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Lecture: Tourism in Saudi Arabia Today by Mrs Ionis Thompson

Event Date: 11/09/2008

Our Chairman has outlined the new opportunities to visit KSA being promoted by the Saudi Government. He and I were guests of the Supreme Commission of Tourism last November on a pilot project to enable journalists to explore the possibilities for western tourists. We joined a very small group of journalists representing papers such as the Times: there were in fact just 7 of us – and we all came away with a very positive impression.

The problems attached to visiting KSA are all too obvious: no alcohol for a week, women being obliged to wear the all-covering abaya at all times and the constant protective presence of a police car. However, I think I can speak for all of us when I say we found these things far less difficult to bear than we had imagined they would be. The absence of alcohol was easy to endure when everyone else was doing the same: I think we all felt rather well as a result – I certainly did. The abayas, which were handed out when we arrived, though a bit hot as we tramped about, were silky and floated around the body as we walked, rather than sticking to it as the polyester version I had worn when there in the early 90s, had done. It was a bit of a bore to have to put the thing on before going out but after a while it became a matter of course. As for the police presence, that was really made necessary by recent threats to tourists, and was not at all intrusive – rather comforting. These are considerations to bear in mind if you are interested in visiting KSA but I really don’t think they should put you off. There are things of great interest and beauty to be seen and enjoyed with the added inducement of knowing you are visiting places very few other tourists have yet had the opportunity to see.

Our tour started in Riyadh, the capital, which has exploded in size since I was last there in 1996. It was unrecognisable to me. We crept slowly along the very congested streets in a large comfortable bus. The morning was spent roaming about Dir’iyah, the old capital of the al Saud outside the modern city of Riyadh. This was a delight – I had forgotten how healthy one feels in the clear dry hot air of the Riyadh area in winter – and Dir’iyah, though a prime tourist destination, had very few visitors the morning we were there.

The importance of Dir’iyyah was as the base of Wahhabism, the reformist movement of Sheikh Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahhab, who together with the ruling al Saud family in the eighteenth century founded a new religion and society based on this religion, which was Islam purged of its perceived “decadence” and based on shariah law. This movement prevails today. The town was founded by the al-Saud family in the fifteenth century on the Wadi Hanifah, a watercourse which even now, occasionally, flows in the winter which is why Riyadh (which means gardens) is surrounded by acres of date-palms. By the eighteenth century Dir’iyyah had became the chief town of the area and the capital of the first Saudi dynasty. The success of the Sauds in Dir’iyyah lay in their cooperation with Abdul Wahhab. The surrounding tribes were brought into line and tribute poured into the town, making possible the building of towering mud-brick palaces, mosques and strong surrounding walls. The al-Saud levied tens of thousands of troops who swept across the Arabian peninsula until they controlled all from the Hejaz, including the holy cities of Makkah (taken in 1804) and Medina, to what is now Oman. In its heyday Dir’iyyah had 5000 residents and 500 guests daily were fed in the ruler’s palace. This conquest alarmed the Ottomans who sent an army from Cairo to retake Makkah and in 1818 a force under Ibrahim Pasha (son of Mohammed Ali) to destroy Dir’iyah and the power of the al-Saud. The Egyptian artillery was able to breach the great mud defences of the town. By 1821 the town had been all but razed to the ground and abandoned. We see its ruins today, rising romantically above the palms. The Saudi government is now in the process of rebuilding many of the original buildings, using mud-brick to do so. Since my last visit in 1996, a palace and the baths (showing how the water was brought up from the wadi below and heated before being circulated to the hot rooms) have been completely restored, and the surrounding walls much increased in extent.

In contrast to this stroll through old Arabia, we were taken to one of the tallest buildings in the modern world, the Faisiliyah. It has a dizzying lift to the top which commands fine views over modern Riyadh. . The Faisiliyah was, with its rival the Kingdom building, the highest in the world until another was built higher in Kuala Lumpur. I understand Saudi Arabia is now to build a mile-high building in Jeddah.

Then on to the old centre. The Musmaq Fort in the centre of old Riyadh has been preserved and now houses a small museum dedicated to the life of King Abdulaziz and his capture of the fort in 1902 as a young man with a small band of just 40 followers. This event is always taken as the moment the modern Saudi state began, though it was another 20 years before the lands which now comprise the Kingdom were conquered and the modern state founded.

The original old city of Riyadh has almost disappeared, its mudbrick houses having crumbled to dust but around King Abdulaziz’s main palace, the Murabba, many of the old buildings have been restored. Amongst these restored buildings is an excellent new archaeological museum containing many of the treasures found in archaeological sites around the country, ranging from the Palaeolithic era to the Islamic. There are examples of Neolithic rock carvings, sculptures from 3rd millennium BC Tarut Island, gold objects of great beauty from the Hellenistic site of Thaj, lovely bronze carvings from 2nd century BC Najran etc. It is not commonly known that Saudi Arabia has a number of outstanding sites, which are in some cases still partially unexcavated. The main interest for Saudis is their Islamic past but the part of the peninsula which is now Saudi Arabia had substantial towns around its fringes which played an important part standing as they did on trade routes throughout the pre-Islamic period, for example al Fao on the border of modern Yemen through which the incense trade was funnelled and which flourished for a few centuries BC to about 4th century AD.

From Riyadh we flew to Abha in the mountains of the Asir in Western Saudi Arabia where Jebel Sooda, the highest point, rises to almost10,000 feet. We were driven to the top of Sooda, unfortunately swathed in mist, to the dramatic cable car which swishes one down 1500 feet to the plain below. We had a splendid view of the arid dramatic peaks of the Asir around us as we descended . From the base we were driven to the restored village of Rijal al Maa to see examples of the mountain architecture once prevalent throughout the mountain region. The stone used in the houses is lightened by triangular blocks of white quartz.

Getting about the country is a problem. Distances are huge and flight routes do not really accommodate the needs of tourists, most of whom would want, after visiting Riyadh, to fly to the Western side of the country to see the wonderful ruins of the Nabataean site of Madain Saleh. We were flown to Madinah, one of the 2 holy places of Islam which non-Moslems are prohibited from entering. We had 2 Muslims amongst our party: while they visited the city and mosque, we sat about in a modern hotel on the outskirts having lunch. Then our bus took us to al-Ula, the nearest town to Madain Saleh, via a fine ancient dam at Khaybar, one of many great stone dams in the valleys between Madina and al-Ula. Khaybar has 2 huge dams of which this is perhaps the more complete, also known as Kasaybah or Qasr al Bint, (Maiden’s Castle). They were probably built by stone-masons from the southern Arabian kingdoms of Saba, who would have passed their knowledge along the incense route. The Marib dam in Yemen attests to the skills of the Sabaeans in dam-building and there is a local legend that the dam was built by the Queen of Sheba. The dam is remarkably intact, with yellow plaster on its upstream side, stone on the downstream (pics). Below it lies the once-Jewish town of Khaybar. The Prophet suspected the Jews of Khaybar of plotting against him and attacked them at the Battle of Khaybar in 629 AD : he won, of course. After that the town was supposed to have become Islamic but suspicion still surrounds it, with many legends of witches and hidden treasure associated with it. We could see daum palm groves and colourfully dressed Bedouins, possibly Rasheeda camping amongst them.

We reached al-Ula well after sunset and spent the night in a rather charming old-fashioned hotel with rooms round a garden and all around it the strange wind-eroded red sandstone rocks of the area. Al-Ula, itself once a great trading city with a large area of ruined buildings attesting to its mediaeval importance, is the nearest town to the Nabataean site of M.S., the goal of most tourists to KSA. MS is a wonderful site to visit and UNESCO recognised this in 2008 when it was awarded World Heritage Site status. It is the sister town to Petra and marks the southern extent of Roman control of Arabia between about 100 BC and 100 AD. It grew rich on levies imposed on those travelling the incense route from South Arabia to the Mediterranean world until the Romans discovered how to navigate the Red Sea and were thus able to escape the crippling taxes imposed by the inhabitants of towns along the incense route. Like Petra MS was a large mercantile city of which only the tombs of the wealthy remain carved into the yellow sandstone rock. It’s a remarkably beautiful place and still relatively unvisited, partly because the Saudis still associate it with the legend that the people of the town rebelled against Allah, despite the warnings of the Prophet Saleh (after whom it was named, much later) and were punished by God’s curse “They shall never rise again”, reported by Doughty, the first Westerner to visit and record the place. He says the place was deserted by the time of the Prophet who passed by and so the legend grew up. Doughty recorded that passing pilgrims to Makkah would not visit the site, though camped just below it. Pics of tombs. There is eastern influence in the facades of these tombs which make them different from those of Petra. The facades have stepped pyramids or half-pyramids stepped in the Assyrian manner and in between are carved roses or perhaps pomegrate flowers, eagles or griffins, lions, snakes etc. Inside the chambers are rooms lined with niches called loculi carved into the walls horizontally or pits in the floor. The pits and the loculi were burial places for the members of the family who owned the tomb. On the outside of the chambers can be seen in Nab script the name of the owner and often a curse upon anyone selling or buying the tomb or disturbing the contents of the chamber. When Doughty visited he found fragments of bone and linen winding sheets and embalming resins. Above the tombs a narrow cleft in the rock leads to an upper area. Cut into the rock to the right of the cleft, or siq (as in Petra) is a diwan where, it is thought, ceremonies took place associated with burials. Cut into the rock of the siq are niches containing rocks which represent the main trinity of the Nabataean gods: Dushara (of rocks, sun; al Qaum, of night and protector of caravans and al Uzza or Allat, goddess of the stars.

Visiting MS can take a whole day. Below the tombs stands the stone fort,, the kella, where Doughty spent some miserable weeks in the 1870s. The fort was beside a well and a resting place for pilgrims before the station was built. It stands beside a station on the Hejaz Railway, which played such an important part in the Arab Revolt of 1916 when Lawrence blew up bits of the line which from 1909 used to carry pilgrims and troops from Damascus to Medina. Since then the railway has not been in use despite many plans to restore it and most of the rails have now been removed, although further to the south the odd engine still stands beside the track. The sheds have been restored since we were first there in the 1970s and a remaining train of that era has been polished up and stands inside one of the sheds for visitors to clamber over.

Around MS is a remarkable landscape of jumbled wind-eroded sandstone rocks, the Jebel Hejaz. It was fun to be whizzed through the sand by skilful 4WD and to walk about along wadis and canyons between these rocks. Unfortunately it is not permitted for visitors to camp overnight, definitely one of the great experiences of life in a desert country, but a walk would have to suffice.

From al-Ula a new road cut through the escarpment leads to the port of al-Wejdh still retaining some of its original coral buildings. This town is known to readers of Lawrence who was there when the British and their Arab allies seized it in 1916 at the beginning of the Arab Revolt. An airport on the beach flies one to Jeddah – a very speedy way to go.

In Jeddah the old town, the Balad, has been swamped by new growth and our driver did not even know where it was! Directed by Alan, we did find it and were able to wander among coral houses with their mashrabiyyah balconies in a very dilapidated state but still retaining some charm. It is a pity the town has been allowed to crumble as without more attention to preservation it will not achieve the UNESCO rating it covets. You still get a bit of a feeling of what it must have been like to live in a port on the Red Sea. Visitors are now allowed to see round a good example of a rich merchant house, the Nasief house.

Other than the balad there is not much worthy of note in Jeddah other than the rather astonishing modern sculptures which adorn the roundabouts and line the Corniche. There is a wonderful coral reef just off shore a little outside Jeddah but definitely worth taking extra time to explore for those interested in diving or snorkelling.

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