Saudi festival revives scenes of ancient market

The festival aims to offer a glimpse of the past while reflecting the modernity of today.

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Three men on horseback make their way through a dusty town square, dressed in colourful ancient robes. A slave boy flips in the air, showing off his agility to a prospective buyer, while men haggle over the price of camels.

These are scenes from ancient Saudi Arabia, put on show this summer at the annual Souk Okaz festival outside the city of Taif.
Visitors to the mountain site are treated to plays, handcrafts-production demonstrations and classical Arabic poetry jams, just like the events that had taken place here hundreds of years ago.

The ten-day festival, recreated at the same location where the ancient open-air market was held, is part of an effort to revive the celebration of the kingdom's often-neglected cultural heritage.

Since the arrival of oil wealth, development plans in Saudi Arabia have prioritized modern cities and shopping malls. But the dipping of oil prices has spurred the government to seek new sources of revenue, and authorities are rediscovering the entertainment and tourism values of the the country's rich cultural heritage.

The Souk Okaz festival proves the point. The annual event receives as many as 50,000 visitors per day and has become a prime destination for tourists from the Gulf Arab region.

The festival aims to offer a glimpse of the past while reflecting the modernity of today. The location of the Souk Okaz festival is historically symbolic, as it's the same place where ancient Arab intellectuals and poets used to gather and exchange ideas and knowledge.

For Hayat Nakhli, a poet from Morocco, Souk Okaz presents a rare opportunity for female poets to try their hands at competing against their male counterparts as their ancestors once did.

This year sees the 10th edition of the annual Souk Okaz festival, after it was revived in 2006 by Prince Khaled during his first tenure as emir of Mecca.

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