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30 May 2006
Saudis hope stones mystery will appeal to tourists

Nobody really knows why the 50 groups of about five pillars each are clustered at Rajajil, on the edge of the Nafud desert in northwestern Saudi Arabia. Local legend says they are a lost tribe punished by God.  Whatever their origin, local authorities hope the standing stones and the history-rich al-Jouf region will form the centre-piece of a new tourism drive. "Because of the political situation, tourism has been low but the strategy is to revive it and we are hoping to make al-Jouf a tourist attraction," said Hussein al-Mubarak, a former museum director who now heads a committee to encourage tourism.
     Archaeologists believe the Rajajil stones date from before 3,000 BCE - when human civilisation first began to thrive in ancient Egypt and Iraq. The stones also have graffiti linking them to pre-Islamic deities such as the female goddess Widd. There is no consensus on whether the site was a temple, a burial ground, a place used for astronomy or something else. Mubarak says the stones were placed on the desert's edge deliberately, probably to worship the sun.
     "We have several mysterious sites all over the Arabian peninsula...but we have failed to know the reason why they were made and who made them," said Majeed Khan, a Semitic script expert who has spent 30 years studying Arabian sites. Khan said the stones of Rajajil were part of the mystery. "They have something to do with religion, maybe it has an astronomical connection. There is no archaeological evidence to prove the date - we excavated and there is no pottery."
     Rajajil could date from a time when the peninsula was changing from a land of lakes and trees - depicted in hundreds of rock art sites - into today's dry, desert region.
     Plans to bring tourists to al-Jouf ran aground when militants linked to al Qaeda began attacking foreigners in a campaign to topple the Saudi monarchy launched in 2003. However, the violence has largely died down and Saudi Arabia, which already receives millions of Muslim pilgrims to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina each year, said last month it would begin issuing tourist visas to foreigners.

Sources: Arab Times, Reuters (30 May 2006)

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