A man walks outside the Qasr al-Farid tomb carved into rose-colored sandstone in Madain Saleh, near Saudi Arabia's northwestern town of al-Ula. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

Genies Or Tourism? Saudi Arabia Hopes Ingrained Beliefs Won’t Compromise Promising Sector

Belief in ‘jinn’ or ‘genies’ is a common notion that hovers over the kingdom’s pre-Islamic sites, one scholar claims

Over the past few months authorities in Saudi Arabia have been devising ways to pry open the country’s treasure chest of historical sites for tourists to enjoy. While there are a plethora of Islamic sites for the faithful partaking in the hajj—the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca—the kingdom has been eyeing pre-Islamic monuments in a bid to attract millions of people primarily from abroad but also its citizens.

The problem, however, is that these sites have been the object of ingrained superstitions. A belief in Saudi society is that such areas are haunted by “jinn,” as they are called in Arabic, or “genies” as the Western world has come to know them.

These malign spirits are mentioned in the Koran and originated in Arabian mythology, and are the reason why Saudis have shied away from these places for so long—that is, until now.

The Saudi government has funneled billions of dollars into its tourist sector and accepted the expertise of cultural advisers from France. The initiative is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s aim to modernize the ultra-conservative Sunni nation while diversifying its oil-dominated economy.

The archeological gems include Madain Saleh, a UNESCO World Heritage site in northwestern Saudi Arabia that features majestic tombs carved out of rose sandstone. The tombs were part of a 2,000-year-old city built by the Nabateans. The rock-hewn structures rival those found in Jordan’s Petra, another famous Nabatean city.

Dr. Neil Faulkner, a Fellow at London’s Society of Antiquaries who worked as a tour guide in Jordan for 10 years, told The Media Line that the sites are bound up with ideas about local spirits that seeped into monotheistic religions from pre-existing pagan cultures. He contends that these animistic notions are still prevalent in Bedouin culture.

The central notion of an animistic worldview is that all physical forms are infused with a spiritual essence or presence, he explained. Every rock or spring will therefore have a presiding deity or minor spirit.

But there is confusion about what Saudis generally feel about jinn. Some observers claim that a mainstream belief in Saudi society is that the ancient sites are haunted by the spirits. Reuters recently reported a story that showed up in local media about a school near an ancient monument that temporarily closed because students sighted jinn.

“Of course, a strict Islamic scholar would reject these as idolatrous, and this is a mainstream view; namely, that Muslims should have nothing to do with such places and false gods,” Dr. Faulkner said. “But monotheism has traditionally struggled to assert itself in relation to this pagan undercurrent. The supreme example of this is the Kaaba in Mecca which contains a black stone, which was worshiped in pagan times as a god.”

Jaakko Hameen-Anttila, Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Edinburgh, doubts that many Saudis believe in such “folklore,” especially among the educated.

“The real issue here is that the Saudi authorities are not fond of opening sites that contain ancient idols. They are slowly doing this but there have always been voices in doubt. It’s like the awkward uncle in the family who you don’t want to introduce to your guests,” he said in reference to the idols.

“Nevertheless, the authorities are not destroying them as has been done in other places like Afghanistan, but they are not too keen on exposing the artifacts. They prefer to bury them in the sand and let them be.”

Dr. Faulkner, on the contrary, contends that the Saudis are becoming more relaxed about these things. “This is bound up with having a sense that there is a heritage tourism resource to be developed and exploited, particularly given the relative decline of oil-based economy.”

If the Saudis can move past the stigmas associated with pre-Islamic sites,” he added, “there is an enormous wealth of archaeological sites to be explored and opened up to tourism.”

These ancient sites used to be much wetter and greener and were thus able to support larger populations, Dr. Faulkner concluded. However, given the process of desertification which has accelerated in recent years they are now located in vast stretches of uninhabited areas.

“They are often exceptionally well preserved precisely because of the desertification, and lack of recent development around them.”

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