THE SUMMER CAPITAL
Winding roads bring thousands of visitors to Taif each year
Driving along the winding roads to escape the steamy heat of Jeddah or entering from the east away from the dry desert clime of the Najd, visitors to Taif are greeted by a fresh, cool breeze as they ascend to the city. Set in a hollow between granite hills rising from the eastern slope of the Hejaz in the southwest region of the Kingdom, this city is a magnet that draws visitors from across Saudi Arabia.
The name Taif means encompassing in Arabic, and for centuries visitors to this mountain city 5,600 feet above sea level have enjoyed the captivating views from wind-sculpted rocks, a pleasant climate and the verdant setting of its surroundings, as well as the abundance of fruits which grow in its fertile valley. Fragrant roses, lush parks, sunny skies and exotic birds and wildlife have for generations drawn families to this resort town each summer. Not only is Taif popular among vacationers, but it has become the official summer seat of the Saudi government.
Numerous ruins and antiquities confirm Taifs colorful history which dates back to pre-Islamic times. Some historians believe the valley was settled over 5,000 years ago. The Banu Mihlahil, a vanished tribe, once inhabited this area, as did the Amalekites and the Thamud, also now disappeared. Other tribes, such as the Banu Thaqif, have survived. This largely settled tribe of farmers inhabited the walled city and resisted invasion by other tribes. They were wise traders, profiting from the caravans that passed through the region, selling them their produce and making protection and other services available to these travelers.
Taif has been a farming community for centuries
In pre-Islamic times, Taif was home to the most famous of annual fairs anywhere on the Arabian peninsula. The Suq Okaz took place on what is now a rolling desert plain north of Taif. This fair occurred during the first 20 days of Dhu Al-Qadah, the eleventh month of the year. During Dhu Al-Qadah, Dhu Al-Hajjah and Muharram respectively the eleventh, twelfth and first months of the year as well as Rajab, the seventh month of the year all warfare and raiding was banned. This allowed the residents and merchants of the region the necessary security to travel. Traders brought goods via camel and donkey to the Suq Okaz. Bedouin crafts such as rugs, camel-hair tents, sheepskins, pottery, tools, jewelry, perfumes, produce and spices were sold. Included in this colorful spectacle of the souq were poets and singers who came to participate in contests of their talents. According to Saudi archaeologists who have studied the area, it is believed that the Suq Okaz lasted until sometime around 760 AD.
Agriculture has grown rapidly in recent decades
In 631 AD, the residents of Taif accepted Islam and became part of the emerging Islamic state. A mere 55 miles from Makkah, Taif was strongly influenced by Islam early on, losing many of its residents who migrated in order to propagate the faith throughout the Peninsula. The Holy Quran, (Sura 63, 31) refers to Makkah and Taif as al-Qariyyatain the two cities an expression that clearly implies a close relationship between them. Taif, one of the Kingdoms main agricultural producers, supplied the residents and pilgrims in Makkah with fresh produce from its fertile fields. Strategically located, Taif was also a gateway to Makkah for pilgrims coming from the east across the peninsula, as well as being the summer residence of the wealthy merchant families of Makkah.
The Prophet Muhammad also spent time in Taif. In the early years of his mission, he realized that life was becoming difficult for his small community of Muslims in Makkah who met with opposition from the Prophets own tribe, the Quraish. This tribe accumulated its wealth from the many pilgrims who came to Makkah to worship pagan gods. They were opposed to Muhammads teaching of one God, because they feared this would ruin their business of selling idols. Thus, in 619 AD, Muhammad went to Taif with the hope of converting the Banu Thaqif tribe to Islam and winning their support for his followers in Makkah. On this visit, Muhammad was unsuccessful. However, seeing him in distress, a slave named Addas kindly offered the Prophet a plate of grapes. After a brief conversation, Addas, a native of Nineveh, adopted Islam. He was the first person in Taif to embrace the faith. A small mosque in the area bears his name and still stands today.
Bee-keeping in Taif
The second and last time the Prophet was in Taif was in 630 AD. During this time, a skirmish took place between Muslim and local tribes. The battle lasted 20 days and twelve Muslims were killed before their warriors withdrew. Nevertheless, the Prophet prayed to God to grant His blessings to the inhabitants of Taif and to guide them to the right path. One year later, a six-member delegation of the Thaqif tribe came to Muhammad and announced their tribes adoption of Islam.
Evidence of its long devotion to Islam are the many mosques, both old and new, in the city. The Abdullah Ibn Al-Abbas Mosque in Al-Mathnaah is the oldest of those built during the first century of Islam. The mosque has been rebuilt several times, the last of which was during the Ottoman empire. Its ruins are now an archaeological site. A graveyard near the mosque contains the remains of the twelve martyrs of the Prophets campaign in 630 AD.
Taifs importance dimmed during the 18th and 19th centuries. Several fortresses were built there, but the city lost its stature as a seat of government and became more of a provincial outpost. The remains of several forts still stand among the mountain tops of Taif overlooking the villages. These forts, built mostly from rock, stored supplies in their basements and had observation posts on the higher levels.
Agriculture has been the economic mainstay of Taif since its earliest days. Even in pre-Islamic times, the farmers of Taif employed very advanced irrigation methods, bringing water drawn from dams barring a large number of wadis and terraced fields on the mountain slopes. Historically, the tribes of Taif grew wheat and barley and fruits including limes, apricots, oranges, olives, figs, peaches, pomegranates, watermelons, quince, grapes, almonds and dates. Daily caravans took this produce down the steep, winding mountain road to Makkah, fostering a trade on which the citizens of Taif thrived.
Taif is famous for its roses and their perfume
In addition to producing high quality fruits and vegetables, Taifs gardens are renowned throughout the Kingdom for their exquisite roses. Blooming in springtime, these delicate flowers color the landscape. Among them is a particularly sweet perfumed red rose that has for centuries been used to produce a valuable essence know as attar which can be used alone or as one of the ingredients in other perfumes.
In the old days, when the flowers bloomed, rose farmers would gather the petals and send them by camel caravan to Makkah, where they were pressed into attar. Famous throughout the Islamic world, pilgrims still like to buy at least one vial of this essence to take home as a souvenir of the Hajj.
The roses and other fragrant flowers of Taif attract many bees, making the region a major producer of honey. Taifs honey has a light-golden color, does not set hard and has an extremely pleasing flavor and aroma, and is thus in great demand.
The industrious tribes of Taif also sold firewood, charcoal and timber from the forests of their region to the residents of Makkah. The Thaqif were also imaginative artisans, perfecting the art of curing sheepskins and cowhides to use for binding books and making other leather goods.
Taif began to reemerge on the national scene during the first part of this century. In his drive to unify the tribes and form the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, King Abdul Aziz extended his protection to Taif in 1924. Thus the city entered a new era of stability and prosperity.
The Shubra Palace, a favorite vacation home of King Abdul Aziz
King Abdul Aziz enjoyed the natural setting of Taif and after the unification of the Kingdom in 1932, he was a frequent summer resident. Staying at the Shubra Palace, and then later on preferring to reside in an elaborate tent city lower down the mountain, King Abdul Aziz and his family enjoyed the refreshing mountain environment. One of the Kings favorite pastimes was to visit nearby valleys and plains, where gazelles and other wildlife were in abundance. It was surrounded by the beauty of Taif that, on November 9, 1953, King Abdul Aziz peacefully passed away.
Beginning in the 1950s, Taif began to grow both in physical size and population. The citys limits spread to encompass several smaller hamlets. Today more than 330,000 people make Taif their permanent home and thousands more visit over the summer months. Agriculture continues to be a major component of the local economy. The tourism industry also provides thousands of jobs to local residents. They work to maintain the citys more than 400 public gardens and parks, as well as in hotels and other facilities that cater to visitors.
King Fahd Park in Taif
Taifs largest and most famous public garden is the King Fahd Park. Among its amenities are a lake, playgrounds, gazebos, walking paths and a mosque. In a suburb of Taif called Al-Radf, there is a zoo with a large variety of animals from around the world, in addition to exotic local varieties.
While the Suq Okaz has not been held for centuries, shoppers in Taif can find delightful handicrafts, trinkets and other goods in the old souq. Located in the heart of the city, it is characterized by its traditional architecture, and its buildings house shops full of souvenirs, gold, silver, spices and perfumes.
Shubra Palace, the former summer residence of King Abdul Aziz, is today maintained by the Ministry of Defense and Aviation. The large white structure is the most distinguished and famous historical building in the city. It has a lush garden, originally fed by a water channel from a nearby spring. The ornate windows and doors are carved with intricate motifs.
During the early 1970s, Taif became the official summer seat of the Saudi government. Buildings were constructed to house the Kings Office, the Council of Ministers and the various Ministries. These buildings overlook the Great Mosque, a sprawling structure on King Faisal Street.
Taif in its setting of natural beauty
The citys infrastructure has been expanded and modernized over the decades in order to keep up with growth and to support the blooming tourist industry. Paved roads and highways make access to Taif easy from all directions. Three main roads from Makkah, Riyadh and Abha facilitate both transport of Taifs produce to the Kingdoms markets and the easy access of visitors to this resort town.
Due to its mountainous location, Taif is rich in underground water reserves. Numerous wells scattered throughout the city and its surrounding area tap extensive aquifers. Taif is also supplied with additional water from a pipeline from the Al-Shuaiba desalination plant on the Red Sea. This plant produces some 40 million gallons of potable water each day, of which Taifs share is 15 million gallons.
A modern road among sharp cliffs
Taif boasts an integrated network of services covering the fields of communications, agriculture, health, youth welfare, water, social assistance and education. The children of Taif have access to quality educational facilities. There are more than 125 primary, intermediate and secondary schools for Taifs boys and girls. Umm Al-Qura University has a branch campus in Taif. The citys residents also have access to excellent medical care at the citys numerous hospitals and clinics.
Taif is also home to one of three centers established by the National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development (NCWCD) dedicated to the study of endangered animals and plants, and to their breeding in controlled conditions. The Taif Research Center is credited with the successful breeding of the Arabian oryx and the Houbara bustard. Both animals, whose numbers were nearing extinction in the 1980s, have now been reintroduced in large numbers in various wildlife reserves throughout the Kingdom. Other endangered species the Taif facility has successfully bred and reintroduced into the wild include the Arabian helmeted guinea fowl, the ostrich and the Arabian bustard, one of the worlds largest flying birds.
As part of its effort to propagate plant species in danger of extinction, the center has established nurseries to produce seedlings that are planted in reserves throughout the country. The facility also maintains a seed bank that ensures the survival of threatened species by maintaining the genetic diversity of plants indigenous to Saudi Arabia.
Adding new pages to its rich history, Taif in recent years has been the site of several meetings brokering peace in the region. In 1989, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Fahd Ibn Abdul Aziz hosted a conference in Taif, inviting the leaders of Lebanons warring factions to try to resolve their differences. The resulting Taif Accord effectively ended Lebanons 15-year civil war and ushered in an era of peace and reconstruction.
Taif was also chosen as the site of the 1981 Islamic Summit Conference which brought together leaders from Islamic nations to discuss issues concerning them. Further, the city was the site of Kuwaits government in exile while that country was occupied by Iraq during the Arabian Gulf War of 1990-91.
It is this combination of rich history, beautiful setting and extensive modern amenities that attracts thousands of people from across Saudi Arabia to Taif each year.