DAI Trip to Saudi Arabia. 18-24th January 2014 by Tarif El Hoss

Inspired by the international exhibition organised by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia entitled ‘Roads of Arabia’ and the lecture given by Dr Maha Sinan on the  arts in Arabia from earliest times to the present at the Maidan theatre last October, the hidden wonders of Arabia were the theme of the latest journey taken by a group of DAI friends for a week from 18-24 January.

Our adventure started in the holy city of Medina the Radiant (al madina al munawwara) for an overnight stop before continuing the next day to explore the historic sites of Arabia. Part of the group embarked on a nocturnal visit to the Prophet’s Noble Sanctuary (al haram al nabawi al sharif) and had a quick tour of the city of Medina passing by the Ottoman Hijaz Railway Station and the pilgrims mosque facing it.

The Hijaz Railway was laid out by the Ottomans to reduce the journey time and ensure the safety of pilgrims travelling from Damascus to Mecca. It reduced travelling time from over two months to three days, but the railway was not completed to Mecca obliging pilgrims to travel from Medina with the caravans.

The next day we set off for Al Ula, 350 kms north of Medina. Our route followed the ancient incense trail that crossed Arabia from Ma’in and the Hadhramaut valley in the south through the kingdoms of Madain Saleh and Petra to the Mediterranean sea and on to all parts of the ancient world. The caravans transported spices from India; gold from Nubia; lapis lazuli from Afghanistan and the most valuable commodities of the time, myrrh, frankincense and aromatic resins from the kingdom of Saba. The treasure laden camel caravans were guided through the deserts from oasis to oasis by the Nabateans who charged a modest fee of 25% of the value of cargo transported to ensure safe passage! Around midday we stopped near the oasis town of Khybar, passing by the famous Khybar dam, a later version of the historic Marib dam to rest and have a quick lunch before following the incense route to the commercial capital of the Nabateans, and sister city to Petra; Madain Saleh.

Travelling through the volcanic mountain trail we enjoyed the rugged landscape around us and noticed the different shades of desert sand, the outline of the mountains and the desert flora. The Hijaz mountain range runs parallel to the Red sea from Yemen all the way to Tabuk on the northern Saudi border.

We reached Al Ula, the ancient city of Al Hijr in the late afternoon and after checking into the Arac resort promenaded to the nearby orchards planted with citrus, pomegranates, grapes and the famous date palms of the area. Runoff water from the encircling mountain ranges and the rich volcanic soil ensured the fertility of this area and were essential to the survival of its inhabitants.

After our sunset stroll through the gardens and a quick visit to the ancient Dedanic site of Al Khurayba we returned to the hotel for dinner and a rest as we had a full day ahead in the ancient city of Madain Saleh, Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO world heritage site.

The next morning we were escorted by our guide from the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA), Abu Sultan to the Hijaz Railway station where we saw the original locomotives and coaches restored by the SCTA, a museum dealing with the history of the railway  was recently installed in the train maintenance depot with artifacts and old photos of the railway. From the train station we continued to the Ottoman fort of al Hijr  constructed around the water cistern and housing a small ethnographic museum.

According to to the prominent Saudi archaeologist Abdel Rahman al Ansary, Al Ula or the ancient site of Al Hijr was the capital of the kingdom of Dedan, one of the principal settlements of Arabia established around the 6th century BCE, and mentioned in the Old Testament and Assyrian inscriptions as DDN.  Later the home of the Nabateans, a  Semitic people thought to originate from the heart of the Arabian peninsula whose empire stretched from the borders of Damascus and the Syrian desert in the north to Madain Saleh to the south , their political capital was Petra and the commercial was Madain Saleh due to its strategic location on the trade route dominating the only access to water between the inhospitable volcanic mountain ranges.

The site of Madain Saleh was rediscovered  by Charles Doughty in 1876 while travelling through the area with a caravan of pilgrims going to Medina and Mecca. Unlike its sister city Petra where only one inscription was found, two thirds of Madain Saleh’s 138 tomb complexes have funerary inscriptions identifying the occupant, and dating some of them. We visited the tomb complex of the ordinary citizens, the magnificent Qasr al Farid  carved from a colossal single piece of rock standing alone in the desert, the compex of Qasr al Bint  with its Rapunzel like legend of Buthayna who would let down her long tresses to permit her lover to climb up and court  her until she was discovered and her tresses were shorn, then to the diwan and the Siq a narrow passage between the mountains to the water storage tanks . The Nabateans were masters of hydraulic engineering; digging water cisterns in the mountain rock and conducting the water through channels  to reach their temples providing water for ritual ablutions and general use. Madain Saleh flourished between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE and gradually died out with the decline of the incense trade that accompanied the rise of Christianity.

Next to the tomb area a joint Saudi French team have spent several seasons excavating the city of the living, a complex of houses, gardens administrative buildings and roads which will give us insight into the daily life of the enigmatic Nabateans. After lunch we continued our tour to Al Khurayba, the site of the Dedaniite and Lihyanite statues. The Lihyanites succeeded the Dedanites around the 5th century BCE and flourished until the supremacy of the Nabateans four centuries later.  The site of Al Khurayba was first excavated in the 1900s and two of the colossal sandstone figures found there were transported to the Imperial Museum of Istanbul where they are still on display. Another distinctive feature of the area is the chamber tombs carved into the mountainside.

After all the historical and archaeological visits of the day, our guide treated us to a sunset excursion to admire the unusual rock formations like the family, the camel and the elephant rock where we enjoyed the rare spring flora of the desert.  In the evening we visited the local museum which was a summary of all we had seen with excellent commentaries in Arabic and English about the geography and history of the area and artifacts exhibited. Before wrapping up our full day we had a quick visit to the market to buy the local citrus, frankincense and handicrafts.

Our third day on the route of the Arabian explorers was to visit the old village houses and the citadel of Musa bin Nusair. From the top of the citadel we had a bird’s eye view of the area and could understand why the city was established at the only passageway between the encircling mountains.

Before leaving we were treated to a lecture on the history of the area by Mr. Mutlaq al Mutlaq director of the museum we visited the evening before. We then went in our modern caravan of a bus and three 4×4 cars with our police escort to navigate the 400 km run to Ha’il the true “heart of Arabia”

The desert route was serene and the blooming desert landscape was occasionally animated by herds of wandering camels. It must have looked the same in the late 19th century when Wilfred Scawen and Lady Anne Blunt made their first visit to Nejd to procure some of Ibn Rashid’s famous Arabian horses. That evening our hosts had arranged a traditional feast in an old Nejdi home and we enjoyed the local delicacies like kabsa and mandi in an authentic setting sitting on the floor and enjoying the mansaf with our hands in the traditional etiquette of the desert!

Our first full day in Ha’il started with a special guided tour of the archaeological museum by the deputy director of antiquities in Ha’il, Mr.Abdurrahman al Rashidi, who generously presented us with a bag full of publications by the directorate of antiquities. After this introduction to the area’s history and traditions we visited the Qishla or Winter Fort of Al Saud, constructed in the 1940s out of mud brick in the old Nejdi style with square bastions at the four corners and only two entrances. We were given a quick tour of the fort by Mr.Aziz al Oneiza from the Ha’il office of antiquities after which we had a quick shopping break in the traditional Barzan souk and then climbed to the top of the Airef fort where Mr. Habib al Hassan from the antiquities office was waiting for us to give us an annotated tour of the fort which dominated the landscape and provided a clear view of the neighbouring mountains of Aja and Salma. He also informed us that Ha’il was the source of an ancient subterranean river that flowed east across the desert of Nejd to rise near the island of Failaka.

After picking up our boxed lunch from the hotel we drove to Jubba about a hundred kms north of Ha’il to explore one of the highlights of our trip; the rock drawings in the mountains around Jubba. Saudi Arabia has one of the greatest number of prehistoric rock drawings and graffiti, with over 10,000 sites dating from 7000-4000 BCE. We climbed the rocks like the mountain goats and ibex represented to get a better look at the intriguing paintings, carvings and ancient inscriptions. The drawings of prehistoric fauna included ibex, goats, camels, horses, ostriches, men hunting and fighting all witnesses to a time when the climate was milder and the wildlife much richer than today. It is also a testimonial to local domestication of camels and horses.

Our guide Tarek and his brothers know every rock by heart and they point out the most significant drawings to us after which they take us to the family owned Naif museum where their uncle, the owner of the museum gave us a personal tour of the artifacts gathered by him from the area and preserved for all to enjoy. At the end of the tour we were treated to tea and dates in the garden tent. At the entrance to the museum was a poem written by an ancestor in praise of Lady Anne Blunt who he had guided during her famous journey to Nejd. Before retiring for the night we had an escapade into the great Nofud desert where a famous poet and rababa virtuoso gave us a master class in the nuances of the rababa a one stringed instrument which is the ancestor of the violin, the viola, the cello and all the strings in the modern orchestra. It was amazing to hear a variety of tunes from a single string! We watched the sun sink into the Nofud desert and returned to our hotel filled with the serenity of the desert.

Our last day in Ha’il started with an early morning drive to the home and final resting place of one of Arabia’s most famous sons the proverbial Hatem al Tai. His exceptional generosity was legendary and tales have been repeated for generations on his noble spirit, his chivalry and hospitality. The Twaren valley is inaccessible as the inhabitants refused to let the roads be paved lest the area’s natural charm be spoiled by the advent of modern tourism. It is a charmed plateau surrounded by the encircling granite mountains and the date palm plantations. The recent rains left a few ponds and the desert was very green

We bid Hatem and Ha’il farewell and flew from the local airport to Riyadh where Dr. Maha Sinan was waiting for us at the entrance to the National Museum for a special tour of the vast museum by Abdullah Al- Hudlaq who gave us a thorough tour of the museum

The museum was kept open especially for us and we had to hurry because another treat was awaiting us in the neighbouring palace of King Abdulaziz. HRH Princess Adilah bint Abdallah, the King’s daughter was holding a magnificent gala dinner in the DAI’s honour.  Organized by Dr Saad Al Rashid on behalf of the princess who was out of the country at the time the delicious dinner was followed by another wonder, seven tableaux of local dance and song  and terminated by the famous Riyadhi Arda to which all the guests were encouraged to participate. We also had a chance to visit with DAI friend Susi al Mutawwa and her husband Oliver John of the U.S.Embassy recently posted in Riyadh.

Our last day in Riyadh was spent visiting Diriyya, the old capital of the first Saudi state and base of the Al Saud dynasty. Al Diriyya is part of the Wadi Hanifa ridge where evidence of Paleolithic remains have been found making it one of the oldest human settlements in the Arabian peninsula. We also visited the Al Ula dam and were lucky to see it almost full of water thanks to the copious rains the week before we came. It is hard to imagine that the verdant Wadi Hanifa we visited is the same wasteland where the temperature rises to above 50 degrees c. in the summer.

After this last visit we bid Saudi Arabia farewell after an extremely rich week exploring the Kingdom’s vast heritage from the stone age to the pre Islamic period to the age of Islam to the period of Ottoman rule up till the unification of the Kingdom by King Abdulaziz in 1932.

We are extremely grateful to Sheikha Hussa, Princess Adilah, Dr Maha and the head of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities HRH Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud for making this trip so memorable and to DAI’s Mrs Khayriyyah Hussain for her untiring effort and patience in managing this delightful and unique journey to Arabia.