A couple of weeks ago, the blogger was in al-Khobar. I visited Jarir Bookstore in al-Rashed Mall to look for a proper reading masterpiece but failed. My eyeballs glanced and paused at an eye catchy handbook. The handbook was about ‘Madain Saleh’ with scores of attractive pictures and detailed accounts of its history and civilization. I was already planning my expedition tours in upcoming vacations and had visited the place TWICE before but couldn’t complete the whole site in exploration within a frame of limited time. This time I attired my expeditionary vision to finish the unfinished business in the city of al-Ula where the history and ancient civilization speak and where Madain Saleh is nearly located.
I have finally taken vacations to avoid the mental adversity of working and the plan has been framed. My fellow musketeers are ready for a 2-day trip to the city of al-Ula. The chosen transport of legitimacy is my Hyundai Veloster 2014. The plan is simple and fair. We will leave our city at midnight, reach al-Ula by morning and visit a few historical sites. We will stay in a hotel till the next morning and at last visit Madain Saleh before we depart back to Jeddah.
By road, there are two ways to reach al-Ula from Jeddah. Either you reach the mark via Yanbu, with a traveling distance of 692km and reaching in approx seven and half hours if driven at an average of 120kph, OR you chose to reach the destiny via Madinah, with a traveling distance of 750km and reaching in approx eight and half hours at the same average speed. The choice is yours, just set the navigation and choose the route which eases you more. I preferred the Yanbu one.
Driving at 120kph, things didn’t look normal to me in the long run. My hand palms were tickling to press the accelerator hard and cross the limit. I knew that Saher ‘the vehicle speed detector’ was installed in our way but where exactly? I guess we crossed the Saher and I should break the 120kph barrier. So once I increased the speed to 140kph, Mr. Saher welcomed me for a photoshoot -_- FML!
Our destiny forwarded towards the beautiful night view of Petro Rabigh and further on the Yanbu Industrial area where the immense use of lighting in an absolutely dark night attracts. We stopped by a side to take pictures of Yanbu factories.
Another embarrassing moment almost to happen was that my car began losing all its petrol. We had crossed more than 300km and realized that something conjured my understanding that I will regularly find petrol stations. I was trolled by a huge absence of the stations and speed from 160kph was brutally cut to 40kph at around 5am. The weather was cold and pleasant, the temperature dropped from 27 to 19 degrees Celsius, but our blood temperature almost broke the mercury.
At the last hiccup, we finally saw a closed station on the opposite road with a masjid and store. It was Fajr prayer by then. The temperature had further dropped to 14 degrees Celsius. One musketeer slept in the car and the other decorated the dinner at the engine of the car. We had butter chicken and a packet of bread to eat. Two more guests joined and waited for their turn with shivering meows to grab the attention. The petrol was filled and ran towards destiny.
The sun rose, street lights got off, beautiful landscapes brought freshness to me and the mountains as usual touched the heights of the sky. A lone warrior ran towards the mark early in the morning with unwelcomed speed breakers at the entry of each small town and village. Shops began to open. The smoke revealed from the laundry shop, customers were seated in the cafeteria and ful tamiz (fava beans and Afghani bread) shop, the salon opened with the barbers sitting on customer seats watching TV, septuagenarian Yemenis and Egyptians sat on their bamboo beds and goats ate grass.
We now have entered the city. Let me brief you about al-Ula. The city is in Saudi Arabia’s northwestern part. From Madinah, it is located north 341km far. The city is the closest to Madain Saleh (22km). Al-Ula is very much about God-gifted natural mountains. It has many sandy mountains bordering from the east such as Mount Almojder and Arezikea Mountains from the west.
Al-Ula is 825m above sea level and the climate is moderate. The temperature doesn’t rise more than 45 degrees Celsius in summer but is very cold in winters existing in December and January with a temperature of 9 degrees Celsius. The average rate of annual rainfall is 250mm.
To more attraction of interest in knowing Al-Ula, the word “Dedan” used in the Bible Old Testament is the biblical name of Al-Ula as well as used in Assyrian and Arabic writings. Dedan means ‘low ground’ and people belonging to Dedan were called Dedanites. In Bible, if you read all 36 verses of The Book of Ezekiel – Chapter 27, you will understand that the chapter was about the roster of trading routes and partners of the city of Tyre. Tyre is modern Lebanon and Dedan were their trading partners dealing in precious clothes used in the chariot as referred in verse no.20.
If you visit Madain Saleh and ancient historical places, there is a huge probability of confusion over the mentioned Kingdoms in very informative plates installed on the sites i.e. Lehyanites, Dedanites, and Nabateans. Let me try to clear the confusion which I suffered the same in my own primary attempts at research. Actually, the Kingdoms of Leyanites (Lihyans) and Dedanites (Dedan) are the two who ruled the city as Lihyans were the original settlers to Al-Ula. According to Arab genealogists, the Lihyan tribe are from the Adnanite Arabs (west and central Arabians and opposers of Qahtanites of south Arabian) from Ismail. This tribe is still surviving, settled in the desert between Makkah and Madinah.
This ancient city was the capital of the Kingdoms of Dedan and Lihyan from the 6th to the 2nd century BC. From the 2nd century BC, the Nabateans took charge of the city until 106 AD when the Romans conquered their capital, Petra. So the Nabateans made Hegra (the modern Madain Saleh) their second capital and we musketeers first stepped to the oldest town of the city before booking a room in the hotel.
Like I said before, this is the 3rd time I traveled to this city for research and exploration which has become my passion to know what lies beneath the country where I was born. The significance of traveling by road towards the city is rare and strange mountains. Your eyes are always forced to stare at them. Most of the mountains are of unusual shapes. I am precisely not into orology and due to the fact I have no words to describe the nature of mountains. I didn’t even know if I am supposed to feel blessed or on contrary, considering the wrath of Allah with the understanding that a sound wave struck the region by Allah on the idol-worshipers of Thamud region according to the Holy Quran?
The plan to first check in the hotel was abrupted as the old al-Ula town known as Deira District appeared on the screen first. So we made up our minds to explore the world of Deira and then move to a hotel.
So what is all about Deira. This Deira district (which was once a city) is nearly 700 years old. According to Wikipedia sources, “The city of Deira was built with the re-usage of stones of the Dedan and Lihyan ruins. al-Ula now became the major settlement of the region again until modern times. A railway station was built for the Hejaz Railway in 1901-08. The railway line was built through the western part of Al-Khuraiba some twelve kilometers to the north of the old medieval town which is believed to be the site of the old Dedanite and Lihyanite towns.
In the 20th century, the new town center was established beside the old town, and eventually the people left the old buildings. The last family is said to have left in 1983, while the last service in the old mosque was held in 1985. Both the ruins of the medieval town and the site of the Liyhanite settlement now lay within the limits of the modern town.”
Exploring Deira city was exactly like our trip to Thee-Ain village in Al-Baha. You may click here for the details of our trip. (http://atomic-temporary-52124787.wpcomstaging.com/2013/10/11/rocky-doodle-in-centuries-old-ville/) A very quiet place with renovation work under process. Glad to see Saudi Commission for Tourism & Antiquities working with the local contracting company for the development of cultural heritage to attract tourists and create awareness. The cement is supplied by Tabuk Cement Company.
No humans to shelter, no stopping of helter-skelter. There is easy foot stepping towards the 1st floor and ceiling in many houses. In a similar case in Thee-Ain village, ceilings are made of bamboo and juniper trees. When we entered the city and walked inside the streets, we felt a little creepy and mysterious place. Stiff walls and few small store rooms. Numerous walls are arrowed and doors are numbered. Passages are broad.
Walking through the passages and streets, I separated myself from my fellow musketeers and tried to focus on the language of the silence of a 700-year-old civilization. This place was once a trade route to Mesopotamia, Syria, and Egypt. I could listen to the truck lorries and laborers shouting, lifting heavy sacks, and shifting materials. With the understanding that it was a proper Arab community living scores of years here, this place dramatically went wild and alive. An Arab social and cultural fantasy was in front of my eyes and all of a sudden, it was ‘Sami in the Arab wonderland’.
My mind played Shayne Ward’s “Breathless”. Near my sight sat an old sexagenarian Yemeni drinking a traditional huqqa (hookah). I turned my head towards the other side. Two meters far, I saw a bamboo table decorated with a dominoes game, and two Ismaili Egyptians sat on their wooden chairs playing the game. From the door close to the game, entered a teenage boy with a wooden tray carrying traditional koshary shai (tea) and a plate of ful medames with sliced hard-boiled eggs. The boy’s friends shouted at him to join the gang who have found a snake and were eager to tease it.
My clothes got a little wet by the vapors dispatched from the garments handed by the old ladies standing on the ceiling in order to dry them. To the bottom of the very same building, oped a wooden door, and came out two young Syrian girls in their twenties in black veils going to a madrasa. One carrying school bag was plumpy but the other one was attractive with two copies in her soft hands decorated with coiled bangles. She placed the copies on her upper chest and kept an eye on me. When I gave her the same look with a paroxysm of a smile, the fatty began whispering in her ears and both laughing. That Syrian schoolgirl surely was the daughter of that old lady on the top, who caught me staring at her and all of a sudden began shouting with agony :S In a panic, I edged towards the wrong way and hit a milkman and his bicycle. I dropped my mobile and ‘Breathless’ met an end with a pin-drop silence…
In very few houses, I saw old Lihyanite and Arabic scriptures. More to a mystery was very weird looking graffitis especially star of David with a minaret :S Weapons were also graffitied on the walls. After wandering like a vagabond, I found a large wooden gate. Entered and I found a masjid. It was in extremely shattered shape. Don’t know how old was that masjid but I found a ‘Tat’ fan hanging on the ceiling.
Overall, this old town is consisted of 1032 houses and is formed of two lanes named al-Hilf and al-Shaqiq. Each house carries two storeys. Each first storey was built out of stones carried from the ancient site of al-Khuraybah and allocated to receive the guests. While every second storey was built out of mud brick and used as a living area. The whole town was designed to make the defense easy. Many houses were built attached to each other forming fortifications around the city. The town originally had fourteen gates that were opened in the morning and closed in the evening.
Al-Ula was a major station along the pilgrimage route from Damascus to Makkah. Pilgrim caravans used to halt at al-Ula in order to obtain provisions and water. Some of the pilgrims used to leave a portion of their baggage with the people of al-Ula and then collect on upon their return. Those were the golden days because one cannot expect or rely on a person you don’t know to leave his property and receive it back from him. Syrian merchants used to travel as far as al-Ula to sell supplies to pilgrims.
To be more accurate with the history, Islamic history compulsorily lies here. Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.) during his ghazwa (war fought by Prophet Muhammad S.A.W.) against Tabuk, made a temporary stay in this town and prayed in Masjid al-Izam. Izam means bones and is known due to the fact that Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.) designated mihrab using a bone.
This heritage village is not only a town of 1032 houses and a masjid from the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.)’s era. This ancient town also has a castle. The castle was built back in the 6th century BC to defend the town and was renovated many times. Lihyanite inscriptions and Nabatean coins were found in its archaeological strata. The area is 180 square meters and 45 meters high above the town level. Till 2009, it was difficult to ascend the top of the castle due to the deterioration of the stairs. Saudi Commission for Tourism & Antiquities implemented the project to restore the stairs. Now there is access to reach the top of the fort and enjoy an amazing view of the whole ancient town of al-Ula and the farms in the surroundings.
Now the castle is known as Musa bin Nusayr Fort. According to historians, the famous Islamic commander of the 7th Hijri, Musa bin Nusayr, lived and died in it. The castle has walls covered on the top surrounding the top of the mountain with openings to monitor and shoot in the wars fought in the past. Many informative plates are installed for timeline education. The water could be supplied to the castle from a well dug in the rocky area down the mountain. We found that well close to the graveyard.
It is almost 2pm here and the temperature wasn’t touching 20 degrees celsius since we arrived in the city. It was impressive and very convincing to observe that the renovation of half of the town has been almost completed. The passage and streets have been cleaned and lanterns are hung on the ceilings. Electricity work has been done and signboards are installed on the streets. In that specific half, most of the wooden doors have been closed. So in near future, I see that happening in the remaining half. We are lucky to enter the rooms and use the stairs to go to the upper floor and ceiling of many houses. We even sat on the top boundaries and also jumped on the rough surfaces. We walked on the bamboo and juniper trees used for ceilings. These exciting stunts might not happen but I am glad to see that Deira’s Old Town will be alive with a lot of tourist attractions very soon.
Off from Deira district hungry and exhausted. Time to look for a hotel and eat lunch, so we can reboot our system and hunt for more sites. To our major surprise, we have found a hotel for a day for only SAR.120!!! Gosh, rates in winter in al-Ula are cheaper than expected. About to look for food and have just found that I forgot to bring the charger for my laptop -_-
Would love to read your feedback below and you may ask me questions related to my trip. Stay tuned for the next chapter under ‘The Breezing Ula’. Until then, goodbye.
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4 thoughts on “The Breezing Ula (Part I – An Old Town)”
I love the part about decorating dinner on the car engine …Very creative Idea.
Great blog man.
Outstanding story there. What occurred after? Take care! cellulite cream
great read and love your style of writing! I am planning a trip to madain-saleh and Al’Ula and wondering if you have any must-sees? i am having trouble finding major sites on google maps! regards…
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