| Visitors please note
that entry into mosques is prohibited to non Muslims.
The Najd (Central Region)
The Najd is a stony desert plateau
at the heart of Saudi Arabia, somewhat remote from the rest of the
peninsula. It was from here that Ibn Saud led his tribe of nomads
out to create a new kingdom through invasion.
Despite oil wealth, some Najdis
still lead a semi itinerant life, tending camels and sheep, but
many have settled in the same towns they once milked for tribute
with threats of violence. Watchtowers, standing guard on all the
high points in Najd, are a reminder of this age old conflict between
nomad and farmer.
The royal capital, Riyadh (Ryad),
is a modern city built on the site of the 1st town captured by Ibn
Saud, when he stormed the Musmat Fort in 1902 (a spearhead embedded
in the main door is said to be the 1 with which Ibn Saud killed
the Turkish governor).
Except the fort and a few traditional Najdi palaces near Deera Square,
little trace of the old town remains. The King’s Camel Races
are held near the city in April or May.
Other places of interest in Najd are Al-Hair, Hail, Diriya, Aneyzah,
Qassim, Shaib Awsat, Towqr, Shaib Laha, Tumair, Wadi-al-Jafi and
Hasa (Eastern Region)
Fertile low land coastal plains
inhabited by the kingdom’s Shia minority, who have customarily
lived by fishing, diving for pearls, raising date palms and trading
abroad and with the interior. All of Saudi Arabia’s vast stocks
of oil lie under Hasa or beneath the Gulf, and the locals are now
out numbered by foreign oil workers
from all over the world.
Places maintaining some flavour of old Hasa include Hofuf,
a lively oasis with Turkish influence and a camel market, Jebel-al-Qara,
where the potteries have been worked by eight generations of the
same family, Abqaiq, which has a 5,000 year old
saltmine, still in operation, the ruined customs house at Uqair,
once an important Portuguese port and caravan terminus, and Tarut
Island, site of the oldest town on the peninsula,
now a beautiful settlement of fishermen and weavers.
Hejaz (Western Region)
The west coast is a centre for
trade, but of equal significance is the concentration of Islamic
holy cities, including Mecca and Medina, which attract pilgrims
from all over the world.
The region also contains the city of Jeddah, which
was until recently Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic capital and remains
the most important commercial and cultural gateway to the country.
Mecca is the spiritual centre of the Islamic world, forbidden to
non Muslims. Places of significance to Muslims include the Kaabah
Enclosure, the Mountain of Light, the Plain of Arafat and the House
of Abdullah Bin Abdul Muttalib, which is where Muhammad was born.
The 2nd holiest city in Islam and also forbidden to non Muslims.
Although this city has grown phenomenally, priority is being given
to the preservation of the ancient city.
The ragged, coral coloured Ottoman buildings are being refurbished.
Leisure facilities have increased
and the corniche has a ‘Brighton’ feel about it. There
is an amusement park and a brilliant creek allowing both sailing
and snorkelling. Its hotels and restaurants are cosmopolitan and
there are great fish and meat markets.
Perched on top of a 900 metres (3,000 feet) cliff at the edge of
the plateau above Mecca, this resort town enjoys a milder climate
than much of the country and was for a long time the official summer
It is well known for its pink palaces and for the astounding modern
corniche road that winds down
the sheer cliffs of the Taif escarpment to the hot coastal plain.
Other significant towns in the
Hejaz include Hanakiyah, Khaybar, Usta, Wadi Fatima and Yanbu.
The Asir (Southern Region)
A range of coastal mountains and
the only part of the kingdom where there is important wild vegetation,
mostly palms and evergreen bushes. Millet, wheat and dates are grown
using largely customary methods.
The inhabitants of the southern region are darker than other Saudis,
being in part descended from African slaves.
Baboon, leopard, gazelle, honey badger, mongoose and other ‘African’
species inhabit remoter areas. Unique to Asir are the ancient gasaba
towers, phallus shaped and of unknown purpose.
Places to visit include the ancient caravan
city of Qaryat-al-Fau, which is currently being
excavated. The great dam and temple at Najran, and amidst orchards
of pomegranates, limes and bananas, the complex ruins of the ancient
cities of Timna and Shiban.