The historic Masmak Fortress in Riyadh

Carol and Ray Whitney visited Saudi Arabia in October 2000 as part of a two-week study tour sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution.
      
Ray first went to Saudi Arabia in 1981 to work for Petroline on the East-West Crude Pipeline.  Ray later returned to Saudi Arabia with his wife, Carol, and their son to work for Saudi Aramco, the national oil company. Ray and Carol lived and worked in the Kingdom for eight years, with Carol teaching administrative office skills to employees at Saudi Aramco.
      From the moment they took up residence, the two of them were eager to travel in the Kingdom and learn as much as possible about the people and the culture of Saudi Arabia.
      Carol says that when they left the Kingdom to return to the United States, they never dreamed of going back to Saudi Arabia as tourists.  Instead, they had their photo albums, a vast collection of Saudi memorabilia they proudly showcase at their Northern Virginia home, and memories of people and of places that they kept alive.
      Early in 2000, the Whitneys received a catalog of international tours sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution. "Thumbing through, we discovered one, a study tour, offering Saudi Arabia as a destination!" relates Carol. "How could we resist? It was like a dream come true! We wanted to go back to rekindle our feeling and to revisit those places that left a mark upon our hearts and also to see what had changed and what had remained the same over the years."
     The following are excerpts from Carol's travel journal and some of Ray's photographs. 

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 through.
      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 historic
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 thobe.
        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 event.
       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
the National Museum

      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 States. 


Diplomatic Quarter and the glass pyramid sitting room

      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 provinces.  

      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
and Al-Khobar

     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  water. 
      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  them.


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  dates.
      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  through.
     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  homesteading purposes.
      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  old Jeddah


     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  stadium-like terminals.
     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  countries.
     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,
terrace  villages, folk  dancing


     We leave for a tour of Abha and into the Tuesday Market.  Raed explains  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  ghutra. The  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  handicrafts like  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  in to  take a look. 
     We are immediately struck by the appearance of the women —  they wear  straw hats with a broad brim. These hats are used as sunshades worn  atop their  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  (another  blanket on the ground) to have their hands done. For two to three  dollars per  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  their plates. 
     Ray and I decide to go through the souq alone since we are  more  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  greets us,  speaks no English, but manages to communicate prices to us and  demonstrate  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  have chosen.  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  bag.


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  inhabitants.


Incense shop

     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.


local dancers

 

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.


local dancers

     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 Habalah,  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 Habalah Village

     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.

Habalah Village

 

Thursday, October 26
Final purchases, a last bag,
happy ending

    
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. {short description of image}

 


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