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New UNESCO World Heritage Sites Include Greek Inscriptions in Saudi Arabia

UNESCO World Heritage Sites
The inscription known as “The Dancers” at Bar Hima, Saudi Arabia, part of the new UNESCO site. Credit: Heritage Commission/CC BY-SA 4.0

Nine new sites, including Greek inscriptions on a cliff in Saudi Arabia, European spa towns and a Chinese port city, have recently joined the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites of culturally significant areas.

UNESCO, the educational, scientific and cultural arm of the United Nations, is now honoring a Chinese port city once known as the “emporium of the world,” as well as a Saudi Arabian cliff whose rock art features 7,000-year-old inscriptions and artwork.

“Together, these sites embody the significant interchange of human values and developments in medicine, science and balneology” (the study of therapeutic bathing and medicinal springs), says UNESCO in a statement.

UNESCO Greek Writings
Inscriptions and writings from prehistory decorate cliffs on Saudi Arabia’ Hima Mountain. The area was just designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site by the UN. Credit: Heritage Commission /CC BY-SA 4.0

UNESCO honored the Ḥimā Cultural Area in southwest Saudi Arabia for its rock carvings, which depicts plants and animals, as well as human activities, in its panoply of ancient art and writings. The site is located in a mountainous spot along an ancient caravan route.

The artworks and inscriptions reflect the many cultures of those who traveled through the Arabian Peninsula over the millennia, with messages written in scripts including Musnad, Aramaic-Nabatean, South-Arabian, and Thamudic, as well as Greek and Arabic.

The site is in southwest Saudi Arabia, approximately 200 kilometers (120 miles) north of the city of Najran. An ancient Palaeolithic and Neolithic site, the Bir Hima Complex boasts art and inscriptions spanning from 7000 to 1000 BC.

Petroglyphs at the Bir Hima site in Saudi Arabia include this rock carving of a goat. Credit:

The ancient history of human occupation of this now extremely arid habitat is credited to its once-abundant resources of wildlife and water and its limestone terrain. Saudi Arabia’s rock art, which has finally become more recognized and appreciated in recent years, is considered among the richest in the world.

The area was originally explored in modern times by the Philby-Ryckmans-Lippen expedition of 1951, whose descriptions were published by E. Anati from 1969 to 1972. They noted that the images on the rocks were inscribed with inset into the sandstone formation, dated from 300–200 BC.

The striking petroglyphs finally caught the attention of Saudi Arabia’s Department of Antiquities 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 an incredible 250 images.

The Scrovegni Frescoes in Padua, Italy are also among UNESCO’s new World Heritage Sites. Credit:Zairon /CC BY-SA 4.0

Bir Hima is categorized as a Lower Palaeolithic, or Oldowan, site. Apart from petroglyphs, carving tools used for this art work (in the form of chopper or pebble tools) were also found here, made of such materials as quartzite, andesite and flint.

The images appear to have been inscribed with a bronze instrument of some kind. Some of the petroglyphs, initially found in the 1950s, consisted of daggers and swords, bows with arrows tipped with transverse arrowheads, sickle swords and throw-sticks. These depictions were interpreted as symbolic of spiritual animism.

Bir Hima, as part of Najran, is a treasure trove of petroglyphs, eclipsed only by those found in the Jubba region. One hundred sites have been identified. In the Najran area, as many as 6,400 human and animal illustrations, which include more than 1,800 camels and 1,300 human depictions, have been recorded.

Apart from depictions of humans, giraffes and other animals, the sixth century inscriptions of Dhu Nuwas, a Himyarite King who occupied Najran, are also recorded. A number of articulated camel fragments were excavated at he site designated as 217-44. While its engravings are probably much earlier than those of the Hunters Palette, the Bir Hima warrior, armed with a bow, is almost identical to the men portrayed on the Hunters Palette.

The Trans-Iranian Railway has been added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Credit: Ali1986/ CC BY-SA 3.0

The new Bar Hima site is the sixth to be listed in Saudi Arabia, joining the At-Turaif district in ad-Dir’iyah north-west of Riyadh and Hegra in Al-Ula, the sandstone landscape in the northwestern desert of the secretive kingdom.

UNESCO says in its description that Hima is “located in an arid, mountainous area of southwest Saudi Arabia, on one of the Arabian Peninsula’s ancient caravan routes. Ḥimā Cultural Area contains a substantial collection of rock art images depicting hunting, fauna, flora and lifestyles in a cultural continuity of 7,000 years.”

The cultural nod by UNESCO is an acknowledgement of the recent efforts on the part of the Saudi government to engender a more “open” and welcoming image of the country.

In effect, Hima’s storied cliff walls function as a miniature library, as it features tens of thousands of ancient inscriptions written in a variety of scripts, some of which are extinct now.

The Hima site is also known for its many ancient wells, which were constructed at various intervals between 7,000 BC and 1,000 BC; amazingly, some of them still provide water even today.

Other UNESCO sites designated as World Heritage Sites this past week include Quanzhou, located on the coast of China’s Fujian province by the Jin River. It earned its place on the World Heritage List for its significance in maritime trade between the 10th and 14th centuries AD, according to the South China Morning Post.

The 22 historical sites and monuments marked out for world heritage by UNESCO include a huge statue of Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, as well as one of China’s first mosques and the Kaiyuan Buddhist Temple in the city.

Officials from the city’s government told the Morning Post “(These sites) not only record the prosperity of Quanzhou in the past, but also confirms a unique trade system created by the joint efforts of the central governments, local and overseas communities, which led to prosperous oceanic trade and cultural exchanges during that period.”

The site UNESCO calls the “Great Spa Towns of Europe” spanning 11 towns in seven countries, was designated as a World Heritage Site for their development of a spa culture that lasted over some 200 years, from the early 18th century to the 1930s.

Another historical site to the list is Rudreshwara Temple in Telangana, India, which was constructed in the 13th century AD to honor the Hindu god Shiva. As is normal the case with Hindu temples, the sandstone edifice was created as an integral part of a natural setting, against a backdrop of forests, waterways and agricultural fields.

UNESCO said in its statement that “The temple’s sculptures of high artistic quality illustrate regional dance customs and Kakatiyan culture.”

In an unusual move, UNESCO also singled out a railway for its honors this year.

The Trans-Iranian Railway, which runs from the Caspian Sea all the way to the Persian Gulf, made the list because it is a remarkable feat of engineering. Its construction, which was carried out between 1927 and 1938, required the creation of many tunnels and hundreds of bridges.

The Tehran Times says in its story that the railway reflected the grand modernization plans carried out during the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi, who sought to limit foreign control of Iran.

He used only national taxes to pay for this astonishing feat of engineering instead of foreign investment.

Four other European sites were added his year including a complex of eight buildings in Padua, Italy. The buildings contain frescoes painted over the course of the 14th century, showcasing the development of art at the time, which involved completely new ways of representing space.

The sites of Paseo del Prado and Buen Retiro in Madrid, Spain, were also singled out for distinction because the buildings, gardens and fountains there reflect a grand vision of urban space that was a salient part of the aesthetics of the Spanish Empire in the 18th century.

UNESCO also added the striking Cordouan Lighthouse in France, which was built around the turn of the 17th century, to its list this year, statin it was as a “masterpiece of maritime signaling” exemplifying unique technological and architectural aspects.

The Darmstadt Artists’ Colony in Mathildenhöhe, in west-central Germany was also added to the UNESCO 2021 list; serving as a center for emerging modernist architecture and design in the early 20th century, it too exemplified the zeitgeist of its time.

UNESCO’s World Heritage List now includes a total of 1,129 sites around the world, from natural wonders such as the Grand Canyon in the US to  Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to cultural treasures such as the great pyramids of Egypt.

The designation honors such sites by stating that they are of “outstanding universal value to humanity.”

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