About Saudi Arabia
Culture & Art
The culture of Saudi Arabia is a rich one that has been shaped by its Islamic heritage, its historical role as an ancient trade center, and its Bedouin traditions.
Saudi society has experienced tremendous development over the past several decades. The Saudi people have taken their values and traditions – their customs, hospitality and even their style of dress – and adapted them to the modern world.
The Crossroads of the World
Located at the center of important ancient trade routes, the Arabian people were enriched by many different civilizations. As early as 3,000 BC, Arabian merchants were part of a far-reaching trade network that extended to south Asia, the Mediterranean and Egypt. They served as a vital link between India and the Far East on one side, and Byzantium and the Mediterranean lands on the other.
The introduction of Islam in the 7th century AD further defined the region’s culture. Within a century of its birth in the Arabian Peninsula, Islam had spread west to the Atlantic Ocean and east to India and China. It fostered a dynamic period of great learning in culture, science, philosophy and the arts known as the Islamic “Golden Age."
And every year for the past 14 centuries, Muslim pilgrims from around the world travel to holy sites in Makkah and Madinah, further enriching the region’s culture. The pilgrims brought ivory from Africa and carpets from the East, and took local goods back to their homelands.
When the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was formed in 1932, King Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman dedicated himself to preserving Arab traditions and culture, and his sons and successors have done the same.
Arab and Islamic Traditions
Saudi traditions are rooted in Islamic teachings and Arab customs, which Saudis learn about at an early age from their families and in schools.
The highlights of the year are the holy month of Ramadan and the Hajj (pilgrimage) season, and the national holidays that follow them. The holy month of Ramadan, during which Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, culminates with the Eid-Al-Fitr holiday, in which it is customary to buy presents and clothes for children and visit friends and relatives.
The other highlight is the Hajj season, during which millions of Muslim pilgrims from around the world come to Makkah. The Hajj season concludes with the Eid Al-Adha holiday, in which it is traditional for families to slaughter a sheep in memory of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son.
Arab traditions also play an important role in Saudi life. These age-old traditions have evolved over the millennia and are highly regarded. They include generosity and hospitality, which every Saudi family offers to strangers, friends, and family. The simplest expression of hospitality is coffee – its preparation alone is an intricate cultural tradition, and it is often served in small cups along with dates and sweets. Another gesture of hospitality is the burning of incense (oud) to welcome guests.
Historic preservation is extremely important to Saudi Arabia. Numerous restoration projects have been undertaken to safeguard the Kingdom’s architectural heritage, including restoring historic buildings and neighborhoods.
These projects are undertaken by the Department of Museums and Antiquities, which excavates, catalogues and preserves pre-historic and historic sites. In 2003, the department was transferred from the Ministry of Education to the Supreme Commission for Tourism (SCT), which was established in 2000.
Important archaeological work is also carried out by the Department of Archaeology at King Saud University in Riyadh.
One major restoration project took place at Dariyah, the ancestral home of the Al-Saud family and the capital of the First Saudi State. Other projects include the ancient sites of Fau, Madain Saleh, Al-Ula, Tayma, Duma and along the Darb Zubaydah, the pilgrimage road to Makkah.
As the birthplace of Islam, the Kingdom places a special emphasis on preserving its Islamic archaeological heritage. A large number of mosques around the Kingdom have been meticulously restored, including the Holy Mosque in Makkah, the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah and mosques built by the first caliphs after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.
Another way the Saudi government is showing its commitment to preserving its cultural heritage is by restoring historic neighborhoods. Restoration work has been undertaken in the old Qasr Al-Hokm area in Riyadh, as well as the ancient quarters of Jeddah, Hail, and other Saudi cities. This restoration work was showcased during the 1999 celebrations marking the hijrah centennial of the taking of the Masmak Fortress in 1902.
Saudi Arabia has a unique architectural heritage that has developed over the centuries.
Historically, building designs and materials in Saudi Arabia were dictated by the climate, geography and resources available. For example, builders in the central areas preferred adobe for its malleability, availability and insulating qualities. In western Saudi Arabia, stone and red brick were common, while Jeddah’s builders used coral from the Red Sea.
Contemporary Saudi architects are increasingly looking to these traditional building designs and Islamic concepts for inspiration. This combination of tradition with the ultra modern strengthens the link between a cherished past and an innovative future.
King Saud University and the King Khalid International Airport are two striking examples of just how well traditional Islamic design and modern structure can be combined.
The Spiriual Architecture of Minarets
Minarets are the most visible man-made structures in Saudi Arabia. They jut from the skyline of every Saudi urban center, from the smallest village to the largest city, a testament to a Muslim society’s bond with God.
The reason minarets rise above all surrounding structures is to allow the call to prayer to be heard by inhabitants of all homes in a mosque’s neighborhood. Traditionally, muezzins used to climb up the stairs to the top of the minaret and call the faithful to prayer five times a day. The melodic call of the muezzins could be heard rising from minarets across all Muslim cities.
Nowadays, most minarets are wired for sound and the muezzin is no longer required to make the demanding walk up the minaret. Every mosque has at least one minaret, although two are more common, and larger ones have more, with the Holy Mosque in Makkah boasting 12 magnificent ones. They range in size from some 20 feet in small village mosques to 360 feet in the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah. Some are simple, while others are elaborately decorated with stone and tiles.
Dating back 1,400 years to the first century of Islam, calligraphy is a revered art in Saudi Arabia.
Because its primary subject matter has historically been the Holy Qur’an, calligraphy is considered to be the quintessential Islamic art form.
Saudi museums collect and display rare manuscripts. Other organizations commission works of calligraphy, provide training in the art form, and hold competitions to encourage new generations of young artists.
Today, calligraphy is a dominant theme in metalwork, ceramics, glass textiles, painting and sculpture throughout Saudi Arabia and the Muslim world. Inscriptions often adorn the interior walls of mosques, as well as public and private offices and homes.
A variety of institutions have been established throughout the Kingdom to preserve Saudi Arabia’s cultural heritage.
One of the largest is the Department of Culture at the Ministry of Culture and Information, which sponsors a wide range of cultural programs, including literary and drama clubs, folklore classes, library events, arts and crafts as well as science projects.
These clubs cover a range of cultural activities. In the drama clubs, for example, participants engage in writing competitions and performances as part of a team. Other clubs offer Saudis the opportunity to develop various artistic talents.
The Department of Culture regularly sponsors exhibitions, literary readings and symposia at its regional offices as well as its Riyadh headquarters. It also sponsors Saudis to participate in international art and cultural events, including poetry and essay competitions as well as exhibits of calligraphy and artwork.
The Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts, founded in 1972, sponsors Saudi artists and provides ways for new talents to develop and display their art. The society has established a library and information center, as well as the Kingdom’s first cultural center, located in Riyadh.
Other institutions that promote culture include the King Fahd Library in Riyadh, which offers one of the largest collections of rare manuscripts on Arabic and Islamic literature, and is a premier research facility in the Middle East; and the King Faisal Foundation, whose annual King Faisal International Prizes includes one for Arabic literature. Many King Faisal Prize laureates have gone on to receive other international awards, including the Nobel Prize.
The Department of Museums and Antiquities was established in 1974. Today, there are major museums in each of the Kingdom’s 13 provinces, as well many small privately owned ones throughout the country.
Saudi Arabia’s largest museum is the National Museum in Riyadh, which opened in 1999 to celebrate the centennial of the taking of the Masmak Fortress by the young Abdulaziz, an event that led to the founding of the modern Saudi state. There are also private museums, such as the Humane Heritage Museum in Jeddah.
Folk Music & Dancing
A living piece of the country’s history, Saudi folk music has been shaped by the nomadic Bedouins and the pilgrims who brought musical influences from around the world.
The music varies from region to region – for example, in the Hijaz, the music of al-sihba combines poetry and songs of Arab Andalusia, while the folk music of Makkah and Madinah reflects these two cities’ influences from throughout the Islamic world.
Dance is also popular among Saudis. The national dance is the men’s sword dance known as the ardha. An ancient tradition with its roots in the country’s central area known as the Najd, the ardha is a combination of singers, dancers carrying swords and a poet or narrator. Men carrying swords stand in two lines or a circle, with a poet singing in their midst, and perform the traditional dance.
Poetry is especially important to Arab cultural life, and has long been considered one of the highest expressions of literary art.
In the days when the Bedouin were constantly traveling, poetry was primarily an oral tradition. People would gather around a storyteller, who would spin tales of love, bravery, chivalry, war and historic events. This was both entertainment and an oral preservation of history, traditions and social values.
The Holy Qur’an took the Arab love of language and poetry to new levels. It exemplifies the perfect use of the Arabic language, and is considered to be the ultimate literary model.
Poetry remains popular among Saudis today. They gather at cultural events, most notably the Jenadriyah National Culture and Heritage Festival, and avidly read the works of established poets that are printed in Saudi Arabia every year. There is also a popular televised poetry competition.
Jenadrivah Heritage & Culture
The most famous cultural event in Saudi Arabia is the Jenadriyah Heritage and Cultural Festival, organized each year by the National Guard. For two weeks a year, the festival gives over a million Saudis a glimpse into the past.
First held in 1985, the festival highlights the Kingdom’s commitment to keeping the traditional culture and crafts of Saudi Arabia alive.
Opening with a traditional camel race, the festival includes almost every aspect of Saudi culture. Artisans, such as potters, woodworkers and weavers, demonstrate their traditional crafts in small shops with typical palm-frond-roofed porches. Visitors can also stroll through the past in a heritage village, wahich resides permanently in Jenadriyah.
At these exhibits one may watch a metalsmith fashion a traditional brass and copper coffee pot. A wood carver slowly transforms a piece of wood into a saddle frame. Basket makers weave palm fronds and straw into hats, baskets and containers decorated with colorful designs. A potter using a foot-powered wheel shapes clay into bowls and water jars. Leather is cut and shaped into sandals, pouches and bags. Large planks are cut and fashioned into doors and windows that have intricate carvings and inlays.
Blacksmiths heat chunks of iron in a furnace and hammer them into gleaming swords and daggers. A tailor hand-sews golden threads into the collar of a man’s cloak. Jewelers fuse precious metals and mount semi-precious stones to make intricate bracelets, necklaces and earrings. Craftsman put together ingenious wooden pulleys used in the old days to laboriously draw water from wells for irrigating crops.
In addition, folklore troupes perform the ardha and other national dances, while singers from around the Kingdom perform traditional songs and music. Literary figures from across the country participate in poetry competitions between contemporary poets reciting historic verses.
Traditional Dress & Jewelry
Saudis prefer traditional clothes to Western styles of dress, and generally wear modern adaptations of age-old designs. The loose, flowing traditional garments are practical for the Kingdom’s hot, windswept climate, and in keeping with the Islamic ideal of modesty.
Men wear an ankle-length shirt of wool or cotton known as a thawb. On their heads, they wear a large square of cotton (ghutra) that is folded diagonally over a skullcap (kufiyyah), and held in place with a cord circlet (igaal). The flowing, full-length outer cloak (bisht), generally made of wool or camel hair, completes the outfit. In the old days, the bisht was also used as a blanket while traveling.
Women customarily wear a black outer cloak (abaya) over their dress, which may well be modern in style. On their heads, Saudi women traditionally wear a shayla – a black, gauzy scarf that is wrapped around the head and secured with circlets, hats or jewelry. Traditional dress is often richly decorated with coins, sequins or brightly colored fabric appliqués.
Some Saudi women wear veils made of sheer material. The practice of wearing a veil is an ancient one that dates back at least two millennia, before the advent of Islam. In a harsh desert environment, a thin veil provides protection from constant exposure to the sun, which can damage the skin and eyes. Today, a veil is also a sign of modesty and virtue.
Jewelry has been an essential part of Arabian dress for thousands of years. More than just personal decoration, jewelry symbolized social and economic status. For the migrant Bedouins, it was also an easily transportable form of wealth and security.
Traditional jewelry was mostly made of silver, although gold was also used. Jewelers used stones such as turquoise, garnets and amber from the Kingdom’s rich mines, and pearls and coral from the coastal areas. Tiny bells, coins and chains were also used for decoration. Designs primarily evolved from Islamic calligraphy and motifs, and featured intricate patterns of geometric shapes, leaves, crescents and flowers.
Today, Saudi women still receive gifts of jewelry from their husbands when they marry or have children. Unlike their ancestors, who received large amounts of bracelets, rings, earrings and necklaces as part of their dowry, modern Saudi women wear jewelry in traditional and contemporary designs with diamonds and a variety of precious metals. Solid gold bracelets remain a traditional gift for girls.