Fabulous discoveries in Saudi Arabia emerge from the past


In 1951-1952, for the first time ever, a predominantly Belgian scientific expedition set out to explore the inland waterways of the Arabian peninsular. The archives from the so-called Philby-Ryckmans-Lippens expedition have been digitalised and are now online at UCLouvain.

In 1951-1952, the Saudi-Arabian king Abdul Aziz Ibn Sa’ud consented to a mixed Belgian/British expedition studying his country's pre-Islamic cultural heritage. Until then, this type of study had never been conducted. Gonzague Ryckmans, canon and language professor at UCL, Jacques Ryckmans, his nephew and doctor in Eastern philosophy and history at UCL, Philippe Lippens, politics and social science graduate, and British explorer Harry St John Bridger Philby crossed the desert between Jeddah and Riyadh, using old caravan routes, for three months. They found, photographed and analysed rock drawings and over 12,000 pre-Islamic texts and inscriptions in northern and southern Arabian languages and dialects. The expedition's major achievement was to significantly develop the expertise of pre-Islamic Arabia. Old South Arabian was further deciphered and Jacques Ryckmans even created the first dictionary for the Sabaean dialect.

The archive of the Philby-Ryckmans-Lippens expedition has now been restored, fully digitalised and opened up to scientists and the public at large on UCLouvain’s website.