As part of my inculcation into the world of Saudi art, I visited Jeddah and was pleased to see that Vacheron Constantin had got there ahead of me and sponsored something called Contemporary Kingdom: The Saudi Art Scene Now. Apparently, we had just missed Jeddah Art Week, but a collective show was still on and we were conducted around by an artist who, in common with most other artists I met in Saudi Arabia, has other jobs. This one used to be a journalist, another moonlights as a doctor and one of the most celebrated Saudi contemporary artists is a colonel in the army. The latter must sit strangely alongside making art that, with its mixture of conceptual ingenuity and painstaking technical virtuosity, causes one to re-examine the Arab world and its customs.
While touring the Jeddah gallery district, we heard about Letters and Illumination, a stunning show in Medina that majored in calligraphy, showing classic and contemporary examples drawn from Saudi collections, as well as pieces on loan from the British Museum. As Medina happened to be a mere hour’s plane ride away in the neighbouring province, it seemed churlish not to pop by.
I was rewarded with an insight into an area that I had not really considered before, but that stunned me with its sinuous beauty. I suppose that the development of calligraphy as an art form is born out of the pleasing shape of the script and the Islamic disinclination to represent the human form – although that did not stop King Saud (a monarch in the mould of the pleasure-loving King Farouk of Egypt who, like his counterpart across the Red Sea, was deposed) from putting his face on watches that he gifted to public officials.
Imagine if the illumination of medieval manuscripts had been allowed to continue and develop as an art form to emerge in the present day as a branch of contemporary art and you get some idea of the rich variety of this show. I was particularly taken with the work of Nasser Al-Salem, whose poetic delicacy put often-clumsy Western conceptual art to shame.
The exhibition also included remarkable portraits of some pretty mournful-looking individuals in their seventies. Possessed of an Irving Penn-like immediacy, they depicted each crease of the sagging skin, each follicle of sparse, wispy facial hair and the plaintive sadness of the eyes. The effect was haunting. When I enquired, I found that these were actual eunuchs, the last of the last. As they neared the end of their lives, they were captured with an unflinching and yet dignified honesty by Adel Qureshi, who – of course – has a day job as a watch and car importer.
Less pleasing were some pictures of old Medina, with houses that had elaborate bay windows covered with beautifully carved and pierced shutters. I thought these were taken in some long-past era by an intrepid early-20th-century traveller such as Harry St John Bridger Philby, father of the famous traitor, who converted to Islam and became known as Sheikh Abdullah. Something of a pet Englishman at the court of King Abdulaziz, Philby was a sort of Saudi version of TE Lawrence (at least until he fell foul of King Saud). However, I was shocked instead to learn that the pictures I was admiring dated from the 1980s and that the buildings they depicted had been swept away during an orgy of modernisation (apparently every king likes to extend the mosque of Medina). Where is the National Trust when you really need it?
Happily, the province is under new management and the conservation-conscious new governor, Prince Faisal bin Salman, is keen to restore some of the old charm. Elsewhere in the province of Medina, a place about the size of a moderately proportioned EU country, work is already underway to preserve many of the abandoned villages scattered across the dramatic landscape and transform them into heritage sites. The shape that things might take became clear when I visited a Nabataean settlement that is second only to Petra in importance and a mere four-hour drive up the road from the city of Medina – virtually around the corner.
If you are ever in the neighbourhood, I strongly advise you to take a look. It is breathtaking. These beautiful façades seem to emerge from the sands as if a mirage, except they are solid and all the more engrossing because they are so little known – whereas, by contrast, everyone who has ever watched Indiana Jones, or even one of the Transformers films, has seen Petra.
This site, Madain Saleh, was only opened a few years ago (before then the façades of these tombs were half-submerged by sand and inhabited by nests of hornets) and at times it felt like I had the place to myself. You can still clamber about as I did when, against my better judgement (and entirely unsuitably dressed in a pair of lizard-skin slip-on shoes, white Levi’s, a linen shirt by Emma Willis, a suede safari jacket by Beretta and a fluttering pennant-like length of red cashmere from Rubinacci wound around my neck), I followed my guide up what might as well have been the north face of the Eiger to look at a shallow pit where, so archaeologists say, cattle were ritually slaughtered and their blood was splashed about the place.
Forget about dragging a cow or camel up here to slaughter – the ancient religion of the Nabataeans almost claimed a 21st-century human sacrifice, as the climb very nearly polished me off.