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Lihyanite ‘monumental statue’ from Saudi Arabia’s AlUla unveiled at Louvre in Paris

PARIS/ROME: A rare statue from the Lihyanite period that was found in northwestern Saudi Arabia has been unveiled at the Louvre Museum in Paris. Dating from the 5th to 3rd centuries BCE and measuring 2.3 meters in height, the statue represents a realistic rendering of a masculine figure standing upright and in a static frontal pose. 

Carved in sandstone and positioned with its arms aligned to either side and its legs straight, the 800kg statue, which is missing its head, most probably depicts a Liyhanite king, if not a priest or a praying figure.

The statue, which is missing its head, most probably depicts a Liyhanite king, if not a priest or a praying figure. (Supplied)

The statue’s unveiling on Tuesday is significant in that it marks the beginning of a collaboration between French museums of heritage and the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU).

“This is the first Lihyanite statue found in northwestern Saudi Arabia that will be exhibited for five years at the Louvre after an official agreement between the Louvre and the RCU,” Dr. Abdulrahman Alsuhaibani, acting collections executive director for the RCU, told Arab News.

Dr. Abdulrahman Alsuhaibani, acting collections executive director for the RCU, poses with the statue at the Louvre Museum in Paris. (Supplied)

The statue was discovered at the Dadan archaeological site in the oasis of modern AlUla, in northwestern Saudi Arabia, during excavations conducted by teams directed by King Saud University in Riyadh from 2003 to 2019.

It dates back to around 2,800 years ago, when Dadan was one of the most important trade route stations of the ancient world. Around the second half of the 1st millennium BCE, the Dadan kingdom was ruled by the kings of the Lihyan tribe, who retained power for several centuries.

A rare statue from the Lihyanite period that was found in northwestern Saudi Arabia is unveiled at the Louvre Museum in Paris. (Supplied)

Several colossal statues, believed to depict kings and priests, were discovered between 2005 and 2007 during archaeological excavations of the sanctuary of Dadan led by King Saud University.

Experts say the statue dates back to the period when the Lihyan kingdom controlled the ancient caravan route from their capital in what is today known as AlUla, historically located along the ancient incense routes that ran from southern Arabia, north into Egypt, and beyond.

A repository of 200,000 years of history, AlUla is quickly becoming Saudi Arabia’s center for tourism and culture. Located in modern Saudi Arabia’s Madinah province in the Hejaz region, it is also home to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Hegra.

A rare statue from the Lihyanite period that was found in northwestern Saudi Arabia is unveiled at the Louvre Museum in Paris. (Supplied)

“Last November, during the archaeological excavations at the sanctuary that has already been excavated by King Saud University, another statue was found of almost the same size as this one that is on display today. But the second one is currently undergoing conservation and restoration,” Alsuhaibani told Arab News.

“We recovered the statue, we managed to stabilize it, and now we are working and making efforts to conserve it before putting it on display during the exhibition.”

The city of Dadan, the former site of both the Dadan and the Lihyan kingdom capitals, was first discovered by English poet and explorer Charles Montagu Doughty in 1876. 

“Little remains of the old civil generations of el-Hejr, the caravan city; her clay-built streets are again the blown dust in the wilderness,” he wrote in his “Travels in Arabia Deserta,” published in 1888.

“Their story is written for us only in the crabbed scrawlings upon many a wild crag of this sinister neighborhood, and in the engraved titles of their funeral monuments, now solitary rocks, which the fearful passenger admires, in these desolate mountains.”

In 1909 and 1910, the site was carefully documented by the French Dominicans A. Jaussen and R. Savignac, who identified it as the biblical Dedan, mentioned in the Old Testament among the main caravan towns of Arabia. 

Thanks to the hundreds of inscriptions in Dadanitic found at the site and among its surroundings, it was established that the city had been the capital of two successive kingdoms: First the oasis kingdom of Dadan in the first half of the 1st millennium BCE and then the vast tribal kingdom of Lihyan in the second half.

The statue was previously displayed as part of “Roads of Arabia,” a traveling exhibition that first appeared at the Louvre Abu Dhabi from November 2018 to February 2019, before heading abroad to Rome, Berlin, and beyond. 

Roads of Arabia celebrated the archaeological treasures of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, exploring how the civilizations of the Arabian Peninsula served as a meeting point of the Indian Ocean, the Horn of Africa, Egypt and Mesopotamia. 

Now, the new Lihyanite display in Paris offers a fresh opportunity to examine these ancient civilizations and the role they played in shaping the region. 

Determining the identity of who the statue is supposed to depict, however, will require careful study of the archaeological record and a fine examination of the details.  

“We know that this statue is a Lihyanite statue that was found in a layer dated to the Lihyanite period, during the second half of the first millennium BC,” said Alsuhaibani. 

“There is also another statue that was also found at the same layer. The word “king” was found written on the back of another statue that resembles the one on display today.”

The statue is dressed in a short tunic while on the body are traces of red pigment. On his left arm he wears a bangle that possibly is decorated with a pearl, worn in the crease of his elbow, while beneath his right foot there are the remains of the sole of a shoe, most likely a sandal.

Of note is the particular attention given to the rendering of the man’s anatomical form and its smooth surface, intricately depicting the muscles of the torso, abdomen, and the remains of the limbs — characteristic elements of the Lihyanite school of sculpture.

According to archaeologists and art historians, the statue is distinguished by its particular local style and reflective of artistic influences from ancient Egypt and Greece.

Preserving and celebrating the ancient heritage of Saudi Arabia forms a key part of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 social reform and economic diversification agenda, which includes investment in tourism infrastructure and attractions.

Among these developments is the “Journey Through Time” master plan, which will see AlUla valley, home to Hegra and a multitude of other historical sites, transformed into a living museum designed to immerse visitors in 200,000 years of natural and human history.  



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