Wherever we lived in the world we always had our girls come to visit. In mid November Margot and Meredith came to Saudi Arabia. This by far has been our most unique, most different place we have had the opportunity to live in. We were particular interested in having the girls come here to visit, this is definitely one of those once in a life time places to see for several reasons. First of all, it is not easy to get into, there is no such things as a tourist visa. KSA stopped issuing tourist visas in 2010 and no one really knows when they will start issuing them again. Secondly, there is not a whole lot to see, or should I say the tourist industry here is very underdeveloped, with very few established historic sites, virtually no museums and no information. It appears to be no real interest in preserving the past, at least by the Saudis.
But there is one gentleman from Riyadh who runs weekend tours, mostly for westerns, to various locations around Saudi Arabia. Many of the expats and friends we know have gone on his tours, have enjoyed their experiences and through word-of-mouth have recommended him. I arranged with him to combine two of the weekend tours for the four of us, to explore the interior of Saudi Arabia.
The next 3 posts will be about the girls visit, the tour into Saudi Arabia and the last part of their trip to Dubai.
We flew on a very early morning flight from Dammam, the local airport here, to Medina and drove for four hours to Al Ula the first of two stops on our tour. For the entire time, we rode through harsh desert scenery, just sand, rocks and hills, no vegetation. We arrived in Al Ula mid day, it is an oasis town with a fairly large underground supply of water left over from thousands of years. Below are some of the interesting things to see. Putting it on the map link zoom in for a closer look
Many of the incense routes to Egypt and Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean region passed through this northeast area of Saudi Arabia. One of the stations along the route was the lush oasis of Al Ula. The Lihyanites, an ancient Arab Kingdom, ruled the area from the 6th century BC, provided shelter, food and water for the caravans travel along this route. The Lihyanites carved many tombs or burial chambers in the red sandstone rock cliffs near Al Ula. Now a symbol of Al-Ula’s ancient past.
Also nearby is Mada’in Saleh, a pre Islamic archaeological site that dates back to the 1st century AD that belong to the Nabatean kingdom. Al Ula was there southernmost location. Petra in Jordon is the largest settlement which is famous for the same kind of burial tombs. Mada’in Saleh is now an UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes over 131 rock-cut monumental tombs with elaborate ornate facades dating from the 1st century AD.
After the rise of Islam Al Ula became an important stop that connected Constantinople and Damascus with Medina, traveled by Muslims going on the pilgrimage to Mecca. In 1910 a railroad was built by the Ottomans that reduced the travel time from 3 months to 10 days. The station and rail line was blown up 10 years later by Lawrence of Arabia in the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire.
Between visiting these historic sites we went on a desert trip to see the very beautiful rosy rocks and the Dancers Mountains via a 4 wheel drive, we also stop for Arabic coffee, tea and a snack. Later on we went up on one of the very high cliffs that over looked the valley for some exceptional breathtaking views of the natural red cliffs, evergreen palm groves and the wonderful blue skies.
Al Ula is now a non-descript typical Saudi town of 33,000 people. We stayed in the only hotel occupied only on the weekends. There are no restaurants, only a dozen or so take-away places. The majority of the folks here work on or support the nearby palm groves and small farms.