I originally published this article in Romar Traveler, May 2011.
The city of Abha defies images of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as one vast sand dune. The impressive Sarawat, or Al Soodah, mountain peaks, climbing nearly 10,000 feet, surround this lush region granting the visitor some unexpected delights.
Abha, the capital of Asir province, resides in the southwest corner of the Kingdom. The Asir province is one of thirteen provinces in Saudi Arabia and shares a limited border with Yemen to the south. The larger Arabian Peninsula lies between the Nile River and Tigris-Euphrates basins to the west and north, and, Asia, to the east; in ancient times this area was home to a network of caravan trading routes. Merchants transported almonds, dates, frankincense and myrrh from the Asir province and surrounding areas to trade with the people of Mesopotamia and the Nile River valley. Spices from India were also born along the caravan arteries through Asir province by way of what is now Oman and Yemen before being transported to the more urbanized western and northern reaches.
As a western woman making preparations for a trip to Abha and the Asir region I could not help wondering how I would be treated in the more remote parts of this land ruled exclusively by men since the ancient trading days of 3,000 BC. At the time, I lived and worked in Riyadh where I was accustomed to wearing the abaya (long black cloak), and in some public places, a headscarf. I assumed I would need to don the abaya for the length of my trip to Abha. I was surprised to find out that despite the area’s rich and historic traditions I was only required to wear conservative western garb, and shortly after landing at the Abha airport from Riyadh’s King Khaled International Airport, I was encouraged to forgo the abaya completely. It was a pleasant surprise, as well, to be greeted as a “sister” by the local population, which made me feel like the member of an extended family. Due to the Kingdom’s traditional views on gender, it is recommended that a male escort (husband preferred), or fellow group of female companions accompany women intending to travel to the Abha area. The Asir Province, which includes over one million acres allocated to Asir National Park for hiking, exploring, and other recreational pursuits,is a highly touted tourist destination within the Kingdom.
Most visitors take weekend tours of this unique destination. It is a welcome respite for Saudis and expatriates living in the country, especially due to the cooler temperatures in the summer months that range from 61 degrees Fahrenheit in the evenings to daytime highs of 88 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature in Riyadh regularly reaches 113 degrees Fahrenheit and higher in the summer. In addition to offering a welcome reprieve from the oppressive Saudi heat, Abha and the surrounding area holds some fascinating discoveries for the curious traveler. Cable car rides starting from Jabal Al Sooda, Saudi Arabia’s highest point atop the Sarawat mountain range, offer stunning vistas. As guests descend, they take in views of the rugged mountain peaks, dotted with green vegetation, dramatic escarpments, and clusters of baboons.
The mountains of Asir were formed through the geological movement of the Alps, giving way to the Great Rift Valley that runs along the Red Sea and much of the eastern coast of Africa. Evidence of this fault makes itself seen in the mountainous southwest region of the Asir province as well as in the Hejaz region, in a series of escarpments along the western coast of Saudi Arabia alongside the Red Sea. The Tihama, a coastal plain bordering the Red Sea, extends from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in the Hejaz region before moving southward towards the Gulf of Aden where it swells to meet the mountains of Asir and Yemen. Some historians refer to the area surrounding the southernmost portion of this plain as the “birthplace of mankind.”
Originally inhabitants of Yemen, a segment of the Tihama population migrated to, and eventually settled in,southern Saudi Arabia and the Asir area. The Tihama people reside in the lowlands of the region and tend to live in thatched huts made of mud, palms and grasses. Each hut contains its own functions; for example, one hut is used for sleeping, another for cooking, and another for living. As is the tradition throughout the Arabian Gulf, the Tihama people show visitors great generosity and hospitality with offers of cardamom coffee, and dates.
The Tihamas, tribal and independent, fish, farm, herd goats and sheep, and take great pride in their craftsmanship, most notably their elaborately made baskets and hats. The basket souk, located outside of Abha, provides glimpses into a fading artisan culture. Not only is it a prime locale where the visitor may practice their bargaining skills, an obligatory art form in this area of the world, but it also presents a rare look at a souk run solely by women. Clad in black abayas with batoolas, gold colored masks covering the eyes and nose, the old women of Abha sit cross-legged on ragged red carpets. Speaking in gruff, throaty, almost unintelligible monosyllables, these women manage just enough English to sell their baskets. As a western female, raised in a culture where women continue to strive for professional equality, I found myself appreciating this community of women and what they stand for in this society.
The Miftaha Art Village at the King Fahad Cultural Village near Abha houses original paintings and sculptures from artists in the area. It even includes traditional Tihama garments that a visitor may try on. For men, black vests or simple cotton shirts, with red, blue, and gold-striped sarong-type skirts make up the customary outfit. Classic Tihama gentlemen, or ‘flower men,’ may also wear headpieces sporting flowered wreaths with green sprigs, and sometimes dried herbs, green leaves, or grasses and a dagger, or jambiya, at the waist secured by a belt. Reportedly, the reasons for these head decorations are to attract young brides and as a form of natural perfume. ‘Flower men’ are said to descend from the original tribe of the Tihama and Asir region. Women wear black robes, piped through with red and gold embroidery. For more formal occasions such as weddings, their headpiece may consist of an exotic silver band with long, thick silver beaded engravings hanging from the rim; a wide silver belt with lustrous sterling tassels pinching the waist. Oversized ankle bracelets with large bells and an extravagant silver-layered necklace complete the ensemble.
The “Hanging Village,” or Al Habbalah (the rope), is a remarkable commune located in the Sarawat mountain range around 6,500 feet above sea level. At one point in the region’s history, Al Habbalah was only accessible to its residents by ropes. Researchers believe this unusual community was inhabited from the time of the last incursion of the Ottomans until the 1970s. The turbulent history of this region unfolds in a series of political overthrows,starting in 1818, involving the Egyptians, Ottomans, and the Saudis, resulting in the Abha region’s assimilation into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1933. One can only imagine the extraordinary efforts involved in living everyday life in Al Habbalah, in which residents, livestock, goods and materials had to be hoisted along the width and depth of menacing escarpments by a series of ropes and pulleys. These days, regularly scheduled cable car rides allow visitors extraordinary views of the ruins of the village: a network of primitive houses, built from mud and clay balanced perilously on treacherous cliffs.
The nearby archeology museum contains artifacts of the region, including daggers, swords, rudimentary tools, and utensils. It also accommodates a five-story replication of the traditional house of the highland region, replete with multipletiers and tiny windows. Adjacent to the museum is an open-air restaurant where one can enjoy a break from the day’s activities with fruit-flavored sheesha (water-based tobacco from a pipe). The intrepid visitor may respectfully ask the staff to try their hand at drumming on a tablah (Arabic drum) or strumming on an ude (small Arabic guitar). This is sure to bring smiles, as well as the odd stare, from the faces of the diners and restaurant staff alike. Unlike restaurants in Riyadh where men and women dine in their own sections and women are prohibited from smoking sheesha, Abha restaurants allow mixed gender seating. It was a welcome change for me to enjoy and relax in the restaurant, pleasantly smoking sheesha in my western clothes within full view of Saudi diners and other visitors.
The Asir province provides many opportunities to view the prevalent and historic mud, stone, and clay multi-storied houses of the highland area. Presumably, these structures, sometimes quite colorful, were built for the large number of immediate, and oftentimes extended, family members, which is a common trait of Arab communities. The massive abodes brandish high windows and multiple, narrow abutments that run the length of the building to keep the rain out. Each village includes a lookout tower at a higher elevation – protecting its inhabitants from tribal and other attacks that occurred in an earlier era. In present day, the watchtowers are sometimes used to store food.
A wide expanse of desert plateau borders the city of Abha. At the edge of the sandy swath a precipice gives way to an old, crumbling Ottoman fort. Evidence of rolling green mountains and alluring lush valleys lay along the horizon. Ottoman graveyards, designated by misshapen sandstone burial markers, pervade the landscape. The location affords ideal moments for travelers to decompress, relax, and take in the spiritual nature that permeates the ruins.
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- The Road from Washington to Riyadh (Part Two) (arabianmusings.wordpress.com)
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