AN ANCIENT CITY THAT TRANSCENDS TIME
|Nestled in a sprawling oasis in the southwestern region of Saudi Arabia lies the city of Najran, surrounded by orchards and trees, and encircled by a range of rocky peaks. The capital of Najran Province, the city is in an area that has been settled since the earliest of times. Throughout the city, modern buildings and bustling streets are located side-by-side with ancient adobe houses and palm groves. This merging of the old and the new gives Najran, which today is a thriving commercial, industrial and agricultural center, a special charm.|
| The oasis of
Najran has seen human habitation for over four thousand years, and the
settlement has always been an important trading center. At one time it
was the first major stop on the age-old frankincense route that headed
north from the main centers of production in the southern part of the
Arabian Peninsula, and wound its way along the Red Sea to supply the
peoples living in the Mediterranean basin. By going through Najran, as
opposed to alternative routes further to the east and west, caravans
could avoid the higher mountains and be assured of adequate supplies of
food and water.
The caravan trade played an important part in the development of the culture of southern Arabia. The contacts it established between the south of the peninsula and the centers of Near Eastern civilization such as Egypt, Mesopotamia and Persia, influenced architecture, sculpture, stone carving and metal work. It also allowed the inhabitants of Najran to develop more productive farming methods by building efficient dams and irrigation networks.
| The first urban
settlement in this area was called Al-Ukhdood, and thrived for some
1,500 years from 500 BC through the 10th century AD. Throughout most of
this long period of time, it was a large commercial center located at
the crossroads of trade routes carrying spices and perfumes, and
connecting it to the kingdoms of Ma'an, Saba and Hadhramaut.
Najran's most prosperous trading time was during the first and second centuries BC. In 25 BC the Roman general Aelius Gallus was sent to conquer the southern Arabian incense-producing region, and for some time the area was under Roman influence.
The caravans carrying frankincense continued to pass through the area and the settlement of Al-Ukhdood, located only a few miles north of the modern city of Najran, continued to flourish. But the spice trade through the coastal areas of the southwestern parts of the Arabian Peninsula began to decline with the discovery of the patterns of the monsoon and the subsequent growth of maritime trade routes to India. As a result, many of the settlements that had depended on the spice route withered, such as that of Qaryat Al-Fau, which fell into ruin. Qaryat Al-Fau has only recently been rediscovered by the Department of Antiquities, which has been carrying out archaeological research there.
| The settlement of
Al-Ukhdood was abandoned about a thousand years ago. The government of
the Kingdom has decreed the settlement's ruins as a protected site and
has erected a museum there. Visitors to the museum can learn about the
early history of the region. They can see fragments of artifacts and
tools that have been found, shards of pottery, and even poetry engraved
on clay tablets. Al-Ukhdood was highly fortified and was surrounded by a
spectacular perimeter wall built with giant stone blocks. Some of the
walls of the old city still survive and bear extensive carvings.
Another museum in the Najran area, one of the Kingdom's newest and best, was historically a palace once used as the residence for the regional governor. The Al-An Palace, a remarkable example of local architecture, was built in 1941. The main tower is five stories high and dominates the oasis of Najran from the summit of a rocky outcrop. Circular towers with white crenellation, a distinctive decorative style of this area, are located in the corners of the high boundary walls. It contains intricately carved windows and doors, colorful examples of this traditional Arabian art form.
| The palace has 60
rooms that once served as government departments and stores, as well as
accommodation for the governor and his family. A well that dates back to
pre-Islamic times, and which still contains water, is located in the
center of the courtyard. Currently, the museum has displays on wadis and
deserts, archeological finds, local crafts and tools, and historic
photos taken of the area in the early years of this century.
The houses in Najran are made of a special clay that is particular to this area, mixed with straw to provide the strong structural adobe walls that enable them to withstand the harsh climate. Ceilings are made of the spines of palm fronds, stripped of the foliage and covered in clay, laid atop wooden beams. This technique creates a cooling environment in the hot summer days and provides warmth in the winter.
| The white-tipped
crenellation that decorates the edges of the roofs is a distinctive
feature throughout the region. The roofs themselves are flat, and an
aspect of Najrani life is to take coffee on rugs on the flat roof, while
enjoying the breeze high above the hot dusty streets. Entire meals may
be taken on the roof and guests may well be served not only the
traditional lamb and rice, but a dish unique to the southwest, known as
arikah - lightly-baked dough spread on a round tray and smothered with
Another feature of housing construction that is unique to the area is the semicircular windows, inlaid with bright-colored glass, that are placed above the regular windows. Indeed colorful design is an important part of Najrani life. Not only are the houses and buildings colorful and pleasant to look at, but everyday utensils and crockery are attractive and well-made.
The souq [open market] is well known for its traditional crafts such as colorful baskets ranging in size from small bowls to large breadbaskets with lids. Goatskin watercoolers are also among the traditional crafts found in the souq. Other traditional leather products include purses, bags for storing coffee and flour, and carrying-cots for infants. Women in the souq sell old bedouin silver jewelry, while potters and weavers display their wares.
Najran's first government school was opened in 1943. Today there are 50,000 students in schools at various academic levels, more than half of them female. A vocational training center, which opened in 1985, offers courses that provide local young people with qualifications as carpenters, welders, electricians, metal workers, house painters, refrigeration and air conditioning technicians, and auto mechanics. The modern city of Najran and its surrounding area host a thriving industry producing construction materials and other products, as well as a large number of commercial enterprises. There is an extensive industrial city offering full facilities to factory owners to develop light industries, on the basis of achieving self-sufficiency to meet the needs of the city and the province.
| Najran, as
capital of Najran Province, is connected to the Kingdom's network of
roads and has an airport linking it to all major cities. Province
Governor Prince Mish'al Ibn Saud Ibn Abdul Aziz has his offices in the
new town of Al-Faisaliah, which was built in 1965, about four miles from
the provincial capital. Najran itself has a population of just under
half a million people. About 70 percent of the labor force is in the
Like its neighboring provinces of Asir, Baha and Jizan, Najran is known for its agriculture. Centuries ago, rainfall used to be more plentiful and floodwaters were channeled into the fields through irrigation canals. Sediment was deposited and fertile soil was formed. Traditionally, grains such as barley and millet were planted in the area and date palms grew abundantly.
In recent decades, the government has sought to develop water resources throughout the Kingdom, which lacks permanent rivers and streams, by drilling water wells, setting up desalination plants and building dams. As a result, a wide variety of crops, including peaches, apricots, apples, grapes, lemons and oranges are grown on a large scale in Najran.
The Al-Madik Dam in Najran Province is the second largest in the country. It was constructed in 1982 upstream from the ruins of a previous dam that was built three thousand years ago. The modern dam, which has a storage capacity of more than three billion cubic feet of water, is 890 feet long and 240 feet high. To avoid problems of thermal expansion and contraction, especially in the challen-ging Najrani climate, the concrete structure is maintained at an average temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit by pumping cool water through a system of pipes. Besides its functional benefit, the dam is a tourist attraction, with parks at each end displaying a variety of palms, flowering shrubs and citrus trees, which attract large numbers of birds.
The city of Najran has a great many parks and public gardens, and Najran Province boasts beautiful natural scenery. Among the natural attractions are the Abgi Al-Rashras Valley, where water gushes through rocks to irrigate the surrounding verdant areas, the Wadi Nahouqa and the Mountain of Raoun.
In recent years Najran Province and the city of Najran have become tourist attractions and increasing numbers of families from throughout Saudi Arabia visit the area each summer.