth, it has until recently been for all practical purposes an island, contained by the deserts of the north as much as the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Gulf to the east; the Arabian Sea to the south; and the Red Sea to the west. In the north, vast deserts, including the great Nafud, have historically acted as barriers as effectively as any body of water. Indeed, throughout the pre-Islamic era the peninsula remained relatively untouched by the strife that prevailed just on its periphery. Attempts at subjugation by the more powerful empires were seldom, if ever, successful, being thwarted by the great expanses of desert that bordered the Fertile Crescent stretching from Mesopotamia, across Asia Minor to Syria and the outer reaches of Egypt, and thus formed a natural bulwark to powerful neighbors.
A mix of the past and the
present, a Saudi boy is taught
to respect age-old traditions
while taking advantage of the
opportunities available in the
The interplay of peoples and cultures in the peninsula increased with the advent of Islam in what is now Saudi Arabia in the seventh century AD. Within a short time, the peninsula and its people emerged from the relative isolation of the past, becoming part of and, as the site of the Holy Mosque in Makkah and the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah, the spiritual heart of a vibrant culture that soon spread across three continents.
Although the political centers of power moved out of the peninsula after the first century of Islam, the region had already undergone irreversible change. Trade flourished and for the first time peoples from distant lands regularly visited the peninsula. The large numbers of pilgrims, some of whom settled in the two holy cities, facilitated the process of exchange of ideas, knowledge and cultural elements between the indigenous people and those from the other civilizations that flourished in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
The emergence of Arabic, the language in which the Holy Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, into the language of international scholarship was a major factor in the cultural development of the peninsula and the rest of the Islamic world. At a time when Europe was mired in the Dark Ages, Muslim scholars were writing treatises in Arabic on medicine, biology, philosophy, astronomy and other sciences and, more importantly, sharing these new concepts among the centers of learning that existed throughout the new Islamic world.
A tribesman in the
south is dressed in
Arabic is an ancient language that has been in use for at least 2,500 years. With the expansion of the Islamic empire across most of the known world, from the western part of what today is China all the way through Asia and North Africa to the Atlantic Ocean, Arabic soon became one of the most widely spoken languages. Many of the Islamic peoples took Arabic as their official language, and those that maintained their local languages were heavily influenced by Arabic.
As such, being the precursor of a common language that became the preeminent medium for the sciences and the arts, Arabic had a profound effect on the cultural development of the people of the peninsula. The learned and the scholars in the peninsula now had access to books in Arabic that were being written throughout the Islamic and Arab worlds; at the same time their works were being read by their counterparts in other centers of learning.
As the early Islamic empire expanded and later broke up into smaller Muslim kingdoms, the peninsula gradually reverted back into relative isolation, even as Makkah and Madinah remained the spiritual heart of the vast Islamic domains and pilgrims from far off places continued to visit these centers of Islamic learning.
During the period of relative isolation that extended into the first decades of the 20th century, the people of the peninsula continued to develop unique customs and traditions — the backbone of culture — taking elements from neighboring peoples and from those who settled in the two holy cities from distant lands. They incorporated features that were beneficial and acceptable to them and discarded those they deemed impractical.
As a result, indigenous cultures that were intertwined, yet distinct, emerged and existed side-by-side in the peninsula. The people who dwelt in towns and relied on trade and agriculture were more cosmopolitan. Through their contacts with foreigners and the large number of pilgrims that settled in their towns, they developed a culture, that though indigenous, contained elements from other communities in the peninsula as well as the rest of the Arab and Islamic worlds.
Old structures in the major cities are
being restored as part of the drive to
preserve the kingdom's heritage.
While the Bedouin were in regular contact with the city dwellers and the pilgrim and trade caravans that traversed their lands, they developed and maintained their own unique indigenous culture that remained largely unchanged and impervious to outside influences over the centuries. Though by necessity the traditions of the Bedouin, nomads who relied on herding, dealt more with their day-to-day survival and those of their flocks in the harsh land they inhabited, they nonetheless shared with the city dwellers many common cultural elements, the most important of which was a passion for Arab poetry and literature. For example, Bedouin and city dwellers from across the peninsula would travel to Taif, Makkah, Madinah and markets in the central Najd Plateau for poetry readings that were held annually.
Meanwhile, what can be termed as regional cultures also developed in various parts of the peninsula. Sharing the general cultural traits of the entire peninsula that marked them as unmistakably Arab, these regional cultures yet were distinct from one another. They were influenced by their own unique terrain, climate and proximity to outside cultural influences. For example, the people of what is now southwestern Saudi Arabia in the Asir and Najran provinces developed different styles of architecture and dress that were better suited to their wet and cool climate than were those of the Bedouin that inhabited the arid interior of the peninsula. Their culture also shared common elements with the people inhabiting the Horn of Africa and Yemen, with whom they have been in contact since pre-Islamic times.
Women are playing a
growing role in education,
medicine and business in
Saudi Arabians have
managed to develop
a dynamic economy
that manufactures a
wide range of products
When King Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman Al-Saud founded the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, he did more than form a state that extended over approximately 80 percent of the landmass of the Arabian Peninsula. More importantly, he united the different tribes and people that inhabited this vast region into one nation, but in the process endeavored to keep intact the cultures and traditions that they had developed over millennia. This was easier said than done, since these distinct cultures had developed in relative isolation in the fastness of the deserts and mountain ranges of the peninsula. As modern roads were built throughout the Kingdom and travel became common, these regional cultures were threatened with gradual disappearance.
To prevent that, the Kingdom has introduced annual exhibits of regional crafts, art, architecture, music and dance that are hugely popular and attract hundreds of thousands of visitors, young and old alike. Cultural organizations have been established to ensure that age-old crafts that are no longer in demand in a modern country are not lost forever.
To their credit, the people of Saudi Arabia tenaciously adhere to age-old customs and traditions. While living in a thoroughly modern world and enjoying the conveniences it offers, Saudis have refused to be absorbed into the monoculture of global business and finance. They wear the same clothes and dresses as their forebears, enjoy traditional music and arts, and whenever possible, venture into the deserts on family picnics to maintain their ties with the past.
This solid foundation of Islamic beliefs and ancient culture has allowed the people of the Kingdom to successfully face the vicissitudes of the rapidly changing world around them, wisely picking from it that which is of benefit to them and discarding that which runs counter to their traditions and beliefs, and in the process remaining Saudi Arabians to the core.