Culture & Art

The culture of Saudi Arabia is a rich one that has been shaped by its Islamic heritage, its
historical role as an ancient trade center, and its Bedouin traditions.
Saudi society has experienced tremendous development over the past several decades. The
Saudi
people have taken their values and traditions – their customs, hospitality, and even their
style
of dress – and adapted them to the modern world.

The Crossroads of the World

Located at the center of important ancient trade routes, the Arabian people were
enriched by
many different civilizations. As early as 3,000 BC, Arabian merchants were part of a
far-reaching trade network that extended to south Asia, the Mediterranean, and
Egypt. They
served as a vital link between India and the Far East on one side, and Byzantium and
the
Mediterranean land on the other.

The introduction of Islam in the 7th century AD further defined the region’s culture.
Within a
century of its birth in the Arabian Peninsula, Islam had spread west to the Atlantic
Ocean and
east to India and China. It fostered a dynamic period of great learning in culture,
science,
philosophy, and the arts known as the Islamic “Golden Age.”

And every year for the past 14 centuries, Muslim pilgrims from around the world
travel to holy
sites in Makkah and Madinah, further enriching the region’s culture. The pilgrims
brought ivory
from Africa and carpets from the East and took local goods back to their homelands.
When the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was formed in 1932, King Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman
dedicated
himself to preserving Arab traditions and culture, and his sons and successors have
done the
same.

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Arab and Islamic Traditions

Saudi traditions are rooted in Islamic teachings and Arab customs, which Saudis learn about
at
an early age from their families and in schools.
The highlights of the year are the holy month of Ramadan and the Hajj (pilgrimage) season,
and
the national holidays that follow them. The holy month of Ramadan, during which Muslims fast
from dawn to dusk, culminates with the Eid-Al-Fitr holiday, in which it is customary to buy
presents and clothes for children and visit friends and relatives.
The other highlight is the Hajj season, during which millions of Muslim pilgrims from around
the
world come to Makkah. The Hajj season concludes with the Eid Al-Adha holiday, in which it is
traditional for families to slaughter a sheep in memory of Abraham’s willingness to
sacrifice
his son.

Arab traditions also play an important role in Saudi life. These age-old traditions have
evolved
over the millennia and are highly regarded. They include generosity and hospitality, which
every
Saudi family offers to strangers, friends, and family. The simplest expression of
hospitality is
coffee – its preparation alone is an intricate cultural tradition, and it is often served in
small cups along with dates and sweets. Another gesture of hospitality is the burning of
incense
(oud) to welcome guests.


Archeological Heritage

Historic preservation is extremely important to Saudi Arabia. Numerous restoration
projects have
been undertaken to safeguard the Kingdom’s architectural heritage, including
restoring historic
buildings and neighborhoods.

These projects are undertaken by the Department of Museums and Antiquities, which
excavates,
catalogs, and preserves pre-historic and historic sites. In 2003, the department was
transferred
from the Ministry of Education to the Supreme Commission for Tourism (SCT), which
was
established in 2000.
Important archaeological work is also carried out by the Department of Archaeology
at King Saud
University in Riyadh.

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One major restoration project took place at Dariyah, the ancestral home of the
Al-Saud family
and the capital of the First Saudi State. Other projects include the ancient sites
of Fau,
Madain Saleh, Al-Ula, Tayma, Duma, and the Darb Zubaydah, the pilgrimage road to
Makkah.
As the birthplace of Islam, the Kingdom places a special emphasis on preserving its
Islamic
archaeological heritage. A large number of mosques around the Kingdom have been
meticulously
restored, including the Holy Mosque in Makkah, the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah, and
mosques
built by the first caliphs after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.

Another way the Saudi government is showing its commitment to preserving its
cultural heritage
is by restoring historic neighborhoods. Restoration work has been undertaken in the
old Qasr
Al-Hokm area in Riyadh, as well as the ancient quarters of Jeddah, Hail, and other
Saudi cities.
This restoration work was showcased during the 1999 celebrations marking the hijrah
centennial
of the taking of the Masmak Fortress in 1902.


Architecture

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Saudi Arabia has a unique architectural heritage that has developed over the
centuries.
Historically, building designs and materials in Saudi Arabia were dictated by the
climate,
geography, and resources available. For example, builders in the central areas
preferred adobe
for its malleability, availability, and insulating qualities. In western Saudi
Arabia, stone and
red brick were common, while Jeddah’s builders used coral from the Red Sea.

AContemporary Saudi architects are increasingly looking to these traditional
building designs and
Islamic concepts for inspiration. This combination of tradition with the
ultra-modern
strengthens the link between a cherished past and an innovative future.

King Saud University and the King Khalid International Airport are two striking
examples of just
how well traditional Islamic design and modern structure can be combined.

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the Spiritual Architecture of Minarets

Minarets are the most visible man-made structures in Saudi Arabia. They jut from the skyline
of
every Saudi urban center, from the smallest village to the largest city, a testament to a
Muslim
society’s bond with God.

The reason minarets rise above all surrounding structures is to allow the call to prayer to
be
heard by inhabitants of all homes in a mosque’s neighborhood. Traditionally, muezzins used
to
climb up the stairs to the top of the minaret and call the faithful to prayer five times a
day.
The melodic call of the muezzins could be heard rising from minarets across all Muslim
cities.
Nowadays, most minarets are wired for sound and the muezzin is no longer required to make
the
demanding walk up the minaret. Every mosque has at least one minaret, although two are more
common, and larger ones have more, with the Holy Mosque in Makkah boasting 12 magnificent
ones.
They range in size from some 20 feet in small village mosques to 360 feet in the Prophet’s
Mosque in Madinah. Some are simple, while others are elaborately decorated with stone and
tiles.


Calligraphy

Dating back 1,400 years to the first century of Islam, calligraphy is a revered art
in Saudi
Arabia.
Because its primary subject matter has historically been the Holy Qur’an,
calligraphy is
considered to be the quintessential Islamic art form.
Saudi museums collect and display rare manuscripts. Other organizations commission
works of
calligraphy, provide training in the art form and hold competitions to encourage new
generations
of young artists.

Today, calligraphy is a dominant theme in metalwork, ceramics, glass textiles,
painting, and
sculpture throughout Saudi Arabia and the Muslim world. Inscriptions often adorn the
interior
walls of mosques, as well as public and private offices and homes.

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Cultural institutions

variety of institutions has been established throughout the Kingdom to preserve
Saudi Arabia’s
cultural heritage.
One of the largest is the Department of Culture at the Ministry of Culture and
Information,
which sponsors a wide range of cultural programs, including literary and drama
clubs, folklore
classes, library events, arts and crafts as well as science projects.

These clubs cover a range of cultural activities. In the drama clubs, for example,
participants
engage in writing competitions and performances as part of a team. Other clubs offer
Saudis the
opportunity to develop various artistic talents.
The Department of Culture regularly sponsors exhibitions, literary readings, and
symposia at its
regional offices as well as its Riyadh headquarters. It also sponsors Saudis to
participate in
international art and cultural events, including poetry and essay competitions as
well as
exhibits of calligraphy and artwork.
The Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts, founded in 1972, sponsors Saudi
artists and
provides ways for new talents to develop and display their art. The society has
established a
library and information center, as well as the Kingdom’s first cultural center,
located in
Riyadh.

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Other institutions that promote culture include the King Fahd Library in Riyadh,
which offers
one of the largest collections of rare manuscripts on Arabic and Islamic literature,
and is a
premier research facility in the Middle East; and the King Faisal Foundation, whose
annual King
Faisal International Prizes includes one for Arabic literature. Many King Faisal
Prize laureates
have gone on to receive other international awards, including the Nobel Prize.
The Department of Museums and Antiquities was established in 1974. Today, there are
major
museums in each of the Kingdom’s 13 provinces, as well many small privately-owned
ones
throughout the country.
Saudi Arabia’s largest museum is the National Museum in Riyadh, which opened in 1999
to
celebrate the centennial of the taking of the Masmak Fortress by the young
Abdulaziz, an event
that led to the founding of the modern Saudi state. There are also private museums,
such as the
Humane Heritage Museum in Jeddah.


Folk Music & Dancing

A living piece of the country’s history, Saudi folk music has been shaped by the
nomadic
Bedouins and the pilgrims who brought musical influences from around the world.
The music varies from region to region – for example, in the Hijaz, the music of
al-sihba
combines poetry and songs of Arab Andalusia, while the folk music of Makkah and
Madinah reflects
these two cities’ influences from throughout the Islamic world.

Dance is also popular among Saudis. The national dance is the men’s sword dance
known as the
ardha. An ancient tradition with its roots in the country’s central area known as
the Najd, the
ardha is a combination of singers, dancers carrying swords, and a poet or narrator.
Men carrying
swords stand in two lines or a circle, with a poet singing in their midst, and
perform the
traditional dance.

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Poetry

Poetry is especially important to Arab cultural life and has long been considered one of the
highest expressions of literary art.
In the days when the Bedouin were constantly traveling, poetry was primarily an oral
tradition.
People would gather around a storyteller, who would spin tales of love, bravery, chivalry,
war,
and historic events. This was both entertainment and oral preservation of history,
traditions,
and social values.

The Holy Qur’an took the Arab love of language and poetry to new levels. It exemplifies the
perfect use of the Arabic language and is considered to be the ultimate literary model.
Poetry remains popular among Saudis today. They gather at cultural events, most notably the
Jenadriyah National Culture and Heritage Festival, and avidly read the works of established
poets that are printed in Saudi Arabia every year. There is also a popular televised poetry
competition.


Jenadrivah Heritage & Culture

The most famous cultural event in Saudi Arabia is the Jenadriyah Heritage and
Cultural Festival,
organized each year by the National Guard. For two weeks a year, the festival gives
over a
million Saudis a glimpse into the past.

First held in 1985, the festival highlights the Kingdom’s commitment to keeping the
traditional
culture and crafts of Saudi Arabia alive.
Opening with a traditional camel race, the festival includes almost every aspect of
Saudi
culture. Artisans, such as potters, woodworkers, and weavers, demonstrate their
traditional
crafts in small shops with typical palm-frond-roofed porches. Visitors can also
stroll through
the past in a heritage village, which resides permanently in Jenadriyah.

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At these exhibits, one may watch a metalsmith fashion a traditional brass and copper coffee
pot.
A woodcarver slowly transforms a piece of wood into a saddle frame. Basketmakers weave palm
fronds and straw into hats, baskets, and containers decorated with colorful designs. A
potter
using a foot-powered wheel shapes clay into bowls and water jars. Leather is cut and shaped
into
sandals, pouches, and bags. Large planks are cut and fashioned into doors and windows that
have
intricate carvings and inlays.

Blacksmiths heat chunks of iron in a furnace and hammer them into gleaming swords and
daggers. A
tailor hand-sews golden threads into the collar of a man’s cloak. Jewelers fuse precious
metals
and mount semi-precious stones to make intricate bracelets, necklaces, and earrings.
Craftsmen
put together ingenious wooden pulleys used in the old days to laboriously draw water from
wells
for irrigating crops.

In addition, folklore troupes perform the ardha and other national dances, while singers
from
around the Kingdom perform traditional songs and music. Literary figures from across the
country
participate in poetry competitions between contemporary poets reciting historic verses.


Traditional Dress & Jewelry

Saudis prefer traditional clothes to Western styles of dress, and generally wear modern
adaptations of age-old designs. The loose, flowing traditional garments are practical for
the
Kingdom’s hot, windswept climate, and in keeping with the Islamic ideal of modesty.

Men:

Men wear an ankle-length shirt of wool or cotton known as a thawb. On their heads, they wear
a
large square of cotton (ghutra) that is folded diagonally over a skullcap (kufiyyah), and
held
in place with a cord circlet (igaal). The flowing, full-length outer cloak (bisht),
generally
made of wool or camel hair, completes the outfit. In the old days, the bisht was also used
as a
blanket while traveling.

Women:

Women customarily wear a black outer cloak (abaya) over their dress, which may well
be modern in
style. On their heads, Saudi women traditionally wear a Shayla – a black, gauzy
scarf that is
wrapped around the head and secured with circlets, hats, or jewelry. Traditional
dress is often
richly decorated with coins, sequins, or brightly colored fabric appliqués.
Some Saudi women wear veils made of sheer material. The practice of wearing a veil
is an ancient
one that dates back at least two millennia, before the advent of Islam. In a harsh
desert
environment, a thin veil provides protection from constant exposure to the sun,
which can damage
the skin and eyes. Today, a veil is also a sign of modesty and virtue.

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Jewelry

Jewelry has been an essential part of Arabian dress for thousands of years. More
than just
personal decoration, jewelry symbolized social and economic status. For the migrant
Bedouins, it
was also an easily transportable form of wealth and security.

Traditional jewelry was mostly made of silver, although gold was also used. Jewelers
used stones
such as turquoise, garnets, and amber from the Kingdom’s rich mines, and pearls and
coral from
the coastal areas. Tiny bells, coins, and chains were also used for decoration.
Designs
primarily evolved from Islamic calligraphy and motifs and featured intricate
patterns of
geometric shapes, leaves, crescents, and flowers.

Today, Saudi women still receive gifts of jewelry from their husbands when they
marry or have
children. Unlike their ancestors, who received large amounts of bracelets, rings,
earrings, and
necklaces as part of their dowry, modern Saudi women wear jewelry in traditional and
contemporary designs with diamonds and a variety of precious metals. Solid gold
bracelets remain
a traditional gift for girls.

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