I love museums. I am a nerd.
I grew up partially in Annapolis, MD which is only a short train ride from Washington D.C. and America’s coolest museums, the Smithsonian. Many a childhood memory do I have of wandering the Natural History Museum.
My mother was really good at managing a tight budget and two kids. And one of the things we did everywhere we lived was go to the local museums, cause its a cheap way to spend the day, and who knows, maybe you’ll even learn something. Some kids may think this is torture, but I’m a nerd, so usually I loved it. And as an adult, I still seek out museums everywhere I go.
I even went to the Shandong Provincial Museum while living in Jinan. The Chinese have a very different sense of historical preservation, to be sure. Not a lot of climate control, and very little separating the patrons from the displays.
So when I found myself in Riyadh with no plans, some helpful internet denizens recommended the Museum. Which to my nerd self sounded way better than a giant shopping mall. So I booked my Careem cars and headed out to see what I could see.
The museum is a royal endowment, so it’s got tons of money and costs the people very little. (one day I’m going to delve into the strange political/economic situation here) The museum is one of many buildings set inside a sprawling park. Even with three hours set aside, I only got to see two sections of park and the museum. Its huge.
In addition to the lush green lawns, play and picnic areas, there was a water park. Swimsuits aren’t the thing here because of the modesty, so it isn’t like swimming pools and slides, but more like a huge interactive fountain. Kids were playing in the water and having their pictures taken by doting parents.
After some lovely strolling and strategic picture taking (to avoid getting any people in my pics) I made it to the museum entrance. I paid my 10SAR (about 2.50$) and began the tour.
The museum is set up in chronological order, so you start from the beginning of the cosmos and end at the present day. Yes, that’s right, the beginning of the cosmos. In the most religiously ruled country on Earth (not counting the ones we consider terrorists/therefore not countries), the big royal museum starts off with the Big Bang.
The section is called Man and the Universe, and it is basically about how cool Allah is for using such amazing techniques as nuclear fusion, gravity, plate tectonics and evolution to form the stars, planets and life. Who says religion and science can’t be friends?
This is a really neat display of the cosmos forming. It’s actually a video screen surrounded by mirrors, so when you walk up close to it, it feels like you’re standing in front of a giant globe but without having to spend the space on making one. Pretty neat, I thought.
There were a lot of artifacts of old human civilizations, which I also found really interesting, since I had been led to believe that archaeology wasn’t a high priority here unless it involved the Prophet. As it turns out there was extensive research and very detailed information about the pre-historical and pre-Islamic peoples with no attempt to impose post Islamic beliefs upon them.
I keep mentioning this because in America, there seems to be a war between science and religion, as though one cannot believe in God and accept the evidence of science at the same time. Considering how “backward” so many media outlets portray the Middle East and Islamic religion, I find it pretty darn cool that they don’t seem to have this problem that plagues supposedly advanced/civilized America.
I’m also not saying this museum was secular. Not in any way. Aside from reminding us that Allah created the Universe, the important events of the history in the Quran are referenced often.
Allong this wall, a replica of the Taima Wall made in part with stones from the original site, there is a timeline showing the different Empires and ruling tribes of the Arabian peninsula, side by side with the names of the important prophets, Ibrahim (Abraham), Moses, Jesus and of course Muhammad (PBUH).
There was a whole wall dedicated to the evolution of writing on the Peninsula (the linguist in me loved that part), and there were tombs and excavations of these ancient civilizations explaining how historical sites teach us about what people used to believe about life and the afterlife.
There were cases and cases of pottery, tools and jewelry showing the development of the techniques and craftsmanship over the last several thousand years. It was really well cared for and very clearly displayed with descriptions in Arabic and English, as well as time and place markers.
I have like 200 pictures, and I put 100 of them up on my facebook page, because I can’t possibly get them all on here with limited space, so please feel free to check those out.
After a wonderful show and tell history lesson of the pre-Islamic times in Arabia, we moved on to the Life of the Prophet section. Even as a non-muslim, I found this section very nice.
In contrast to the ancient desert feel of the previous sections, this section was almost sci-fi. This long wall tells the story of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in Arabic and English. It really is a good story, it explains many things about the conflicts within Islam as well as the attraction so many find in it. I’m still not converting, but I enjoyed the display.
Also, unlike Christianity, Islam has a lot more historical evidence for its main prophet, so while its still clearly a hagiography, it is a better documented one that we’re used to seeing in religious displays. Plus, there’s a clear boundary between the sections, marking Muhammad’s arrival and the introduction of Islam as an historical event within the greater context of the museum, and not isolated religious propaganda.
The next section, the expansion of Islam, is where we start to get a feeling of religious bias that up until now has been happily and conspicuously absent. Clearly, the folks who dedicated, designed and above all paid for this museum do not feel that anything that happened before Muhammad is a threat to their legitimacy, but somewhere around the Sunni/Shia split all bets are off.
The display tells about the “rightly guided Caliphs” referring to the Sunni side, and focuses exclusively on that version of historical events. (If you’re not up to date on that one, the Wikipedia article isn’t a bad place to start) There are more artifacts, beautiful gilt Qurans and early inscriptions dedicated to Allah. There’s also a huge full wall map showing the scope and reach of Islam in its heyday, just in case you needed reminding they used to rule a huge chunk of the known world.
There are instruments of art and science, reminding us also that Islam wasn’t always at war with the world, but shepherded the math, science, art, medicine and literature of the Hellenistic world while Europe went dark.
The next section is where the propaganda starts hitting hard and fast. Some of you may know what I only recently learned, that Saudi Arabia is actually a very young country, not in the sense of a “modern” country, but that the ruling family, Al Saud, has not been in charge for all that long. This section is about the first two shots they had at taking over the peninsula. They refer to Wahabism (also called Salafism) as the “true Islam”. Words like “purity” and “heresy” are invoked. It gets a little creepy.
This was happening around 1726-1814, so the Ottoman Empire was still the dominant Islamic power in the world. Saud managed to take over a swath of the peninsula by graft and force, and while the museum certainly couches his actions in terms of righteousness and purity, the displays in this section are pretty much all weapons. Gone are the beautiful jewelry, pottery, art and science of former ages of Arabia, replaced by guns, swords and spears.
Then again starting in 1901 and lasting until the formation of the current country in 1931 there was once again a lot of turmoil as a Saud descendant tried again. This display is actually an interesting cultural collage of the different people that were “unified” into Saudi Arabia. It’s an interesting choice, but not surprising. They’re trying to celebrate the people that make up the new country, to include them rather than make them feel subjugated. I don’t know how well that’s working, since there still seem to be fairly strong tribal lines here, causing the culture from one city to another to vary greatly.
Finally, the last section was especially nice for me, since I will never be able to visit them in person due to religious restrictions keeping non-Muslims out, the Two Holy Mosques.
There were miniature models of the mosques in Mecca and Madinah as well as many artifacts from the area and models of the Hajj pilgrimage route.
All in all, the museum was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon, and it makes me really happy to know that Saudi families in Riyadh have access to such a wonderful park and educational facility.