Saudi Arabia, Belgium to document first archaeology expedition during King Abdulaziz’s reign

MAKKAH: Saudi Arabia’s Heritage Authority is joining forces with the King Abdulaziz Foundation for Research and Archives and two Belgium universities — KU Leuven and UCLouvain — to publish a book and produce a documentary film commemorating an archaeological expedition conducted during the reign of King Abdulaziz.

The project dubbed “Documenting the Scientific Content of the Rickmans Mission,” seeks to translate French handwritten texts into Arabic, English and Dutch and digitize the documents for wider dissemination. The book will be published in all the aforementioned languages.

The documentary film titled “In the Footsteps of Rickmans,” will retrace the route of the expedition and feature a team of experts from both countries. The journey will start in Jeddah, pass through several key locations, and end in Riyadh. 

The 1951 to 1952 four-month expedition included Gonzague Rickmans, a Semitic languages professor; Philippe Lippens, a specialist in ancient art and inscriptions; Jacques Rickmans, who was renowned for his expertise in comparative linguistics, history of the Hamiri and ancient South Arabian and Sabaean languages; and Abdullah Philby, the explorer.

The explorers covered a distance of over 5,000 km across the western, southern, and central regions of the Kingdom. Each phase of the expedition was meticulously documented. The team successfully cataloged approximately 12,000 inscriptions, despite the challenges posed by the rugged terrain in several regions they traversed.

Dr. Suleiman Al-Thaqafi, professor of ancient Arabic script and cultural advisor at the King Faisal Center, highlighted the cultural significance of the exploration.

He underscored the stability and security that prevailed in Saudi Arabia during King Abdulaziz’s era. “The fact that Belgian researchers, led by Abdullah Philby, undertook such an extensive journey is a testament to the nation’s safety and prosperity at that time,” he said.

The mission’s importance extends beyond archaeology, as the explorers documented Saudi Arabian society, geography, clothing, traditions, and daily life. This has formed a rich trove of material for researchers.

Al-Thaqafi explained that Jacques Ryckmans is considered a pioneer in studies on the South Arabian script, and that he authored the first book on it.

“As for Gonzague Rickmans, he is among the leading experts in the field of ancient Arabic scripts. His research and studies stemming from this expedition are numerous. He supervised my studies when I was a student at the University of Leuven in Belgium.

“He is a distinguished personality and a prominent scholar. Therefore, this project is of great importance as it sheds light on the historical and archaeological depth of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the role of its citizens in building its cultural heritage — a treasure that we should hold in high regard,” he said.

Alia Al-Fayadh, a lecturer in the history department at King Saud University, emphasized Saudi Arabia’s longstanding appeal to Western researchers because of its archaeological treasures and rich cultural diversity.

“The Belgian expedition not only inventoried ancient inscriptions and rock art but also recorded various aspects of Saudi society and its regions in the 1950s,” she said.

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