Local Time

Friday, June 09, 2006

Saudis hope stones mystery will appeal to tourists

By Andrew Hammond Fri Jun 2, 8:27 AM ET

RAJAJIL, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - The stones of Rajajil form a striking pattern against the clear desert sky, the fallen and tilting sand-colored slabs conjuring up visions of England's Stonehenge.

Nobody really knows why the 50 groups of about five pillars each are clustered on the edge of the Nafud desert in northwestern Saudi Arabia. Local legend says they are a lost tribe punished by God.

Whatever their origin, local authorities hope the standing stones and the history-rich al-Jouf region will form the centerpiece of a new tourism drive.

"Because of the political situation, tourism has been low but the strategy is to revive it and we are hoping to make al-Jouf a tourist attraction," said Hussein al-Mubarak, a former museum director who now heads a committee to encourage tourism.

Archeologists believe the Rajajil stones date from before 3,000 BC -- when human civilization first began to thrive in ancient Egypt and Iraq. The stones also have graffiti linking them to pre-Islamic deities such as the female goddess Widd.

As with Stonehenge, there is no consensus on whether the site was a temple, a burial ground, a place used for astronomy or something else. Scholars believe Stonehenge was built between 3,000 and 1,600 BC.

Mubarak says the stones were placed on the desert's edge deliberately, probably to worship the sun.

"The sun was worshiped in the North of the Arabian peninsula and the moon was worshiped in the South. High ground was normally chosen for worship," he said, surveying the site near the Skaka oasis, 750 miles from Riyadh.

"Some people say it was a tribe turned to stone for doing unclean things, like using bread to clean with or washing with milk," Mubarak said. "But these are just myths. We don't want to connect the site now with religious things since we want to encourage tourism."

Rajajil could be related to "rijal," modern Arabic for men.

DISPUTED ORIGINS

"We have several mysterious sites all over the Arabian peninsula...but we have failed to know the reason why they were made and who made them," said Majeed Khan, a Semitic script expert who has spent 30 years studying Arabian sites.

Khan said the stones of Rajajil were part of the mystery.

"They have something to do with religion, maybe it has an astronomical connection. There is no archeological evidence to prove the date -- we excavated and there is no pottery."

Rajajil could date from a time when the peninsula was changing from a land of lakes and trees -- depicted in hundreds of rock art sites -- into today's dry, desert region.
Al-Jouf was a center of early Arab civilization, dominated by powerful queens who are listed in the annals of invading Assyrians. The area was also the staging-post for the Arab conquest of the Middle East in the 7th century.

The ancient city of Dumat al-Jandal, where the word "Arab" was first recorded by Assyrians, is still standing near Skaka.

Many say al-Jouf, which borders Jordan, has been neglected since it became part of the Saudi state in 1932. TOURISM BRINGS HOPE Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, is not known as a popular tourist attraction, partly because of its adherence to the austere Wahhabi form of Islam. Plans to bring tourists to al-Jouf ran aground when militants linked to al Qaeda began attacking foreigners in a campaign to topple the Saudi monarchy launched in 2003. However, the violence has largely died down and Saudi Arabia, which already receives millions of Muslim pilgrims to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina each year, said last month it would begin issuing tourist visas to foreigners. Tourism could be a lifeline for al-Jouf's youth. "Some young people round here have gone crazy from not finding a job, even graduates," said 24-year-old police recruit Bassam, driving along new tarmac roads that have been built recently as part of the tourism development
drive. Young people say they hope King Abdullah will make good on his promise to create more jobs in the civil service. There are also plans to set up a university in the region. Analysts say Saudi Arabia's political system and cultural mores have fed unemployment and huge disparities in wealth which are threatening to become a serious problem as the population of 17 million Saudi nationals grows. Mubarak said there were limits to how much attention the remote northern region inhabited by 300,000 people could demand of the capital Riyadh. "I can't compare the money put into Mecca, with its pilgrim visitors, or Riyadh, as the major population center," he said. "I really hope we can bring tourists because it will help develop the region, it will bring good income for young people."

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