Friday, October 13, 2000
Arrive in Saudi Arabia
Along the Red Sea, the Saudi Arabian Airlines plane approaches the city of
Jeddah. From the air, we see palatial homes with walled-in courtyards, gardens and pools; tall city structures and flat-roofed buildings; street grids interrupted
by rotaries; and patches of green — parks.
From Jeddah we fly to Riyadh, our first destination. We strike up a
conversation with a young man by the name of Ahmed who, we learn, attends George Mason University at the campus near our home in Virginia. He is getting
his PhD and is traveling home to see his brand new baby son.
The highlands of Asir
We land in Riyadh and clear immigration and customs in the nicest of ways. Years ago, clearing customs was a tedious, arduous, time-consuming
procedure where bags were opened and inspected individually. This time porters carry our bags to an X-ray machine and collect them for us after they pass
We meet our guide, Saad Al-Juraid, who accompanies us to the hotel,
highlighting points of interest along the way. Saad describes the 1980s building
boom, saying that because of the overwhelming amount of construction the people used to joke that the construction crane was the "national bird." Saad
further tells us that land in central Riyadh is expensive; that the government
gives people land, and loans for 25 years, interest-free, and provides low-income housing; and that the average Saudi family has five or six children.
The tombs at Madain Saleh
Palm trees line the median strip and billboards are in English and in Arabic. We pass the Ministry
of Interior, which looks like an upside down pyramid with a flying saucer on top. We also pass a
McDonald's and a Toys'R'Us. At the Marriott Hotel where we are to stay, the ladies are issued
abayas and headscarves.
Saturday, October 14
Sightsee in downtown Riyadh,
shop in the local souq, visit the
Masmak Fortress and the
site of Dariyah
We visit the local souq [market] where we wander through an antique
market and pass some gold stores. Gold, Saad explains, is selling for 12.5 dollars
a gram — jewelry is sold by weight, not by the piece. The gold is 18 to 24 carat.
Folkloric dancers are among the
highlights of our tour of Saudi Arabia
The souq is located in the area of the Masmak Fortress, the mud citadel in
the heart of old Riyadh that King Abdulaziz captured in 1902 to regain control of
the city, his ancestral home. We see a spear tip broken off and embedded in the door lintel of the old fort, a memento of the battle for the city. The fortress is now
a museum, and after taking photos of the exterior we enter and walk through its many rooms and corridors. Before our visit, Ray and I had read the stories about
King Abdulaziz: his quest to unify his country, his bravery, his strategy and his
incredible foresight. For us, the fort recreates the aura of those times. You can
close your eyes and relive the King's actions. What a great tourist site!
Historic town of Dariyah
After lunch, we leave for a tour of nearby Dariyah, the first capital of the Al-Sauds, settled in the early 15th century by the forebears of King
Abdulaziz. Dariyah is located in the Wadi Hanifah. The buildings are made of mud, straw and seashells. In the
wadi (dry river bed) there are many date palm
trees. We walk through the streets and into, under, through or on top of every building and room that is open to us. The government has taken great strides at
historic preservation. Signs, in Arabic and in English, identify the buildings. These signs did not exist when we visited in the past. We admire the colorful
doors at the entrances of the buildings. Made of wood, these doors operate with a unique slide-and-lock mechanism designed centuries ago. Inside the buildings,
the ceilings are crossed with beams of tamarisk logs and palm fronds, allowing light and air to pass through. A huge government restoration project has been
initiated to restore the area so that visitors have safe and easy access.
Caretaker at Dariyah and his son
A father and son join us. He is the caretaker of the grounds and allows us
to take photos of the two of them while we walk through the old city. We give the boy a Smithsonian pin to wear on his
Our sightseeing finished for the day, we prepare to leave the area when
we come upon a Saudi film crew that is shooting a scene for a local TV show. A social satire, the show is similar to soap operas in the United States. In the scene
they are filming, two young men discuss marriage. They do takes over and over. The main character forgets his lines the first time. I think
he is nervous because we are watching him. One of Dariyah's old buildings has been transformed into
a set for the show. We never guessed that filming for an ordinary TV program would take
place in such a historic environment.
Historic town of Dariyah
The filming attracts almost every young boy in the area. They ride up on
their bicycles and watch the action. Like us, they are excited to witness such an
On the way back to the hotel we pass by King Saud University where
Saad says there are 60,000 students, male and female. At a traffic circle nearby,
we see a marble monument of the Holy Qur'an, which has the surah enjoining believers to read and pursue knowledge.
Sunday, October 15
Sightsee in Riyadh, visit the
Diplomatic Quarter and
After a lecture from our American professor, Dr. Gwen Okhrulik, entitled
'From Abdulaziz to the GCC: the Kingdom in Context', we leave for a visit to the
Qasr Tuwaiq and the Diplomatic Quarter. Along the highway, we see the King Saud Medical Center and the King Faisal Specialist
Hospital. Saad tells us these health care facilities work in cooperation with hospitals in the United
Diplomatic Quarter and the glass pyramid
Entering the Diplomatic Quarter, Saad points out the walls that surround
the complex, which were built in the old architectural style of central Saudi Arabia. Each house outdoes the next in architecture and design. So many rooms,
so many designs. One was a replica of the White House in Washington, DC. We arrive at the historic palace of Qasr Tuwaiq and are met by Yusef, a guide from
the High Commission of the City of Riyadh. He tells us that the historic palace is
now a hotel and meeting place for dignitaries, as well as business and government visitors to the embassies in the area. One special area, the glass
pyramid sitting room, has a unique design. Each glass pane is hand painted in a kaleidoscope of color, depicting flowers in abstract form. The hues
capture the sunlight. It is gay, yet restful, soothing and calming. One of the panes was signed
by the artist, a woman. The place is simply beautiful! During our last visit to Riyadh, this area was under construction.
After lunch we depart for another treat, the National Museum and the
King Abdulaziz Historic Center. The National Museum, which opened just this year, features exhibits on traditional Saudi lifestyle, archeology and culture,
covering the Arabian Peninsula since the earliest times. The museum is a delight
with its special sound system of "talking exhibits" and should not be missed by
any visitor to the Kingdom.
Map of Saudi Arabia and its 13
We cross a park-like courtyard to another building, the King
Abdulaziz Historic Center. The whole area is an extensive public park in which are located
the National Museum, the Murraba' Palace, the King Abdulaziz Foundation for Research and
Archives, the King Abdulaziz Public Library, a mosque and several restored old mud buildings.
The center contains many personal items of King Abdulaziz. I enjoy these personal items the
most. From his clothing, for instance, I am able to get a true "feel" for the actual size of the man,
who stood some six foot three inches tall.
The old photographs on the wall are absolutely
wonderful. There is one, in particular, where he is in a very old car, dashing through the desert
with the wind blowing his ghutra [head dress]. He looks so natural and seems to be
enjoying himself. Many photos show him with foreign dignitaries. Others capture his personality — so
much so that you could almost share the moment with him, it is as if I was there.
The town of Sakakah in Al-Jouf Province
In the evening, we eat a dinner of traditional food, Saudi style — that is,
on the floor in a private room at a local restaurant. We have tea, coffee, dates,
lamb, camel, assorted rice dishes, stews, salads, a farina-like side dish and a farina and date side dish. The dessert is a pancake with date and cardamom
served with mint tea. Everybody stuffs themselves with the wonderful food,
laughing and talking the evening through.
Monday, October 16
Fly to Dhahran, visit Saudi Aramco
Exhibit, Well #7, the Golf Course
On our one-hour flight to Dhahran, one member of our party starts a
conversation about Saudi dress with the gentleman seated beside her. A Saudi
woman sitting in front of us turns around and begins a conversation. She is
wearing a lovely abaya, her scarf is lined in purple and we tell her how pretty it
is. She proudly tells us that it is a gift from her daughter.
Saudi Aramco Exhibit Center in Dhahran.
Our plane touches down at the new King Fahd International Airport
northwest of Dammam, many miles away from the old airport at Dhahran that
we had known so well. What a delightful surprise! The new terminal is brightly
lit, antiseptically clean, multi-storied, spaciously designed, and beautiful with
glass and marble, plants and flowers. There are large signs to direct travelers.
From the airport, we go straight to the Saudi Aramco Exhibit Center.
There we meet a young woman named Sana bint Abdulrahman who gives us a
brief introductory talk about the exhibit. Before we begin to wander off, Sana
offers us booklets on oil shipping and oilfield drilling as well as copies of the
Centennial Edition of the Saudi Aramco World magazine. She also gives gifts to
everyone in our group. The displays fascinate everyone with each person
gravitating to an area of his or her particular interest. I take photos of the group
viewing the exhibits.
A man named Tawfiq appears out of nowhere. His English is marginal but
from what I can deduce, he is the caretaker of the exhibits and the building. It
becomes very clear that he is proud of both his job and of the building. He is
eager to know if we have enjoyed ourselves and offers to escort us individually
through the displays to make sure that we don't miss anything.
Archaeological site in Al-Jouf
Leaving the oil exhibit center, we drive to Dammam Well #7, which was
the first well to produce oil in commercial quantities after numerous exploratory
attempts had failed. When I first visited the area in 1982, I was given a tiny bottle
of crude oil from the well and still have it to this very day. Well #7 is now an
attractive tourist site that showcases the beginning of Saudi Aramco's remarkable history.
The Rolling Hills Country Club inside the Saudi Aramco complex features
a golf course of unusual design. It is sand, with oiled sand "greens" and oiled
fairways. Golfers play off of a piece of Astroturf that they carry around with
them. This provides the proper surface for the ball to be played from. The golfers
in the group love it! The ecology-minded think it very clever and wonder why
Arizona and the Palm Desert area don't design something like it.
Leaving Dhahran, we head for Al-Khobar and the Meridien Hotel where
we stay overnight. Late in the afternoon, the group departs by bus for a drive on
the King Fahd Causeway connecting Saudi Arabia with Bahrain across the
Arabian Gulf. Some members of the group walk into downtown Al-Khobar. We
visit the Arab Heritage Gallery, which is owned by Nabila Bassam, a Saudi
businesswoman. Her gallery has expanded since we last visited, featuring more
crafts and textiles than I remember. Some prints, paintings and books are on
display as well as a selection of brass items. We always loved to visit Nabila's. It
is buyer-friendly, and one can move about and admire, touch or feel items.
Saudi hospitality in Al-Jouf
We then walk down King Khalid Street. During our walk, we recognize
more and more familiar places, stopping at a grocery market for a bottle of
We hail a taxi to take us to the Al-Rashid Mall, a new and modern
shopping center. We watch Saudi children ride scooters (the same kind that are
the latest rage in the U.S.) around the mall.
Tuesday, October 17
Sightsee in the Al-Hasa oasis,
visit the covered souq and the beach
For our day trip to the Al-Hasa oasis, we have a local guide, Sabrina
Rigas, an American who is married to a Saudi. She majored in archeology at
Arizona University and now lectures on cultural tours. She is also a cooking
instructor specializing in Saudi cuisine. She speaks of the spices she uses: cumin
seeds, coriander, fennel, turmeric, peppercorns, dried onions, bay leaf, cloves
and dried limes. In addition, Sabrina collects antique doors and has about 310 of
Archaeological site in Al-Jouf
She tells us about Al-Hasa and its main city, Hofuf. The oasis has millions
of date palms, which are used to make brooms and baskets as well as for food. In
Hofuf there is the best example of a covered souq in the Eastern Province. In this
market, you can buy frankincense and myrrh, as well as saffron, which at 15
dollars for 100 grams is far cheaper than in the U.S.
There is also a famous camel market in Hofuf. Sabrina tells us that camels,
once the principal mode of transportation in the Arabian Peninsula, are now
used mainly for racing.
At the covered souq, abayas, veils and face coverings are the most interesting items for the female tourists. Wool spindles and camel crops are for
sale, among baby and adult clothes. The items for sale are spread out on blankets. Some of the more formal stalls have waist-high, wooden platforms on
which the shop's wares are displayed. One veiled shop owner shouts to us, hawking her articles for sale. She waves fists full of wares that we do not readily
recognize. We buy some items, including incense burners, from her.
The ancient forts in Al-Jouf
After lunch, a barbecue of shrimp, burgers, chicken, assorted salads and
breads, served among the palm groves of the oasis, we head for Half Moon Beach on the Arabian Gulf. The water is warm, like bath water. Around the
beach are sand dunes and parked alongside are all-terrain vehicles that people
ride up and down the dunes. Some people have their own dune buggies and others rent them on site. In the old days children used to sand ski down the
dunes. Now, they use dune buggies.
After attending a lecture on 'The Power of Islam: Community, Ideals and
Authenticity', we leave the group to continue their discussion, and meet some of
our old Saudi friends for dinner. We eat fish, tandoori style, in a restaurant in a
building above a Safeway shopping center.
Leaving Al-Khobar, we fly to Riyadh for a visit to the area of the annual
Culture and Heritage Festival at Jenadriyah.
Wednesday, October 18
Stay in the Governor's Guest House
in Al-Jouf, hospitality in a Saudi home
We fly to Al-Jouf, which is an ancient center of civilization. The province is
known for its agricultural products, including fruit-trees — apple, plum, peach,
olive and almond, among others.
The ancient forts in Al-Jouf
On arrival in Al-Jouf, we find there has been a change in our
accommoddations. Rather than staying at the Al-Nusl Hotel, which is hosting a
wedding, we are to stay at the Governor's Guest House, a courtyard surrounded
by clusters of villas. To us, this is an adventure.
After dinner at the hotel, we are invited to visit with Saad's family at his
sister Tarea's home. Hungry after a long day, everyone eats at the hotel. What we
do not realize is that Saad's family is readying themselves for us and preparing
more food! We arrive at Saad's place where a Bedouin tent is awaiting us. Colorful rugs cover the floor from end to end. All of the women in the family are
there and are veiled. In the center of the tent is a table piled with pastries and
Saad's oldest sister Tarea (who only speaks Arabic) greets us and invites
everyone to sit along the "walls" of the tent.
Her culinary treats outshine those of the hotel. She and the women in Saad's family have prepared all of the food and the pastries, which are very light
and flaky but, oh, so much food after eating dinner. Saad's entire family is present. Tarea's husband and 13 children, as well as
numerous grandchildren. Saad's other sisters and brothers are there too. All of
them participate in taking care of us, their guests. The young Saudi boys serve
cardamom coffee in the little cups from special coffee pots we have become
accustomed to seeing. The women serve fresh dates.
The ancient forts in Al-Jouf
Then, after all that preparation and serving of food to us, Tarea wants to
do even more, saying that she hasn't done enough for her guests. She tells Saad
that she wants to give a piece of one of her woven carpets to everyone. Taking a
long, finished piece down from the wall, she asks one of the servants for a pair of
scissors so she can cut the rug into pieces for each of us. We all panic! We cannot
let her destroy a beautiful piece of art by turning it into tattered squares. After
much banter in Arabic between Saad and Tarea, she gives the scissors back to the
servant. It is no wonder Saad speaks so warmly about his sister. She is extremely
nice and we all fall in love with her. Her heart is so loving.
Thursday, October 19
Sightsee around Domat Al-Jandal,
pre-Nabatean petroglyphs, stone pillars
During breakfast, another tour group appears at the hotel. They are from a
group called Distant Horizons. Their tour leader is David Long, author of the
book 'The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia', which was recommended reading for us before the trip.
Qadr Rock near Al-Jouf
We go by motorcoach with a local guide, Hussain Al-Khalifah, director of
the Al-Jouf Museum. Our first stop is Qadr Rock where we observe pre-
Nabataean petroglyphs that date back more than two millennium. The writing
on the rock is Hamoudi and Arabic. Once there was a water well near the rock,
and the location was a resting place for the numerous caravans that passed
On the flat land near the rock, square blocks of stone are arranged in an
orderly pattern. Saad explains that the area is being marked off by people for
Similar to Stonehenge in the United Kingdom is Rajajil, an area which has
stone pillars standing in groups of four in a semi-circle. Each is between 12 and
16 feet high and is some six thousand years old. It is believed that the formations
were used for astrological readings. While walking around, Hussain finds an
arrowhead in absolutely perfect condition. He is excited and says he will turn it
over to the museum.
The historic site known as Dumat Al-Jandal used to be a stopover on the
spice road. Once a nomad campsite, it became a political and commercial center
with the introduction of camel caravans around the time of the revelation of
Islam in the seventh century AD.
Qadr Rock near Al-Jouf
The castle known as Qasr Marid dates back to the Nabataean period. Built
in the ancient construction technique of dry-stone walling and corbeling with
stone lintels, it is said to once have had an underground tunnel to the Mosque of
Omar. Legend has it that Queen Zenobia of Palmyra once attacked the fort.
Located next to the Qasr Marid is the Mosque of Omar, built in the time of
the Second Caliph. The marketplace surrounding it existed up until 1950. Saad
says that when he was a child, he and his friends used to walk to the market,
picking dates along the way and stuffing them into their pockets. Outside the
mosque, an art class is in session. There, in the open air and sunlight, young men
sitting on stools by easels draw on canvas boards and paper. Their teacher walks
around them critiquing their pieces and offering tips.
Lunch is by the side of a man-made lake in the shade of the bus. The terrain on the way to the lake is dotted with mountains of mudstone, sandstone
and limestone metamorphosed into shale and slate. The greenish color is iron
oxide. The slate is used on local rooftops.
Saudi family hospitality in Al-Jouf
Hunting with falcons is a cherished tradition in Saudi Arabia that dates
back centuries. Saad, a practitioner of the sport, takes us to a store that
specializes in it. Inside, paraphernalia of all sorts to accommodate the bird and
the hunt is available for sale. Rifles, bags, stands, leather coveralls, leather bird
head covers, tether loops, bird stands that look like giant carpeted thumb tacks,
belts that hold bullets — you name it, they have it. Saad says falcons are not
difficult to train and that trainers return the birds to the wild after each season.
Friday, October 20
Visit forts and ruins, an
ancient well, and petroglyphs.
We head out for Qasr Zabal, an ancient mud-brick and stone fort. Along
the way, we tour the city of Sakakah. Some houses are decorated with lights,
which Saad explains indicate a wedding is in progress. We visit Bir Saisara, an
old Nabataean well. Nearby there is a contemporary house with a water tower
on top disguised as an incense burner. We take photos of the ancient well and the
contemporary house. The contrast between an ancient underground water source versus a modern system is striking.
Saudi family hospitality in Jouf
Along the way we stop at Jebel Burnoose, where we see 4,000-year-old petroglyphs showing dancing stick figures.
We walk to and through the fort up to the top where we have a wonderful
view of the area. It is a hot day, but on the roof the breeze refreshes us. Some
local boys follow us and play tag, running around us and giggling with delight. I
must say that the restoration of the castle is well done but unless you are sure
footed, any attempt to climb freely without handholds is out of the question. Yet,
these youngsters run up and down the fort like mountain goats. I think how
lucky they are to have a real castle in their backyard and to be able to play in it.
Wow, just like a tale out of Arabian Nights!
I tell Saad that I was thrilled and delighted to visit Al-Jouf and Sakakah,
never having been there before and totally unaware of the historic and archeological treasures they held for us.
Saturday, October 21
The Nabatean tombs at Madain
Saleh, the Hejaz Railroad, Al-Ula
We fly to Madinah and from there go by road to Madain Saleh. The road trip is listed in our itinerary as "a dramatic drive north through the desert." That
was an understatement.
Old locomotive on display at the Madinah
Railway Depot in the desert.
On the way to Madain Saleh from Madinah, we stop at the Hejaz Railroad
of Lawrence of Arabia fame. Built by the Ottoman Empire, its original purpose
was to transport pilgrims to Makkah, but it never reached there. Instead, the
Ottomans used it to transport troops. Near the station depot, a Bedouin tent
stands in the shadow of a microwave tower; another reminder of past and present and the mixture of tradition and technology.
Another stop is in the town of Al-Ula where we visit the local museum.
The town was once a caravan stop, at the intersection of north-south and east-
west roads on the spice route.
We eat in the shadows of the Hejaz railway station. The buildings and
surrounding area have been restored to their original appearance. The little
station consists of several support buildings, a roadway and, above all, the
engine house. Inside it is a locomotive engine with markings that show it was
manufactured in Germany in 1906.
We reach the entrance to Madain Saleh. There is an entry gate with a guard house leading to a road. A map identifies where we are and where we are
about to go. We are briefed about the site and its historic significance.
Arrival at Madain Saleh is an incredible experience. Several group members have been to Petra in Jordan where similar tombs exist. They are duly
impressed with the large concentration of tombs found here.
Madinah Railway Depot in the desert
The entire area has changed since we were last here in 1987, when it was
an isolated site not visited by many. The tombs are the same, but the government
has gone to great lengths to showcase the 140 monuments, making them available and accessible, while also protecting them.
When we last visited Madain Saleh there was no road. Back then, our Aramco bus got stuck in the sand and the driver used a tree trunk to wedge
under the wheel. Obviously, he could not accomplish the feat alone and the men
in our group had to get out and help.
Today, the tombs have stairs leading up and into them. In 1987, we just
climbed over rubble and into whatever was accessible, the higher tombs being
out of reach. Now, there are signs posted in Arabic and English, telling the story
of each tomb. Last time, we hadn't a clue whose tomb we were visiting.
Madain Saleh, ancient site north of Madinah
Sunday, October 22
South to Jeddah, visit Green
Island Resort, the Corniche,
old town, the souq, the Naseef House
We fly from Madinah to Jeddah where we take a bus for a drive along the
Corniche to the Al-Danah Seafood Restaurant, overlooking the Red Sea, at the
Green Island Resort, where we have lunch. The dining rooms are in individual
bungalow-type chalets built right above the waves on the water's edge.
The Corniche is famous for the hundreds of sculptures depicting the
significance of art and industry in the lives of the Saudi people. Sculptures of
ships, sacks of flour, pipes, a globe, water vessels, coffee pots, phases of the moon
and an unknown bicyclist are just a few we see.
Lunch under a rock in Madain Saleh
We pass old homes built of coral with teak beams and covered in stucco.
Many amusement parks dot the landscape as well as businesses renting water
craft and all-terrain vehicles. Work is underway on a new equestrian club.
Meanwhile, you can go for camel rides, or horse rides, or take dune buggy rides
for about two and a half dollars. There is a massive fountain that shoots water
some one thousand feet up into the air in the middle of a lagoon adjoining the
King's palace. The fountain is similar to the one in Lake Geneva, except that it is
higher. Colored lights give the fountain a spectacular appearance after dark.
We visit Jeddah's old city and souq. Hundreds of old buildings are being
restored with great pride and attention. We wander the souq, viewing the exterior of an 800-year-old mosque. We pass the remnants of a 500-year-old
water system, discovered under an existing area of the city. We come to the 132-
year-old Naseef House, which is one of the oldest houses in the district. It is five
stories high and has 110 rooms.
At this time, we have an opportunity to go into the souq for some serious
shopping. Ray dropped his camera and broke the lens earlier that day. So, we
head for the "camera area". Stores are normally arranged by areas or categories
in Saudi Arabian souqs, instead of intermingled with other groups of merchandise. Therefore, we know what to look for and that the merchants will
help us — which they do by directing us to the location where cameras and
electronics are sold. Ray purchases a new lens.
The Tombs at Madain Saleh
While in the camera store, we ask where we can buy sirwal taweel (long
pants) for our son. They are a part of a Saudi man's outfit and worn under a
thobe. My son finds them comfortable for casual wear around the house. The
camera store owner asks his assistant to direct us through the souq to the area
where clothing is sold. Since the souq is made up of a series of corridors where
one can easily get lost, it is a nice gesture on his part.
Our last purchase is a pair of men's sandals. They are made of tooled leather, embossed in a colorful pattern of orange and green, or red and green.
Simple in design, a leather piece wraps around the toe and another across the
upper front part of the foot.
The Naseef House in
We return to the Naseef House and are greeted there by Sami Nawar, the
Director of Antiquities, who shows us a slide presentation of Jeddah's history
and then gives us a tour of the building that is now a museum. He tells us that
the Portuguese had tried to capture Jeddah but failed. Old Jeddah was protected
by a wall that had four massive gates. One faced the sea, the second faced
Madinah, the third faced Makkah and the last faced south.
In the house, the main staircase is of particular interest because it was
constructed so that camels could go up the stairs to deliver goods to the kitchen,
which was on the top floor. King Abdulaziz stayed at the Naseef House when he
visited Jeddah in 1926. We see a chair in the corner of the room which he sat in
when he received visitors. There are so many rooms that I lose track of their
number and purpose.
Naseef house in old Jeddah
Much to our delight, instead of going to a restaurant, we are told that it
has been arranged by Sami Nawar for us to eat on the rooftop of the house. We
all climb up the camel staircase to the roof for a view of the city of Jeddah and are
served, Arab style, under the stars and moon.
Dinner on the roof top of Naseef House
Monday, October 23
South to the Asir, visit Asir
National Park and Museum
In the morning, we depart the hotel by motorcoach for a drive to the fish
market and on to the Hajj Terminal, which is used primarily by the some two
million Muslims who perform the pilgrimage to the Holy Mosque in Makkah every year. What a massive place! Miles and miles of tent-style buntings cover
We depart Jeddah for Abha, which is the capital of the Asir Province. Situated at an elevation of 7,500 feet above sea level, it is a mountain retreat and
vacation spot for people from across Saudi Arabia and the other Arabian Gulf
Houses there are made of stone and mud and were built by hand. Some, 300 years old, are still inhabited. The houses are built in shelf-like, overlapping,
vertical rows, that act as rain guides, keeping the rain from saturating the walls
and washing them away.
The Abha Palace Hotel where we stay contains the Prince Sultan College
for Tourism and Hotel Science, a training center for the tourist industry. The
hotel is surrounded by 200 apartments and royal villas. Upon arrival, we are
greeted by Raed Youssef, the chief concierge.
On every hill stands one of the famous stone watch towers built over the
centuries to monitor the movements of possible invaders. Our bus pulls over at a
scenic rest area where baboons grace us with a visit. Saad tells us to watch our
bags and purses because they are skillful and notorious thieves. We take many
photos of them and of the spectacular mountain views.
We stop at the visitor center of the Asir National Park and visit a museum
there. Around the museum, we all walk an ancient camel trail that leads us to a
beautiful scenic area.
The national park is designed with a series of visitor centers following the
topographical sequence from the mountaintop at Jabal Soodah, down to the Tihamah coastal plain.
Restaurant on the beach near Jeddah
Tuesday, October 24
Sightsee in and around Abha,
Souq in Abha, al-Sooda Park,
We leave for a tour of Abha and into the Tuesday Market.
to us that the market is open every day but today happens to be
Tuesday. Raed is
wearing a winter thobe of wool, dark (gray-brown color) and a white
market is a busy affair, bustling with activity and people. We
watch as the locals
bargain for fruits, vegetables, coffee beans and other wares. Local
ornate silver Bedouin jewelry and handwoven basketry are specialty
items in the
souq. Many women have booths of their own and motion for us to come
take a look.
We are immediately struck by the appearance of the women —
straw hats with a broad brim. These hats are used as sunshades worn
abayas. Beside them little children chatter. Some of the little
girls are wearing
flower rings (a band of real flowers) around their foreheads. All
are smiling and
having a good time.
Two of the ladies from our tour group stop in a henna shop
blanket on the ground) to have their hands done. For two to three
hand, one of the local henna specialists designs a flower-like
pattern on both the
palms and the upper sides of their hands and dips their finger
tips. After this is
done, their hands are wrapped in toilet tissue and covered with a
plastic bag. The
women are told to leave the mixture on for 24 hours, until dry. We
have to help
them wrap their headscarves and get food from the buffet table onto
Ray and I decide to go through the souq alone since we are
accustomed to souq shopping, bargaining and intermingling with
locals of a
town. Our first stop is the incense shop, which can be identified
by the large,
wooden incense burner perched outside the door. The shop owner
speaks no English, but manages to communicate prices to us and
the quality of the scent that we have chosen. We are negotiating
the purchase of
oud, a type of incense. I want some for my Saudi room at home.
To demonstrate, he has already lit a small burner filled
with pieces of
charcoal, onto which he places one piece of the kind of incense we
After it starts to smolder, he waves the foggy aroma toward us with
his hand. It
smells good. He does this with another piece of oud from another
bin. It too
smells good. Then, he asks, "Nous wa nous." No, I don't want “half and half.” I tell him I want more of the
first scent than of the second and he blends the two together in a
Village of Wadi Tihama
By this time, locals have come into the shop to see who
these strangers are. At this point, the shopkeeper seems eager to
show them his new visitors and their purchase. To seal the deal,
he brings out a pot of Saudi cardamom coffee and insists that we
and everyone else in the store have two cups. With a great deal of
flourish, the shop owner starts writing on the paper bag of our oud
purchase, talking excitedly as he writes. We recognize numbers, ah
ha, the telephone number. Then, he keeps writing. We think it is
a little long for his name but decide we will ask Saad to translate
for us when we return to the bus. Before leaving, we ask to take
photos, and the shopkeeper is more than pleased to oblige. Bidding
farewell and shaking hands, we leave the shop[. Later, we show the
paper bag to Saad asking for a translation. He tells us that, yes,
the numbers are the shop’s phone number and the other writing is
the shopkeeper’s “personal” money back guarantee. It says that we
don’t like the oud, we can return it for a refund. (We love it!)
Our next adventure is to look for a jambia seller. We
find the jambia area where older men sit selling knives of a
peculiar and unusual shape. Most are in a decorative sheath
attached to a leather belt. In many cases, the sheath and the
handle of the jambia are made of ornate, decorative silver and,
perhaps, imbedded with semi-precious stones. Some handles are
bone, others, amber, wood or metal. Men in southern Saudi Arabia
and Yemen wear the belt and the curved knife directly in the center
of their waist with the handle touching the middle of their chest.
Ray asks one old man if he will pose for a photo for us and he
does, as does the jambia seller.
When it comes to photos, we find the people of the
marketplace very accommodating. The old men and the children are
particularly eager to pose.
After the market, we are greeted at the bus by Khalid
Muhammad Asiri of the Ministry of Information who directs us to the
King Fahd Art Center, located in what used to be the abandoned
village of Muftahah. Restores village rooms have been converted
into art studios and classrooms where students learn to draw, paint
and write calligraphy. Restaurants sell food items and shops sell
antiques and jewelry. Courtyards are arranged into peaceful,
shaded seating areas, and walls are colorful with many murals, a
true artist colony.
Later, we visit the Abha Police Academy where we see
displays of police, fire and medical (Red Crescent) services.
Safety posters emphasize the wearing of seat belts. Graphic
photographs show the effects of taking drugs. One area is
dedicated to displays of crafts made by women.
Cable car in Wadi Tihama near Abha
Khalid directs us into another building where he speaks
to us then shows a film about the Asir. On our way out he presents
each one of us a set of the most beautiful books! One is called “Bedouin Jewelry,” a second is on the Asir and another is called,
“This is our Country,” which is about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The entire group overwhelmed with his generosity, knowing the books
would be very costly in a bookstore.
In the afternoon, we travel along the highway in the
direction of Al-Sooda park. On the way, we pass several villages
best described as a classic example of architecture without
architects. They are farm houses. The form of the farmstead
building is distinctive – like a tower without an inner courtyard
with a terrace at the top. Walls are thick and made of stone and
mud, and are dotted with small window openings. Some of the houses
have a row of slates projecting from between each layer (like a
stone plumage) to protect the mud wall from the rain. Decoration
is discreet but effective with a few splashes of a lighter color or
bands around the windows. The thick walls and small windows offer
coolness in the summer and warmth in the winter.
Our bus takes us to the edge of a mountain- side where
we take a spectacular 10-minute cable car ride down to the village
of Wadi Tihama. Saad refuses to ride in a cable car gondola. He
rides the bus instead and meets us at the bottom. As we float into
the air hundreds of feet above the land, we look down on cacti,
blue lizards, sheep on a hill and goats on the mountainside.
The bus meets us at the bottom of the cable car ride
then drives us to the village of Rigal Al-Ma, where we are met by
the villagers who treat us to a folk dancing presentation. Our bus
is parked at the foot of a castle on the side of a hill that is
styled in the local architectural design. It is very high, built
on tiers or levels of ground. There are many doors and windows.
Jutting out from one window, against the mud wall, is a wooden
porch-like structure, which we are told is a kitchen. Cooking and
fires are contained there creating a safety feature for the
Tables and chairs are set up on the first tier of the
castle for us to sit down to watch the show. All of us are
presented with a bouquet of local flowers and herbs, which smell
delightful. Some of the men wear garlands of flowers and herbs on
their heads. Dates and juice are served.
The oldest man in the village and the youngest boy are
dressed for dancing, and do, in fact, dance. The first group comes
down the mountain slope and hillside of the castle in a line,
singing and swaying to the music and chanting. Dressed in thobes, shamaks, belted with jambias and wielding swords, they walk, sway, tumble, jump, spin and turn in rhythm to the words they sing. Drummers beat out the sound patterns that are very African sounding. The oldest of the men joins in, a bit arthritic but with rhythm, nonetheless. The youngest boy, about five years old, has to be coaxed by his elders. He is shy but willing to perform.
After the handsome, well-dressed warriors depart up the
hill, chanting and following one another in line, the Tihama
“flower men” appear. Like their predecessors, they come down the
hill, chanting and following one another. They wear colorful
striped skirts and tunics. Wreaths of flowers adorn their heads,
wrapped around like crowns. They have swords, too. They dance and
whirl to the beat of drums. They perform different dances to
several styles of music.
Our next treat is the Al-Ma Museum in the castle. Floor by floor,
it offers examples of life and dress in the region, the flora, the
fauna, crafts, and more.
Wednesday, October 25
Khamis Mushait souq, Habalah
village, farewell dinner in Jeddah
In the morning, we depart for the town of Khamis Mushait to explore
the silver, gold and jambia markets. The bus pulls into the parking
lot of the shopping are where our guides take groups separately
into marketplace. I am with the group headed for the silver souq.
We come to a shop specializing in Bedouin beads and jewelry.
Looking around, my eye becomes fixed on a hand-tooled, copper and
metal container that is hanging behind the sales counter. All of
the ladies are busy trying on and looking at the jewelry pieces in
front of them and competing for the shop owner’s attention. I, on
the other hand, focus on the hanging piece and when there is a lull
in the shop, inquire about it. The shop assistant tells me it is
an antique powder keg, used during the early years of the 20th
century. As Ray bargains for it I collect more things to purchase:
ladies’ headbands and a glass and silver rose-water bottle. I am
thrilled when Ray and the merchant agree on a price for the keg.
We shake hands and take photos before leaving.
Meanwhile, as we carry the powder keg down the street, people stop
to admire it. Other shop owners ask how much w paid and tell us it
was a fair price. Saad praises us for the purchase and Ray’s
bargaining ability. We stop at another shop to purchase a silver
kohl container (for mascara) and a small jambia with an amber
handle, then leave the area, drained of riyals.
From Khamis Mushait, we drive to the deserted village of
which is deeply seated at the foot of a sheer cliff. Around 500
inhabitants once live there in isolation from the rest of their
countrymen using ladders and ropes as they only means of access.
However, currently the village inhabitants have been relocated to
the King Faisal Village. Saad tells us that government found it difficult o
provide services like schools and medical care for the people, so
it persuaded them to move.
Habalah village has become a favorite attraction for
tourists. To accommodate them, the government introduced cable
cars to carry visitors 500 feet down the cliff side and into the
valley. We take the cable car and then a few of us who are hearty
hike the trails in the cliffs within the village. A few old,
crumbling houses remain but it is the nature walk that is of
interest. We traverse over wobbly stones, trek through mudpacked
streams, heave ourselves over rocks and up inclines, scramble down
hills, and duck under tree limbs. We see lemon and coffee trees.
We find the quill of a porcupine. It is an adventure!
King Fahd Art Village
On the way, Raed points out the ladders and ropes along
the Cliffside and also shows us crags with small stones piled into
a rock crevice. He tells us that the cluster of stones is the
entrance to the village’s burial place. We take many photos along
the way and are very tired after that climb. How on earth could
people have lived there and climb like that every day, we wonder?
We have lunch on top of the mountain looking down into
the valley where the cable car begins. We refresh ourselves at the
hotel in Abha, head for the airport to fly to Jeddah for our
connecting flight to New York.
Scaling the cliff to visit
At night we are surprised with a farewell dinner given
for us by the Saudi travel and Tourist Bureau, Ltd. (STTB) at the
Sunrise Country Club in Jeddah. We have an elegant meal of Arabian
delicacies in the family restaurant of the main club house. We are
introduced to the STTB staff and the general manager (Mr. Murad)
who joins us for dinner. The club is arranged in sections with the
dining areas decorated to represent a specific place or nation are
where foods of that place or nation are feature, prepared and
served. Saudi families are sitting, walking, eating, talking and
enjoying themselves as they pass the evening together. Some ladies
remain veiled, others do not. They ladies look very elegant. We
women visitors know that beneath their abayas they have on the
latest fashions. Some stop to look at us as we go by. No one
seems disturbed by our presence.
Thursday, October 26
Final purchases, a last bag,
Prior to departure several people in the group purchase
last minute items to bring home to their friends. One of them
tells me that I have given her a great idea for small purchase for
many people. I’m puzzled but she reminds me that I had once
mentioned that the Chicklets gum in the Kingdom is available in
unusual fruit flavors (Tutti Frutti and Peach/Apricot) and that the
packaging features English and Arabic lettering. She thinks it’s a
great idea to buy a number of packets to distribute to her friends.
We say farewell to our guides and thank them endlessly for
everything they have done for us. Many of us invite the Saudi
guides to visit us in the United States. Saad promises he will
visit. Insha’allah (God willing).
Our flight back to New York is uneventful. We go to the luggage
conveyor belt to claim our bags. The crowd grows thinner and
thinner as passengers collect their bags and taken away. We wait
and wait. The most dreaded fate of all has happened – one of our
bags is missing. We have, we think, nothing of value in the bag
since we hand carry all of our treasures: the powder box, the
little house and a straw hat. The jambias are in one of the
suitcases in hand. Then, it occurs to us both … the film! Much to
our dismay, we realize that we place more than 50 rolls of
treasured film in the missing suitcases. Ray had packed it away to
lighten his hand-carry load. However, the bag turns up and is sent
to us by Federal Express. Saudi Arabian Airline’s prompt service
pleases us very much and helps end our adventure on a happy note.