Conserving the past, curating the future - Financial Times - Partner Content by Ithra
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Conserving the past, curating the future

Saudi Arabia photo
Saudi Arabia photo
Saudi Arabia photo

Saudi Arabia's ambitious plans for its future envision a thriving culture, defined by creativity and innovation, and inspired by the region’s rich heritage and living traditions.

What role should the past play in a society experiencing fundamental and rapid change – whose focus is, necessarily, the future? The answer is a pivotal one, if the work and ideas produced by Saudi Arabia’s new generation of heritage experts, artists, creatives and curators is to be believed.
As well as being places of history and conservation, the kingdom’s heritage sites, many of which have been recognised by Unesco, are seen increasingly as engines of employment, training and education, as well as all-important drivers of the kingdom’s burgeoning cultural economy.

A new generation of institutions and practitioners are also championing traditional Saudi arts and crafts, not simply to save them from oblivion, but as vital, living traditions that speak of place and identity, as well as continuing to be of the utmost relevance to contemporary culture, architecture and design.

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The deep cultural heritage of Saudi Arabia is defined by its geographical location on the Arabian Peninsula, one of the great crossroads of humanity, connecting the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean worlds with the Levant, Asia and Africa.

The region has a history extending back more than a million years, which is confirmed by the wealth of its archaeological heritage. A land of ancient kingdoms, cosmopolitan ports and Bedouin peoples who were enriched by two of the most prized commodities in antiquity – frankincense and myrrh – Arabia has been a locus of trade, cultural interaction and intellectual exchange for millennia.

More recently, it became the cradle of Pan-Arabism and Islam, and home to the holy cities of Makkah and Medina, which are now sites of veneration and pilgrimage for almost one quarter of the world’s population.

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A series of wide-ranging social reforms led by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, designed to diversify the kingdom’s economy, has unleashed a once-in-a-generation wave of creative activity that has been described as a cultural renaissance. These changes are embodied in the kingdom’s ambitious blueprint for the future, Vision 2030, which places heritage, culture, entertainment and tourism at the heart of Saudi Arabia’s efforts to create an innovative knowledge economy. The aim, through organisations such as Ithra, is to nurture the kingdom’s most precious resource, its youth, to enable them to create a new society that looks to the future while nurturing and appreciating its past.

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The traditional arts of Saudi Arabia are gifts that embody centuries of acquired knowledge, wisdom and skill. More than simply a direct link between the kingdom’s past and present, they are an expression of place and identity that have the power to enrich our changing world.

Born of ingenuity, fortitude and adaptability in the face of scarce resources, these traditional arts and skills have important lessons to teach contemporary creatives who are in search of a new relationship with the natural world.

traditional weaving of Al-Sadu

A craft that originated among the Bedouin, practised by Saudi women to this day, Al-Sadu is produced on a horizontal ground loom using goat and sheep’s wool and camel fur. The result is a warp-faced plain weave that creates a tightly woven, durable textile, characterised by its bright colours and geometric designs, that can be used to decorate tents and homes and accessories for camels and horses.

Al-Sadu is a testament to Bedouin resourcefulness and creativity amid a harsh environment. It was officially recognised by Unesco in 2020 when it was inscribed on its Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Al-Sadu weaving is certainly not a thing of the past, though; contemporary fashion and interior designers across the kingdom have paid tribute to the craft in their collections. Inspired by his mother, who was born in the eastern Al-Ahsa province, Mohammed Khoja, fashion designer and founder of clothing brand Hindamme, used the patterns of Al-Sadu weaving in one of his recent collections.


Arabic calligraphy

Linking modernity with tradition, contemporary art with the arts and crafts of the distant Islamic past, calligraphy has always played a central role in the culture of Islam. Drawing on the sacred role that words and text play in Islam and the Quran, while exploring the limits of legibility and abstraction, calligraphic art can variously reflect on history, identity, politics and faith in a way that is resolutely modern.

Contemporary takes on the subject can be seen in the work of the French-Tunisian artist eL Seed, whose work "Mirage", exhibited as part of Desert X AlUla in 2020, was inspired by the caravan routes that once passed through the oases of AlUla and the ancient city of Hegra.


Geometry and design

In Islamic culture, geometry is everywhere; indeed, intricate geometric patterns are one of the recurring features of Islamic art, from the motifs on carpets to the mosaics and tilework that adorn architectural façades. Though, historically, creators of these patterns tended to be anonymous, it is possible to use basic geometric principles to understand how they created their masterpieces, which often appear fiendishly complicated, but require nothing more than a ruler and a set of compasses to devise. Born in Jeddah, the contemporary Saudi-Palestinian artist Dana Awartani refers to sacred geometry throughout her work, which spans performance, manuscript illumination, parquetry, ceramic, and embroidery.


Al-Ahsa, a Unesco ‘Creative City’

In 2015, the city of Al-Ahsa in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province became the first in the Gulf to be included in Unesco’s Creative Cities Network (UCCN). Home to the world’s largest oasis, Al-Ahsa is renowned for around 50 types of handicraft, which continue to be practised.

These include palm leaf basketwork, pottery, woodwork, leatherwork, weaving and joinery, living traditions that are passed from one generation to the next. In 2016, at UCCN's 10th annual meeting, Al-Ahsa was listed as the most creative city in the world, and awarded Unesco World Heritage status in 2018.


Gypsum Carving, Jeddah

As the maritime gateway to Makkah and Medina, and one of the most important trading posts in a network that connected Arabia with the wider Indian Ocean world, Old Jeddah (Al-Balad) was subject to a wide range of cultural influences.

This can be seen in the medina of Al-Balad and its ornate merchant houses clad in gypsum panels inscribed with patterns from South Asia, East Africa and the Levant. The Jameel House of Traditional Arts runs courses teaching craft techniques such as gypsum carving, which can be used in contemporary design, as well as historic conservation.


Mangour, Jeddah

Mangour are lattice screens used to decorate the wooden balconies that feature so prominently in traditional Hejaz architecture. Relying on geometry and constructed from interlocking elements, mangour hold together to create a permeable screen that lets light and air pass into a building while simultaneously offering shade and privacy.

Beyond Saudi Arabia, the technique was recently employed at the British Museum in London, where the Saudi designer and artist Ahmad Angawi combined traditional Hejaz craft with modern manufacturing techniques to create intricate mangour screens for the magnificent Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World.


Asiri mural painting

Inscribed by Unesco on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2017, Al-Qatt Al-Asiri is a key element of Asiri identity. A form of wall decoration indigenous to the southern highlands of Saudi Arabia, Al-Qatt Al-Asiri employs a complex language of geometry and colour and is traditionally created by and passed down generationally by women. It is often found on the interior walls of homes, especially in rooms occupied by guests, where geometric patterns are painted onto white gypsum. Cherished for the social bonding it encourages, Al-Qatt Al-Asiri helps foster among families and the community.

In 2017, the philanthropic arts organisation Art Jameel began to deploy digital technologies at a community level in Asir to conserve and nurture the region’s traditional arts and crafts. The programme recorded mural paintings at risk in remote villages and abandoned houses; and ran workshops for local artists at the Jameel House of Traditional Arts in Jeddah with a focus on digital technologies and skills, not just for recording heritage but also in a range of contemporary contexts.

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Click on the arrows to explore Arabia’s rich history and heritage, and the events that have helped to shape its current cultural renaissance.

Timeline year 2008


75 years after it was established, Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest energy company, announces the launch of the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra), an institution dedicated to promoting culture, creativity and innovation across the kingdom.

Timeline year 2008


Hegra is inscribed by Unesco as Saudi Arabia’s first World Heritage Site.

Timeline year 2010


The At-Turaif district in Ad-Diriyah is inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Timeline year 2014


Old Jeddah, Al-Balad, is inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Timeline year 2015


The city of Al-Ahsa becomes the first in the Gulf to be included in Unesco’s Creative Cities Network.

Timeline year 2016


Vision 2030, a strategic framework to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil, is announced by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

Timeline year 2017


Al-Qatt Al-Asiri, a form of interior wall decoration traditionally created by women, is inscribed on Unesco’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Timeline year 2018


Ithra launches Tanween, Saudi Arabia’s largest Annual Creative Season dedicated to encouraging the inspiration, innovation and creativity that will drive the kingdom’s new creative economy.

Timeline year 2018


The Ministry of Culture is established to preserve the Kingdom’s historical past and promote a culturally rich future that fosters art and culture. It has a central role to play in each of the three main strategic pillars of Saudi Vision 2030: helping to create a vibrant society, thriving economy and ambitious nation.

Timeline year 2019


Saudi Arabia commits US$25m to Unesco's preservation of World Heritage Sites and the promotion of creative economies.

Timeline year 2020


Desert X AlUla, a groundbreaking exhibition of contemporary art, takes place at AlUla featuring work by five Saudi and nine international artists.

Timeline year 2021


Saudi Arabia announces A Journey Through Time, its master plan to responsibly and sustainably develop AlUla, including a new arts precinct.