Stepping off a plane at Abha airport, travelers are at once impressed and delighted by the unique landscape that greets them. Here in the hinterland of Saudi Arabia, a nation famous for its sweeping deserts and harsh climate, is an extensive region of steep mountains, lush greenery, cool breezes and inhabitants who have maintained their traditional lifestyle in the face of the new millennium.
In the heart of Asir Province, and serving as its regional capital, the city of Abha is home to approximately 156,000 residents. Evidence exists of settlements in this region as far back as the Neolithic period, some 4,000 years ago. However, the people who today inhabit this 46-square-mile area are descendants of the Asiri tribes that historical records confirm have been a presence in this region at least since the tenth century A.D. Settled among the rugged terrain of the southwestern part of the Arabian Peninsula, these tribes remained sealed off from outside influences for centuries, and only in recent decades have such modern amenities as electricity, plumbing and telephones begun to permeate these communities.
Yet in spite of the Kingdom's rapid development, the Asir Province and cities such as Abha, Khamis Mushayt and Habla have been untouched as potential sites for heavy industry and instead preserved as national environmental treasures. The Asir National Park, which covers an area of 1.1 million acres, is a virtual paradise for botanists, zoologists and ornithologists who come to study indigenous plants and wildlife, and where new varieties and species are still being discovered. However, while the government has shied away from industrializing this region, it has vastly improved infrastructure and services to the residents.
Abha is nestled among the mountains which run parallel to the Red Sea. Near Abha, the hills reach their highest and wettest point - as much as 10,000 feet high with 23 inches of rain per year. Villages dot the mountainsides, built on the flat terraces that have been fashioned from soil and rock. Because of the rainfall unique to this region, traditional homes in Abha are constructed of a combination of rock, mud, clay and shale. These multistory towers usually have stone foundations - which are less subject to rain erosion - and high walls made of mud and clay, with rooftop terraces. The sides of the towers are lined with protruding slates that act to keep rain from eroding the mud walls. Some experts believe this style of architecture dates back more than one thousand years.
The homes of Abha are painted by the women of the family with bright colors in geometric designs and floral motifs - both on the outside and the inside. Walking through these villages, visitors are struck by the lively colors and patterns painted along the rooftops and framing doors and windows. Traditionally, residents used paints derived from local plants or minerals to concoct veneers. Red was extracted from the juice of pomegranates or from clay, blue came from boiling indigo plants, green from alfalfa or clove, and black was the product of vegetable tar. Today, the women use synthetic paint, but still carry on the tradition of cheerful hues in amusing patterns. Abha residents paint their homes each year, usually in preparation for the Eids, the religious festivals which follow Ramadan or the Hajj.
|Mountain villages of traditional homes and the Asir National Park(below) are some of the many attractions for visitors from throughout Saudi Arabia.|
Upon entering a traditional Abha home, one is greeted with customary Saudi hospitality - small cups of coffee and tea. The first floor is where guests would gather with their host in the majlis or sitting room, and there is a second room next door where coffee is served. These interior rooms and stairways are gaily painted with murals and borders which brighten interiors that receive very little sunlight through the small windows. The floor is strewn with colorful, intricately woven carpets and large cushions. On the second floor is the family's sleeping quarters, and above them is a rooftop terrace where relatives and neighbors gather to enjoy the fresh mountain air and cool breezes. Most homes have a smaller building attached to or directly outside the main house where the kitchen and a special majlis for the men are located.
The people of Abha and the surrounding region are renowned for their unique style of dress. Women wear brightly colored dresses embellished with intricate embroidery which they accessorize with elaborate silver jewelry and wide-brimmed straw hats. The men are equally fashionable wearing fleece cloaks over the traditional Saudi thobe. Their plain white thobes are further brightened with sashes of multicolored fabric and, occasionally, decorative daggers are suspended from their belt.
Abha has traditionally been a land of farmers with a self-sustaining economy. The main crops grown on the fertile plateau are grains (wheat, barley, sorghum and millet), lentils, alfalfa, onions, garlic, white beans, radishes, spinach, melons, cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplant and okra. Grain is stored in tall mud towers, similar in style to the traditional homes.
In addition, a wide variety of produce abounds here - bananas, papaya and lemons in the lowlands, and grapes, plums, apricots, almonds, pears, figs, pistachios and pomegranates at higher elevations. Olive groves and coffee fields thrive along the escarpment crest. Sheep and cows are also raised here, as there is abundant grazing land. The date palm, a staple of Saudi life, is conspicuously absent in this region.
Due to the high level of rainfall in the Asir, complex irrigation is rarely necessary. The government has constructed more than 40 dams to control the flow of water to farms, and farmers dig wells or build diversion dams in areas where the rain is less dependable. A variety of farming methods is used to grow crops on the terraced plateaus.
|Asir National Park|
|Second Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense and Aviation Prince Sultan Ibn Abdul Aziz, accompanied by Asir Province Governor Prince Khalid Al-Faisal, opened new resorts earlier this year.|
Although life in Abha retains that pleasant quality of the past, the city is, nonetheless, moving forward. There is a vocational training center, a huge intermediate college and branches of both the King Saud University and the Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University of Riyadh. A network of primary and intermediate schools serves the younger population of Abha.
Medical care for the residents in Abha is on a par with that for other Saudi citizens in larger urban areas. The 574-bed Central Asir Hospital in Abha offers comprehensive care to residents, as does the 300-bed Abha General Hospital. General health services are provided by smaller clinics throughout the area.
Abha's main square is encircled by large, modern office buildings. And while agriculture is the mainstay of the economy, there are several light industrial factories. Traveling is much easier today, as the government has constructed an extensive network of roads throughout the area which connect it with the rest of the region and beyond. These roads serve both farmers taking produce to market and travelers going from one town to another.
|Cable cars provide a unique bird's-eye view of the breathtaking mountains, valleys and lake near Abha|
In their efforts to preserve the traditional way of life and the singular architecture, and to conserve the environment, Saudi planners and government officials have carved out a special niche for Abha and the surrounding towns. Their economic future has been tied to the domestic tourism industry. In 1981, the Asir Department for Tourism Development and Environmental Protection was established in conjunction with the opening of the Asir National Park. This was the catalyst for the region's tourism industry. As Saudis and other Gulf Arabs began to develop an interest in spending their vacations here, the Abha Higher Committee for the Promotion of Tourism was set up. Chaired by Asir Province Governor Prince Khalid Al-Faisal, the Committee and the Department for Tourism have initiated several important projects in the tourism industry.
Although still in its early stages of development, the domestic tourism industry in Saudi Arabia has great possibilities. By providing employment to locals and keeping Saudi tourist riyals in the country, this industry has the potential to become a significant contributor to the national economy. Both government and private sector money is being rapidly invested in numerous projects, particularly in the Asir. In 1978, as the first phase of implementing a program to attract tourists, the Abha airport was reconstructed at a cost of 500 million Saudi riyals (133.33 million U.S. dollars) in order to better accommodate more air traffic, including jumbo jets. Following the airport project, the Abha Intercontinental Hotel was built to receive the gradually increasing number of visitors to the region.
The most recent tourist facilities to open in Abha include one development with a 140-room five-star hotel, plus 123 villas and 114 furnished apartments. While all the new resorts provide the most modern of amenities, their architecture blends traditional styles with contemporary ones. The recently opened Abha Exhibition Center comprises five exhibition halls with a total area of 110,000 square feet and a theater which can accommodate 550 people, a VIP reception area, an auditorium and administrative offices. In addition, there is a 60-room hotel with ten deluxe villas, a mosque, a commercial center, restaurants, gardens, stables, bowling alley and other facilities.
|Sheets of rock protect traditional home from the elements.|
|Many villages and homes dot the mountains surrounding Abha.|
The 136-room Abha Palace Hotel and Resort was also recently inaugurated. Overlooking the scenic Abha lake, patrons can move about the complex's numerous restaurants, sports facilities, 150 villas and 120 furnished apartments using a rail car system.
One of the main attractions in Abha is the network of 14 cable cars that move along a three-mile route across valleys and to the top of steep escarpments. The only such network of its kind in the Kingdom, the cable cars have become very popular, drawing large numbers of tourists each year who seek this bird's-eye view of the city and surrounding countryside. The cars are equipped with the latest safety and comfort devices to carry their passengers through the mountains.
Early morning welcomes spectacular sunrises over mountain tops shrouded in mist. Mid-morning is a good time of day to take advantage of the scenic footpaths running through the hills. Families on holiday can enjoy long peaceful walks through lush greenery, spotting unusual birds and small animals. Picnics at the end of a long hike are always a favorite activity. The climate in Abha is well-suited to outdoor activities, the temperature rarely exceeding 85 Fahrenheit during summer.
Another popular attraction is the historic Shada Palace, which was the residence of the first Emir of Abha hundreds of years ago. On Tuesdays, there is a large souq (market) in the center of town where one can find local treasures for sale side-by-side with Western goods.
|Hiking and nature walks are popular pastimes for visitors to Abha and Asir Province.|
When visiting Abha, tourists often make excursions to two near-by locations - Habla and Khamis Mushayt. Habla is a village cloistered in the valley about 35 miles from Abha. Renowned for its deep vertical caverns and scenic beauty, this small hamlet is home to an ancient village where visitors can buy antiques and handicrafts, while sampling local delicacies. Seventeen miles to the east of Abha lies Khamis Mushayt. Here are perhaps some of the best souqs in the Kingdom for local crafts. There is also a small amusement park, a tourist village and restaurants.
A soothing retreat from the stress of daily life in urban centers, Abha offers something for visitors of all ages. As more Saudis and other visitors discover the unrivaled natural beauty of this region, it is sure to remain a favorite family holiday destination for years to come.