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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Heritage Authority to unveil archaeological discovery

Time: 15 September 2020

Saudi Arabia is home to many archaeological treasures spread across its several regions.

Saudi Arabia’s Heritage Authority will unveil a new archaeological discovery made through the joint efforts of Saudi and international excavation teams.

The authority will divulge the details about the discovery at a press conference in Riyadh on Wednesday.

Dr. Jasser bin Sulaiman Al-Herbish, CEO of the authority, will reveal the location of the site. Representatives of the local and international media will attend the event and be briefed about the methods used to explore the ancient site.

The authority is a Saudi government body established in February 2020 with its headquarters in Riyadh. The authority aims to support efforts to develop the national heritage and protect it from extinction, and to encourage the production and development of content in the sector.

Saudi Arabia is home to many archaeological treasures spread across its several regions.

There are five sites in Saudi Arabia that are currently on UNESCO’s World Heritage List: Al-Ahsa Oasis, Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madain Saleh) in AlUla, Al-Turaif district in Diriyah, Historic Jeddah, and rock art in the Hail region.

Authorities in the Kingdom are making great efforts to preserve and highlight mankind’s shared history.

In 2019, Saudi Arabia was also elected to UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee.

This article was first published in Arab News

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The Place: Thi Ain Heritage Village in KSA’s Al-Baha dates back hundreds of years

12/09/20

  • This photograph was taken by Susan Baaghil as part of the Colors of Saudi collection

Thi Ain Heritage Village in Saudi Arabia’s southwestern Al-Baha province dates back hundreds of years. It is one of the most mesmerizing and dramatic archeological sites in the Kingdom which includes old buildings, agricultural lands, springs, distinctive cultural and natural landscapes, gardens and a visitor’s center.
The village is located on a hill and surrounded by banana and other trees. For those interested in history, the village is a treasure trove of information about architecture.
This photograph was taken by Susan Baaghil as part of the Colors of Saudi collection.

This article was first published in Arab News

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Saudi Arabian Voyagers Association launched

12/09/20

  • Al-Mutairi called on all travelers in the Kingdom to participate in the association’s work, and to benefit from the services provided to its members

JEDDAH: The Saudi Arabian Voyagers Association was launched on Friday in Riyadh. The association is intended to be the main resource in the country for travel and tourism locally, regionally and globally.
It is an independent travel organization — in accordance with the goals of Saudi Vision 2030 — and will serve as an official “umbrella” for travelers in all regions of the Kingdom.
Members will include a group of “highly qualified experts,” according to a press statement, which added that the association aims to “unify efforts and establish new standards for the concept of travel and tourism.” It will also be responsible for the promotion of the Kingdom’s tourist attractions, including archaeological sites.
The newly formed association will provide services and logistical support to travelers, and — according to the press statement — will include training for Saudi travelers to be “the best ambassadors for the ‘Kingdom of Humanity.’”
The association’s chairman, seasoned traveler Ibrahim Al-Mutairi, said the association’s official inauguration is a turning point for Saudi travelers.
“Among the goals of the association is to work on organizing the current work of travelers and those interested in the field —which in most cases is nothing more than individual diligence — and to change it into an institutional and more firmly controlled work, in a way that achieves the common goals of individuals and society,” he said.
Al-Mutairi said that the association’s mission includes setting new standards for tourism through a highly qualified group of experts in the field, in addition to providing consultation, courses and lectures aimed at increasing community awareness.
He explained that the objectives of the association have been set in line with the national aspirations of the travel and tourism sector in the Kingdom. He added that the association hopes to establish several strategic partnerships with relevant organizations from the public and private sectors.
Al-Mutairi called on all travelers in the Kingdom to participate in the association’s work, and to benefit from the services provided to its members.

This article was first published in Arab News

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Saudi director’s journey with drones yields amazing shots of ancient sites

Time: 09 September 2020

Nezar Tashkandi has worked with the Saudi Ministry of Tourism shooting aerial photos and videos of top tourist destinations, covering historical places such as AlUla and areas unknown to many such as Dee Ain. (Supplied)
  • Tashkandi bought his first drone in 2017, had a rough start, not knowing it would be his ticket to stardom

JEDDAH: Drone technology has come on leaps and bounds in the past decade, bridging the gap from niche and military use to business and personal.

In 2010, a French company released the first ready-to-fly drone fully controlled using a smartphone, and the world has never been the same since.

Its commercial success was immediate and since then, drones have developed in many ways, from size to quality and function, from use a delivery tools to mobile cameras.

The idea of working amidst the clouds appealed to Nezar Tashkandi, a native of Jeddah, ever since he worked as a flight paramedic in Omaha, Nebraska, responding to emergency rescues while working as an assistant director at a media production company on the side.

“Most of my work was in the helicopter responding to a lot of cases. I saw that the vision from the sky is different from the ground. So I thought there should be some way I could make a film from the air,” Tashkandi told Arab News.

“I realized that drones were an opportunity for me to expand my knowledge and my vision,” he added.

He started as an assistant director then headed straight for the drone industry. “My first job was a reporter drone pilot to respond to crime scenes and film them with the drone, and I started doing that for news companies.”

He bought his first drone in 2017, and had a rough start, not knowing it would be his ticket to stardom.

“As soon as I flew it, I crashed it, and I was so devastated that I wouldn’t be able to continue. But the curiosity and the vision I had, it was all through the drones, and I had to learn the basics,” he said.

Throughout his journey, he has crashed many drones and faced many financial challenges to purchase more.

As soon as I flew it, I crashed it, and I was so devastated that I wouldn’t be able to continue. But the curiosity and the vision I had, it was all through the drones, and I had to learn the basics.

Nezar Tashkandi, Drone director

“None of my friends supported my idea, not even my family,” he said. “No one knew what I was going through with the drones. I was so ambitious to learn a lot about drones, it was so difficult to learn as well as there weren’t many people that had knowledge on them at that time. And I knew it was the opportunity for me to expand my vision and career in the media production field.”

He took his drone piloting career to the next level when he photographed the Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

“I didn’t realize that this kind of career was so beautiful, but at the same time I took it to the next level when I made my first Rocky Mountain National Park aerial footage. I received some support from the park in Colorado, where they gave me access to the whole community.”

He added: “After a while, my friends and family started to notice and thought: ‘You know what? You actually might have a career in this thing, but stick to plan A as a flight paramedic because it has more income and a better life.’”

After working in the US as a drone pilot for two years, he came back to the Kingdom and worked as a paramedic at the Saudi Red Crescent Authority for a while. “The moment I came back to the country, I made connections to shoot films,” he added.

Through his knowledge and skill in the drone industry, he created an exceptional portfolio and showreel, which later gained him profound recognition as the first Saudi aerial director in August of 2019.

He’s worked with the Ministry of Tourism shooting aerial photos and videos of top tourist destinations since then, covering historical and ancient sites such as AlUla and areas unknown to many such as Dee Ain.

The ancient 600-year-old village in Al-Baha is surrounded by magnificent mountains with homes climbing upwards to resemble a high fortress. Tashkandi’s 360 degree view of the fortress has placed the village in the spotlight as a depiction of what ancient history the Kingdom can truly offer to its visitors.

This article was first published in Arab News

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New book features landscapes, ancient sites, illustrations of Saudi Arabia’s AlUla

Time: 08 September 2020

Photo/Supplied
  • AlUla is home to many relics, archeological wonders, and contemporary sites to see, including Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hegra, dating back to the Nabataean Kingdom

JEDDAH: The destination of AlUla, in collaboration with publisher Assouline, announced the September 2020 release of a luxury immersive book of photography and illustrations titled, “AlUla.”
With stunning images taken by renowned photographer Robert Polidori and interpretive illustrations by multidisciplinary artist Ignasi Monreal, “AlUla” virtually transports readers to the city, giving them a glimpse into its rich history and local culture.
Available in Assouline’s exclusive Ultimate and XXL formats, this oversized luxury volume is a celebration of human milestones and natural wonders. The Ultimate format is available in blue and beige covers, and the XXL format is available in blue and black boxes.
Nestled deep within the vast desert of northwestern Saudi Arabia, AlUla is known as a cultural oasis and living museum with more than 200,000 years of human history — from Paleolithic hunter-gatherers; civilizations such as the Nabataeans, Dadanites, and Romans; Muslim pilgrims on their way to Makkah and Madinah, and trade caravans traveling the Incense Route; to present-day communities who mingle and exchange cultural ideas with global travelers.

The rebirth of AlUla
Hegra, ancient city of the Nabataeans in Saudi Arabia’s historic AlUla Valley, is emerging from the mists of time to take its rightful place as one of the wonders of the world

Enter

AlUla is home to many relics, archeological wonders, and contemporary sites to see, including Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hegra, dating back to the Nabataean Kingdom. Modern landmarks include the Maraya Hall, an award-winning, multi-purpose concert and entertainment venue that is also the Guinness Book of Records’ largest mirrored venue in the world.
Each page of this luxurious book delves into the destination’s ancient mystique, where innovators and artists lived and journeyed through its exceptional landscapes, leaving traces of their language, culture and way of life.
Images and illustrations captured in the book feature the monumental tombs carved into the outcrops of Hegra, Elephant Rock, and the many petroglyphs (or rock art) showcasing the animals that inhabited AlUla thousands of years ago.

I try to render what I call an emblematic image usually showing its entirety through its details and vice versa. I tried to give a timeless image.

Robert Polidori

Polidori began his career in the mid-1980s, when he photographed the Restoration of Versailles, and has since documented sites across the globe.
He has twice won the Alfred Eisenstaedt Award for Magazine Photography and has published over a dozen photo books. He has held major solo exhibitions in important galleries, and his work is featured in the collections of many prominent museums around the world.
“AlUla is just amazing and unparalleled,” said Polidori. “I try to render what I call an emblematic image usually showing its entirety through its details and vice versa. I tried to give a timeless image.”
Monreal is a multidisciplinary artist born in Barcelona and currently based in Rome. He works in various media including painting, design, creative direction, and film.
He created Gucci’s Spring/Summer 2018 campaign — the first of its kind to be fully digitally painted — for which he was short-listed for a Beazley Designs of the Year award. Since then, he has worked with brands such as Bulgari, Four Seasons and Airbnb, among others.
Polidori and Monreal share more of their experiences in AlUla in a video, which provides a look inside the book through select photos and illustrations.
For more information and to purchase, visit Assouline.com.

This article was first published in Arab News

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Photographer uses drones to capture tourist treasures

05/09/20

Saudi photographer Hassan Al-Hresi says many of his followers from around the world are convinced that the Kingdom is a first-class tourist destination with pristine landscapes and magnificent sceneries. (Supplied)
  • Hassan Al-Hresi showcases sites such as Wahidah Waterfalls, Ghiyeh and Al-Qahar

MAKKAH: Saudi photographer Hassan Al-Hresi looks for opportunities day and night to venture upwards into the skies and shed light on the archaeological and tourist treasures of the Kingdom’s south.

He takes his audience on journeys during all seasons of the year so that they can experience and witness the southern landscapes that he captures through his lens.
The professional photographer, who is in his thirties, has documented distinctive destinations such as the Wahidah Waterfalls, Ghiyeh, Al-Qahar villages and other locations.
And he offers an exceptional experience, as he seeks to showcase the undiscovered despite the danger that these sites pose.
“These trips spark my passion like a high that has been there since my childhood,” Al-Hresi told Arab News.
“It is a dangerous profession due to the need to move across steep mountains and stay there for days with the necessary equipment to capture moments that immortalize the sites’ beauty and magnificence. These moments shed light on the beauty of the Kingdom’s southern region.”

He said that many of his followers from around the world were convinced that Saudi Arabia was not just defined by camels and the desert, that it was a first-class tourist destination with pristine landscapes that were unimaginable by both locals and foreigners.
“Something fascinates you and takes your breath away as you film. It is the clouds covering the mountains and villages, the people living their lives amid continuous rainfall, Sarawat’s cold weather and Tihama’s moderate weather during winter, and how Saudis go about their daily lives in all their details according to a village life full of love.”

It is a dangerous profession due to the need to move across steep mountains and stay there for days with the necessary equipment to capture moments that immortalize the sites’ beauty and magnificence.

Hassan Al-Hresi, Saudi photographer

Al-Hresi said that photographing Al-Qahar mountains — a massif located 80 km northwest of Jazan with peaks rising 2,000 meters above sea level — was a fun trip particularly when using his drone, which has helped to uncover and depict such scenery in a wider and more comprehensive way.
“These images showed the villages located along the Kingdom’s deep south along with the simple village life of their residents, living at the heart of an unending natural beauty found in the greenery, the fog and the rain.”
The volcanic peaks that enrich Asir’s nature invited people to discover their scattered green areas that added to the region’s beauty, which he believed was unmatched by any other place in Saudi Arabia.

“This is particularly true in Mount Tahwi’s Ghiyeh village, which represents beauty in small, eye-catching and breathtaking geographical areas.”
The rock formations showcased in Al-Hresi’s images are, according to him, “some of the most important pillars of tourism in the world.”
He said it became even more worthwhile to document the Kingdom’s natural wealth amid the global coronavirus pandemic, which turned the focus of Saudis inwards and toward local travel and tourism.
He spoke of fortified and beautiful villages that showed off a particular type of architecture and construction, with forts built high in the mountains.
The fog-covered villages stand at high altitudes exceeding 2,400 meters above sea level, particularly those located in the areas of Al-Baha and Asir, and require twice as much effort to reach, especially when moving with equipment and drones.
“Al-Qahar mountains feature narrow valleys containing forest trees, along with drawings and inscriptions,” Al-Hresi said, adding that it was difficult to reach the mountain peaks due to their rough terrain.
“The rainwater falling on top of the mountain ends up in Wadi Bish Dam.”
Al-Qahar mountains stand tall on the cusp of Al-Raith governorate, east of Jazan, forming a fascinating scene. They are considered one of Al-Raith’s most beautiful sites due to their breathtaking nature and terrain, moderate weather and continuous rainfall throughout the year.

This article was first published in Arab News

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A westerner’s journey through Saudi Arabia

Time: 26 August, 2020

Alex Woodman embarked on a two-year expedition to experience Saudi Arabia, and his new book and accompanying documentary, “The Land of Adat,” marks his trek. (Screenshots)
  • Alex Woodman embarked on a two-year expedition to experience Saudi Arabia
  • His new book and accompanying documentary “The Land of Adat” marks his trek

LOS ANGELES: A university professor with a long-standing interest in the culture or “adat” of Saudi Arabia has produced a book chronicling his journey through the Kingdom.

Alex Woodman embarked on a two-year expedition to experience Saudi Arabia, and his new book and accompanying documentary, “The Land of Adat,” marks his trek.

“I don’t believe in sitting in another country and writing about another country is the way to do it,” Woodman said. “You know, you have to go there. You have to live with the people. You have to live the tradition to understand them.”

Inspired by the tawaf Hajj ritual, Woodman traveled counterclockwise around Saudi Arabia, beginning in the south, then traveling to eastern, central, and northwestern areas, and ending his journey in Madinah. At each stop, he was taken aback by the diversity of natural and manmade splendor.

“Each city, each village has its own beauty. I would highly recommend people to visit the Kingdom and see the hidden beauty.”

The main focus of his journey was to be immersed, to learn from the people he met, and introduce and educate the West about the importance of Saudi Arabia’s adat, which means tradition.

“Keeping adat in our human texture is very important because yes, we’re moving on, there’s a lot of technology, a lot of progress. But if we don’t learn from the past, then we cannot move to the future.”

And Saudi Arabia is moving into the future with its Vision 2030 reform plan, which is granting travelers like Woodman unprecedented access. Now, either through accounts like “Land of Adat” or by traveling in person, the world is seeing the country in a new way.

“I’m sure the world will see what Saudi Arabia can do,” Woodman added. “I want to quote one of the ambassadors that I recently met with. He said: ‘The world needs to learn from Saudi Arabia, not Saudi Arabia from the world.’”

This article was first published in Arab News

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