After spending time in Lebanon and Syria, I was expecting big things from Saudi Arabia. Lebanon and Syria had their histories painted across their landscapes and melded into the communal souls of the people. You could go to museums that celebrated the countries historical diversity or simply walk around to see the remnants of the Romans, Turks or Crusaders; in Damascus you can see the tomb of both Saladin and John the Baptist. Of course, each time the countries were taken over by a new master, a new, interesting level was added to the ever-evolving definition of Syrian or Lebanese.
In Saudi Arabia, there are not the historical layers of culture. Of course, Saudi culture has evolved over the years, but the country was only part of the Caliphate (small parts of the country were included in the Ottoman, Saladin and Seljuk Empires, but never the entire area). The majority of Saudi Arabia escaped the constant colonization and empire building that marked the rest of the Middle East.
[tweetmeme] Of course, Saudi Arabia has some very interesting holy sites that remain important to Muslims as well as important sites from the Caliphate, but, as a non-Muslim, I am not allowed to visit most of the sites. Thus, without access to the physical manifestations of the history of the Caliphate, I am left – seemingly – in a Saudi Arabia without a history. Be sure that this is not to insult Saudi Arabian history or culture, but rather to celebrate the evolution of culture and to mark the influences that power transfers have on the modern landscape and society.
My father recently sent me an very interesting interactive map that shows the various empires that had power in the Middle East. It is impossible to say how much the cultures of the current nation-states were influenced by the empires that once controlled them. Yet that the histories of Lebanon and Syria are littered with the skeletons of many different empires is evident in each country.
When you look at the map, pay attention to the number of empires that controlled the Levant. On my count, there were 16 empires that at one time – some at the same time – controlled all or most of the Levant. It is hardly surprising, then, that Lebanon and Syria have, comparatively, a more prevalent and varied physical history than Saudi Arabia.