Exploring the hidden treasures of Saudi Arabia’s Mawan Valley

Time: 27 January 2021

The hidden Mawan Valley is considered to be one of the most important archaeological sites in Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Saeed Al-Qarni and Tareq Mohammed)

  • Archaeological missions reveal human presence in the region dating back to the Paleolithic Age and the Upper Paleolithic Age

MAKKAH: The hidden Mawan Valley is considered to be one of the most important archaeological sites in Saudi Arabia.

Located near the city of Ad-Dilam, south of Riyadh, it is also an area of stunning natural beauty.

Dr. Abdul Aziz Al-Ghazzi, a history professor and archaeologist, told Arab News: “There are two types of valleys: Ones that cannot be seen from a distance but only by standing at its head, such as Mawan Valley, and those that can be seen from a distance such as Wadi Al-Rummah, Al-Tiri and Al-Shawki.”

The majestic view of the valley consists of two stone structures on both sides. There are also remains of forts and castles and a pair of watchtowers reflect the strategic importance of the area due to its vegetation and water resources.

He said the valley cut west to east through a high plateau and was known for its depth and meanders.

“There are fortifications that are still standing at the main points of the valley. Along the valley there are flowing springs, crests, and bodies of water in solid lands that last for a long period of the year,” he added.

As well as Mawan, several other towns are dotted along the valley. Al-Ghazzi said: “We don’t know whether the town was named after the valley or the other way around. But, for sure, the valley existed before the town. However, the archaeological sites in the valley and on its sides have not yet been studied.”

Dr. Salma bint Mohammed Hawsawi, an associate professor of ancient history at King Saud University, told Arab News: “Archaeological missions revealed that human presence in the region dates back to the Paleolithic Age and the Upper Paleolithic Age — approximately 100,000 years ago.”

She said that Mawan, according to Arabic sources, meant place of shelter and pointed out that numerous Arab tribes, including the Hazzan and Rabi’ah, had lived in the area.

FASTFACTS

• The majestic view of the valley consists of two stone structures on both sides.

• There are also remains of forts and castles and a pair of watchtowers.

• The valley cut west to east through a high plateau and was known for its depth and meanders.

The valley was also mentioned in pre-Islamic Arabic poetry by writers such as Ibn Duraid, Imru’ Al-Qais, and Orwa ibn Al-Ward Al-Absi. “Poets wrote about it and the animals that were in the area, such as camels, zebras, and horses. The poets’ describing fresh water flowing in the area is evidence that humans inhabited it,” Hawsawi said.

Pottery vessels, bracelets, and soapstone (steatite) pots have been found in the area in addition to forts and watchtowers on the valley sides.

“There are two forts built of rocks and mud, and it is clear that the mud was brought from the floor of the valley, and the rocks were cut from the surface of the edge which extends to the south.”

She noted that the fort located in the southern part of the valley was a wall that resembled the Arabic letter “Baa.”

“The foundations of the wall were supported by stone slabs that are 60 to 80 centimeters high cut from the adjacent land. The wall is 6 meters high or even more. The towers are conical in shape, with their centers open to the bottom, and they seemed to be without a roof.

“As for the tower located in the eastern corner, it consists of two floors, each with its own function,” she added.

The building on the northern side consists of a yard surrounded by four connected but irregular walls, which also include a number of towers, she said, adding that some may date back to the first Saudi state.

Hawsawi said the watchtowers were used as observation posts to monitor the area and send military signals to the forts. The defensive fortifications were built to protect the region from foreign invaders.

Arabs used to move from one region to another in search of water, pasture, and stability. The apparent difference in the geographical nature of the Arab countries is the reason for the existence of two types of population: The Bedouins (nomads) lived in the desert, while the Hadaris preferred cities and worked in agriculture, trade, and industry, she added.

“We must preserve these relics to introduce future generations to the cultural heritage of our ancestors,” Hawsawi said.

This article was first published in Arab News

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From white sand beaches to orange groves, Saudi Arabia’s Tabuk has it all

Time: 25 January 2021

Tabuk is one of the most important tourist destinations in the Kingdom, home to major heritage sites. (SPA)

  • Tabuk has much to explore, such as the ancient Tabuk Castle, one of the many archaeological sites, the old buildings of Hijaz Railway Station and Ain Sukkar, which is one of the city’s oldest water springs

JEDDAH: From the dark, deep blue waters off the coast to the surrounding valleys and orange farms, the city of Tabuk has it all.
The city has enjoyed a surge of tourists recently as many Saudis have opted to visit new regions and cities across the nation due to the restrictions on foreign travel.
Families and groups can explore Tabuk’s attractions either on their own or as part of a tour group through the Saudi Winter season website, which is registered with the Saudi Tour Guides Association.
Tabuk is one of the most important tourist destinations in the Kingdom, home to major heritage sites. Visitors driving to the city are engulfed by mesmerising mountains with glimpses of the Red Sea to the west until they finally enter the city limits.
Manar Al-Harthi, a private sector worker in Jeddah, traveled with her husband and family recently and was in awe of the city’s varied landscapes and beauty.
“The city’s amenities were really amazing. You had a variety of restaurants if you’d want to eat out, lots of fresh local produce for picnics, great beaches to relax and enjoy an outdoor excursion, and so much more,” she told Arab News. “This is our first time to the area. The people are so welcoming and we’ll be back for a second visit soon.”
What attracted her is not only the diversity of the geographical features of the city but how unspoilt it is.

HIGHLIGHT

Families and groups can explore Tabuk’s attractions either on their own or as part of a tour group through the Saudi Winter season website, which is registered with the Saudi Tour Guides Association.

It is said that Tabuk is the “gateway to the north,” and the relics it houses reflect the successive civilizations that inhabited it. It is also called “Tabuk Al-Ward” (Tabuk of roses) because its vast rose farms export their produce to the world.
“Not only did we visit the rose farms, but we also went to the orange groves and discovered that we have kumquats. They were absolutely delicious and I’ve never seen them grown here in Saudi Arabia before. You can see how fertile the soil is as we passed by the many farms to get here,” she said.
Tabuk has much to explore, such as the ancient Tabuk Castle, one of the many archaeological sites, the old buildings of Hijaz Railway Station and Ain Sukkar, which is one of the city’s oldest water springs.
Tour operators often include the most beautiful tourist oases on the Tabuk Mountains in their packages. One of those is Tayyib Asim, which is a few hours from the city, 314 meters above sea level, and overlooks the Gulf of Aqaba. It is known for its many palm trees, reeds, and clean water springs, making it more like a very beautiful nature reserve.
Tucked between towering red sandstone escarpments and canyon peaks, the valley of Wadi Al-Disa is known for its abundance of crystal-clear stream and palm trees. Lying approximately 2 hours away from the city and secluded from any kind of pollution, the area is ideal for hiking and camping out in the canyon and provides some of the best views of the heavens, a dream for stargazers.

This article was first published in Arab News

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Visitors hail ‘haunting beauty’ of ancient caves in Saudi Arabia’s Al-Baha

Time: 20 January 2021

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Split into high and low segments, the mountain is intricate and has withstood the test of time; its vast caverns have been used to house civilizations, and retain carvings that go back to the era of the Thamud and the Sabaeans. (SPA)

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Popular among commoners and poets alike, the caves have been mentioned by several Arab poets and explorers

JEDDAH: With the Saudi winter season providing opportunities for tourism investment, Shada Mountain, one of the most popular spots in the Arabian Peninsula, has transformed into a popular destination for visitors, attracting tourists from within the Kingdom, the Arab region and Europe.
Shada Mountain is located in the southern region of the Kingdom in Al-Baha, rising 1,700 meters above ground. It is geologically composed of granite rock, and contains a large variation of plants and greenery.
Split into high and low segments, the mountain is intricate and has withstood the test of time; its vast caverns have been used to house civilizations, and retain carvings that go back to the era of the Thamud and the Sabaeans.

HIGHLIGHT

Shada Mountain is located in the southern region of the Kingdom in Al-Baha, rising 1,700 meters above ground. It is geologically composed of granite rock, and contains a large variation of plants and greenery.

Nasir Al-Shadawi is a history researcher and owner of one of the caves that has turned into a tourist attraction. He said that he might be the first person to attempt to transform the caves, upgrading them into larger spaces that can house tourists.


“These caves used to act as homes, and they didn’t require anything but a little building with exposed sides. I also worked on adding washing basins and faucets made of granite,” he told Al-Arabiya TV.
Al-Shadawi adorned the road leading to the caves with stones to guide incoming tourists and prepare them for the experience, before they even enter the caves.
Popular among commoners and poets alike, the mountain has been mentioned by several Arab poets and explorers like Abu Mohammed Al-Hamadani and Yaqut Al-Hamawi.
Saudis have taken note of the tourist site and are excited to check it out. In fact, some were enticed to visit it after learning that it has inspired famous poets.
“I would love to sense what the poets saw and felt when they explored the mysterious caves. I think witnessing these mountains and their prominent existence adds to the historical and cultural richness that Al-Baha has,” said Amani Al-Ghoraibi, a language instructor at a university in Jeddah.


Al-Ghoraibi said that the atmosphere of the caves was its most important aspect, adding that it brings the most appeal. “There is a haunting beauty that seems to call in the visitor, urging them to explore these caves,” she told Arab News. “They seem to echo an ancient history that goes beyond what our modern day life seems to perceive.” 

Amal Turkistani, 55, has taken on adventuring within the Kingdom, and Shada Mountain has presented a new location to visit.
“The interest in historical sites and the investment going into revitalizing these sites is unprecedented here in Saudi Arabia, and it gives us a variety of activities to share among families and friends,” she told Arab News.
Growing up, Turkistani said that she lacked that luxury and often chased after history and culture in other countries. Now that the Kingdom’s wondrous sites have been revealed, she wants to know them, as well as introduce them to her grandchildren.
“One of my deepest regrets is not learning about my country, and my children had no clue either. I would love to take my family to explore these caves and try to submerge ourselves in the past for a few days,” she added.

This article was first published in Arab News

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Najd doors: An entrance to the region’s culture and heritage

02/01/21

There are 30 types of decorated doors that differ according to the place. Unaizah has its own identity, and so do Riyadh, Sudair, Buraidah, and the rest. (Supplied)
  • Inspired by nature, they were an essential part of family homes and a focal point for residents and their guests

MAKKAH: The old doors of Najd are known for their rich decoration. They are inspired by nature and represent the culture and deep roots of the central Saudi region. They were an essential part of family homes and a focal point for residents and their guests.

The decorations created by the people of Najd were inspired by the region’s plants and trees. They dyed them with the colors of acacia and its seeds, as well as pomegranate, to make them brighter.
This decor was a cultural treat for guests, who enjoyed the beauty of those doors, their engravings and colors.
Historian Mohammed Al-Suwaih said that Najdi decorations had been passed down from one generation to the next. “You find that the fathers and grandfathers were carpenters,” he told Arab News. “The builders also passed their profession down to the next generations.”
He said that Najdi decorations used to be inspired by the environment surrounding the community. The shapes were inspired by wild plants and flowers, palm fronds, as these were abundant, the sun and its rays, and mountains, which were depicted as triangles and carved onto the doors.
Some of the doors are lavishly and ornately decorated. These include the doors of the majlis (room to receive guests), main entrances, and the doors separating the majlis and the rest of the house.
Builders deployed their full artistic talents when working on the majlis as it was the cultural front that received guests. The more decorated the majlis, the wealthier and more influential the owner. There are not many decorated majlises, however.
Al-Suwaih said the average person had simple majlises that were built in the shape of a triangle as it was difficult for everyone to own lavish doors and majlises.
“There are over 30 types of decorated doors that differ according to the place. For example, Unaizah has its own identity, and so do Riyadh, Sudair, Buraidah, and the rest.”

HIGHLIGHTS

• The decorations created by the people of Najd were inspired by the region’s plants and trees.

• They dyed them with the colors of acacia and its seeds, as well as pomegranate, to make them brighter.

He explained that every city had a grand master who specialized in this art. Those who were acquainted with this art knew the cultural background of a door from the first time they looked at it. Such doors used to get traded and are still in demand to this day.

Al-Suwaih said that the person who decorated walls was different from the one who decorated the doors. “Each has his own method, style, and colors. The doors of Najd were distinguished from those of other Saudi cities in that they included decoration and engraving as well as colors, an aesthetic flair.”
The decoration of Najdi doors is known for the intersection of lines, inner rings, and triangles. The front door of a house includes its name, date, some expressions of praise, thanks to God, and prayers for Prophet Muhammad. The date would be added to the door and the majlis, and some of these still exist today.
Among the decorated doors were “kamer” doors that were built in the form of two small doors. Some of them are decorated on one side only, while others are decorated on both sides.
Similarly the door separating the house from the majlis had two panels, and it was usually decorated on both sides for residents as well as guests.
He explained that there were types of decoration that spread in Najd, including the “hadaire.” This design comprises triangles as ornaments placed on the house’s exterior in a circular shape covering the entire house. The tops of these triangles point down and contribute to the flow of the water in a streamlined manner so it does not affect the wall’s durability.
Another type of decoration is the “lahj,” which comprises triangles engraved in the walls to create windows that are arranged in a way that controls the entry of light and the exit of smoke when wood is burned for heating and cooking. These were also used for storage.
Al-Suwaih added that a builder would repeat the triangles, squares, and lines, and the circles would overlap until there was an aesthetic decoration. “The builders preferred plant and geometric motifs and avoided human and animal ones due to religious beliefs. The most famous decorations are the intersection of the circle in the form of a flower. Stars were also used. The most preferred colors are green, purple, scarlet, and yellow, and the colors were bright and taken from trees – green from acacia and yellow from the fruit of acacia.”
Al-Suwaih explained that, with time, powders were imported from abroad, and these were mixed with some local substances, such as molasses, pomegranate peel, and sugar in order to protect the colors on the doors and make them brighter. Pomegranate was cooked for long hours until it was used as glue for these colors.
The decoration on the doors was a cultural element for guests to enjoy and avoid boredom. “It was as if the guests were listening to a song, reading a poem, or looking at a painting. Guests would feel welcome, enjoy the aesthetics, and feel relaxed.”

This article was first published in Arab News

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The Place: Saudi Arabia’s Wadi Khitanand

02/01/21

(Photo: Supplied)

This large valley stretches from the Sirat mountains to Belad Al-Awamer in Saudi Arabia’s southwest Tihamah province.
Wadi Khitanand is known for its beauty and scenic attractions, but also holds archaeological value. Quaib Tomb, a fenced burial site with an abandoned well, adds to the haunting mystery of the place.
Remnants of a small village, Shibahand, can also be found in the area.
The valley was also the site of one of the strangest conflicts ever fought, according to historians. The War of Basus began over the killing of a camel and lasted 40 years before the two warring tribes, the Taghlib and Bakr, resolved the dispute, ending a cycle of violence and revenge.

This article was first published in Arab News

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The Place: Bait Sharbatly, a special place in the hearts of Jeddawis built in 1910

26/12/20

Considered one of the oldest homes in Historical Jeddah’s neighborhoods, Bait Sharbatly holds a special place in the hearts of Jeddawis as it has withstood the sands of time.
Built by Al-Sharif Abdulilah Mihanna Al-Abdaly in 1910, it was later bought by Sheikh Abdullah Sharbatly years later and has since been associated with the family name. 
Similar to Historical Jeddah’s homes, the whitewashed four-story building is known for its beautiful mashrabiyya with its wooden lattice balconies spanning all floors with windows and balconies decorated by the Hijazi-style rawshan wood designs.
It was once the headquarters of the Egyptian mission to the Kingdom for 20 years and where leading Egyptian entrepreneur and founder of Banque Masr, Talat Harb Pasha, stayed while visiting the port city of Jeddah. The building went through a number of restoration projects with the latest in 2009 after torrential rainfall and flooding and has since featured a number of art exhibits and cultural events.

This article was first published in Arab News

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The Place: Shada mountain in Saudi Arabia’s Al-Baha region

19/12/20

  • Engravings and traces of early civilizations have been found in the caves, giving archeologists and researchers important and priceless information about the past.

The Shada mountain range is part of Al-Baha, which is one of the most beautiful cities in Saudi Arabia.
“Shada” means to “rise” or “soar”, so it is a meaning that fits the dense green mountains perfectly. They are the highest peaks in the Kingdom at 2,300 meters.
Jabal Shada, or the Shada mountain formation, dates beyond the Cambrian Period.
The giant granite rocks resting on the very top are what makes this place different from others. In Arabic they are given the name “Nadba,” almost appearing to touch the sky at an altitude of 200 meters.
Visitors may come across peculiar grottos and caves that are the result of erosion that has taken place over the course of centuries.
These caves were created by gases exiting igneous rocks and leaving apertures that coincidentally suited human civilizations and were used as dwellings.
Engravings and traces of early civilizations have been found in the caves, giving archeologists and researchers important and priceless information about the past.
Houses of Jabal Shada Al-Asfal are found at astounding altitudes. They are made of rocks that are extremely difficult to reach due to their location, and are a true piece of Saudi heritage and give valuable insight into the history of the land.

This article was first published in Arab News

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Saudi Arabia’s caves reveal hidden treasures

Time: 10 December 2020

The western and northwestern regions of the Kingdom were home to caves and basalt tunnels between layers of lava rock near the craters of volcanoes. (Photo/ Supplied)
  • Research project opens door to tourist, scientific adventure

MAKKAH: They are among the region’s most striking natural wonders, formed over millions of years by ancient rivers — and still home to mysterious secrets.
Now Saudi Arabia’s caves, sinkholes and caverns are becoming hidden gems for the adventurous or merely curious to seek out and explore.
More than 230 caves — deep and shallow, and formed of limestone, gypsum and other minerals — have been discovered in the Kingdom’s deserts.
As the mysteries of Saudi Arabia gain wider recognition, these natural treasures are the subject of growing interest.
Mahmoud Ahmed Al-Shanti, a specialist in caves and dunes at the Saudi Geological Survey (SGS), told Arab News that caves are a valuable natural asset, and attract explorers, researchers and others interested in the field.
The SGS has launched an exploration project to determine the location, types and origins of the Kingdom’s caves.
In a study titled “Caves and Sinkholes in Saudi Arabia,” Al-Shanti said that caves or sinkholes vary in size from small, where a person can barely access the main entrance, to vast, with tunnels extending for hundreds of kilometers.
The Mammoth cave in the US state of Kentucky is more than 500-km long, for example.
Caves are a rare geological, tourist and environmental asset that must be preserved and protected, he said.
“Not only are they beautiful, but some caves can be used for academic studies and scientific research,” he said.

More than 230 caves — deep and shallow, and formed of limestone, gypsum and other minerals — have been discovered in the Kingdom’s deserts.

“Countries also can benefit from them economically through financial income, career opportunities in various fields of education and research.” Al-Shanti said the western and northwestern regions of the Kingdom were home to caves and basalt tunnels between layers of lava rock near the craters of volcanoes. Examples include the Habashi cave in Harrat Al-Buqum and the Umm Jarsan cave in Harrat Khyber, about 200 km northeast of Madinah.
Caves also form in sandstone exposed to a variety of environmental factors. Examples include Qarah cave in the Kingdom’s eastern region; Al-Doudah cave, east of AlUla; and Janine cave, near Hail.
Al-Shanti said there are also sinkholes and caves in limestone rock near Saudi Arabia’s northern border, and in the central and eastern regions.
A variety of plants is known to grow in the soil surrounding these natural wonders, with roots breaking up the limestone rock over millions of years, forming long, deep corridors that branch out in different directions.
In the depths of the cave, green plants give way to organisms that can survive without sunlight. Bacteria and algae utilize waste from animals that live inside, while some use minerals in the cave as a source of food and energy.
Al-Shanti said that caves often provide shelter for mammals, including wild cats and various types of rodents.
In desert caves, carnivores, such as foxes, hyenas and wolves, live and reproduce, emerging at night to hunt before returning to the safety of the cave.
With time and effort, more hidden wonders are being discovered beneath Saudi Arabia’s sandy dunes and rocky mountains, opening the door for adventure and discovery for all.

This article was first published in Arab News

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The Place: Wadi Al-Disah, in Saudi Arabia’s Tabuk region

06/12/20

Wadi Al-Disah in the Tabuk region is one of the most famous valleys in the Kingdom and one of the region’s most prominent natural tourist attractions. It is also known as Wadi Al-Habak, Tamar Al-Nabq, Wadi Damah, and Wadi Qarar. Visitors to this beautiful valley will be struck by its tranquility and fresh air.
The valley is located about 220 km south of Tabuk city. It penetrates the pillar-shaped mountains, under which a wide variety of trees are found, including palms, edamas, and basil and citrus trees.
On the edges of the valley are striking red mountains. The valley also features an area known as the Blue Eye, into which water from different springs pours. One of the springs in the center of the valley has an unknown source and flows from a rocky spot. The water is renowned for its clarity and freshness.
The weather in the valley is mild throughout the year, making it an ideal place to grow crops, including buckthorn — from which people make buckthorn jam and buckthorn molasses, vegetables, citrus fruits, banana, mango, tomato, and mint.
The valley’s Nabataean façade and rock-carved tombs add to its beauty, in addition to other archaeological sites that include the remains of residential settlements, such as Al-Mushairef, Al-Sukhnah, and Al-Maskounah.

This article was first published in Arab News

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Saudi Ministry of Culture releases mini-documentary on Tuwaiq Palace

16/11/20

RIYADH: Continuing their efforts to preserve significant aspects of Saudi heritage, the Ministry of Culture has released a short documentary film highlighting the beauty and architectural prowess of one of the country’s most incredible buildings, Tuwaiq Palace.
The 10-minute video, which can be viewed on the ministry’s Twitter account, features a look at the history of the palace, insights into the design process and sweeping views of the building that will mesmerize those who have never seen the palace’s interior before.
The building has long been considered an architectural marvel and a city landmark. Built in 1985 and located in the Diplomatic Quarter of Riyadh, Tuwaiq Palace is the award-winning lovechild of a collaboration between Saudi design company Omrania, German architect Frei Otto (Germany), and British services firm Buro Happold.
Basem Al-Shihabi, Omrania’s managing director since 1973, talks in the film about the history of the design process and explains why the building stands out from others in its category.
“The appeal of Tuwaiq Palace lies in its design — the harmony between the interior and the exterior. The dimensions, and the way the materials juxtapose and come together. And the variations in the height of the ceilings versus the depth of the floors from one section to another,” he said.
The 24,000-square-meter building is equipped for recreational, social, dining, banqueting, conference, and accommodation functions, a favorite of ambassadors and foreign dignitaries for the celebration of their countries’ national and independence day celebrations, and is even available for weddings.
Saudi architect Mai Alkhaldi told Arab News that the building is “visually stunning,” and that no other Saudi architectural landmark has quite the same visual appeal.
“It’s not an ordinary building; it’s extraordinary. The shapes, the structure, and of course, the wall. Over three decades old and the structure is still as amazing as ever,” she said.

HIGHLIGHT

The 10-minute video, which can be viewed on the ministry’s Twitter account, features a look at the history of the palace.

“The wall” refers to the 800-meter-long “Living Wall,” which winds on itself and wraps around the palace’s lush garden. Five tensile structure “tents” cover sports facilities and distinct landscaping in the inner gardens and outer spaces generated by the winding wall, giving the palace its unique shape and structure.
According to the co-designers at Omrania, the palace was designed to touch on two local archetypes, the fortress and the tent, and incorporate the natural phenomenon of the oasis.
“Much of development in Saudi Arabia during the 1980s was based on glossy western building models. Tuwaiq Palace is a bold departure from that trend, touching instead upon easily understood signals from past desert civilizations. This reinterpretation is a daring confrontation with and successful marriage of tradition and high tech,” says the company’s website.
As the building turns 35 years old this year, many Saudis consider Tuwaiq Palace to be unmatched among Saudi landmarks. Alkhaldi is no exception to this.
“Tuwaiq is such a unique building. Every part of it is different, yet all of it comes together so beautifully. Nothing else can really compare. Not truly,” she said.

This article was first published in Arab News

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