Spring Break 2015 Vol. 3: The Continuing Adventures in Al Ula (pt.2)

This story picks up on day 2 after a quick stop for lunch.
If you missed the first part of the day, check out Spring Break 2015 Vol.2

plus see the full photo albums for the Dadan and the Dinner as well as for Old Town and the scenic sunset on my facebook page ūüôā

The Dadan

Unless you’re up on your Bible study, this tribe may not be familiar to you. I actually didn’t know about it at all until we visited the site, and I had to do a fair amount of digging to get any information at all online. The Dedanites were an older version of the Lihyanites, and are basically only mentioned in the Bible and obscure archaeological texts. If anyone reading this knows more sources, I’d love to see them in the comments.

Mr. Fayez told us that the Dadan predate the Nabateans (seems to be true) and that their habit of carving tombs into the rocks was the inspiration for the necropolis at Madain Saleh. However, little else seems to be known about them, probably again from the complete lack of archaeological study in the Arabian Peninsula before the late King Abdullah. Inshallah, one day we may know more.

Like everywhere around Al Ula, the landscape was striking with huge jutting rocks and rich native greenery. In addition, the Dadan ruins were in the midst of several date palm farms, adding extra green to the scenery. The colors in the bright afternoon were stunning: dark green palms, red rocks and sand, and a deep blue sky with streaks of white clouds. The heat was intense in the late afternoon. Nothing, I’m sure, compared with the summer, but it made me glad that I had chosen to come in February because I simply could not imagine being outdoors in the late afternoon in a warmer month. The sun is simply scorching!

From a distance, Mr. Fayez pointed out some faint dots on one of the high rocks and told us those were the Lion Tombs of the Dadan, and that we were going to walk up to them.

IMG_1147Once again, my shoes filled up with sand as we trekked to the base of the towering rock and then up the stairs that had been added later for the benefit of tourists. Indradeb gave up once he got close enough for his zoom lens to capture the tombs, but I persisted in spite of the heat, and once more found myself face to face with history, my fingers tracing the outlines of ancient carvings left for thousands of years. The climb in my black abaya in the afternoon sun was intense, but worth it.

The lions were quite simple, and there were no pillars on the doorways of the tombs, but it was fairly obvious that the style had inspired the necropolis at Madain Saleh. And the view from the top that took in the entire landscape we had traversed to reach them was breathtaking.

After climbing back down, we drove a short distance (thankful now for the cooler full of cold water and juice that had seemed unnecessary in the cool morning) to the ruins of a village that was in the process of being excavated. IMG_1181Archaeologists don’t work all the time in Saudi. In fact, there don’t seem to be any native Saudi teams at all, only teams of foreigners who come in to the country for a few weeks at a time to dig and catalog what they can before returning to their own countries to analyze it. However, the stakes and strings were still in place, and the village was clearly in the process of being uncovered.

IMG_1189I walked to the edge of one hole and was able to see down into what had been a building of some sort. The village well was fully uncovered in the center, and off to one side, there was a thick round stone that bore similar chisel marks that I had seen in the tombs. The stone would have been used for grinding grain.

When I was a kid, Indiana Jones seemed like the coolest job ever, and although after discovering that real archaeology meant hours in the dust and sun sifting pottery shards I decided maybe it wasn’t the career for me, I’ve never really lost my love of ancient cultures. I feel in many ways like we are isolated from these discoveries because we only see them in photos or behind glass in museums. I understand the absolute importance of studying and preserving these things, but¬†damn it’s cool to come face to face with them in such an authentic environment.

Old Town

Having completed our tour of the ancient civilizations, Mr. Fayez wanted to show off the history of his hometown a little bit. Al Ula has obviously been inhabited for a really long time, but the modern Arabs who have become Saudis have a history too.

One of the things I think I will always be grateful to King Abdullah for is his encouragement of history and archaeology. I saw too often in China where people had lost their history after the Cultural Revolution and had to rebuild ancient sites from a few scattered notes and drawings, and it was sad. The strict form of Islam that Saudi was founded with was not particularly interested in any history other than that directly related to Islam, and even then, they were less interested in good historical investigation and preservation than with the production of hagiographies.

I had read several books on Saudi before coming here and was generally advised that any and all archaeology didn’t exist here. Ilhamdulilah this isn’t true. There was the beautiful museum in Riyadh, and I met a whole team of British archaeologists in the airport once on their way to a historical site near Tabuk. Madain Saleh and the old souk Al Balad in Jeddah have both been declared UNESCO World Heritage sites and the Saudis are starting to take some serious pride in their whole history.

And so it is that that the “old town” of Al Ula is being slowly reclaimed and restored from the dust.

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Like so much in Saudi, the influx of oil money caused a great expansion and building of infrastructure. New town Al Ula is modern and comfortable with many public services, parks, recreation areas and a bustling if small souk (shopping) area. But families living there can trace their roots to the the small collection of stone and mud buildings in Old Town, and some of them decided to restore the little village. The process isn’t yet complete, so we were able to see the slow changes.

IMG_1195The whole town in enclosed in a wall, the gates to which were closed up at night for safety against raiders. The Arabian peninsula was a very violent place until the last several decades. The houses were build with shared walls between them and the streets were covered by a roof made of whole palm trunks thatched with palm fronds and covered in mud. This kept the sun out of the town making it a cool refuge in the heat of the day. In fact, I noticed it right away when we stepped though the gate that the temperature inside the village was lower than merely standing in shadow outside it. It was like stepping into a cave.

IMG_1208We saw a mixture of original and restored in doors, walls, ceilings and steps. There was even a house that had some relics of tightly woven date frond floor mats and an old metal storage box. It’s very likely that some of the older folks in Al Ula had actually lived in these houses before the oil money came in and the new town was built up. Mr. Fayez told us that he learned most of the history of the town from his grandmother who had seen it change so much.

IMG_1222The old town also boasted a stone watchtower, built on one of the natural rock formations that overlooked the whole area and would have allowed them to see any danger long before it reached the walls. From this vantage point we could clearly see the progress of the houses that had been fully rebuilt and the ones that were still waiting for attention.

Change of Plans at the Viewing Platform

At this point, my guide, Mr. Fayez, had to leave me and drive my co-explorer for the day back to Madina. Indradeb was actually enjoying his last day in Saudi Arabia and should be back in England even as I am writing this. (waves!) However, not to be a bad guide, Mr. Fayez had arranged for a friend of his to continue the remainder of my tour and make sure that I got to the airport safely. His friend happened to be a member of the Police Intelligence whose name I shall not be sharing out of respect.

So we drove back to the hotel where I once again tried to divest my shoes and socks of sand and enjoyed a brief cup of Turkish coffee in the courtyard before setting off for the final stop on my tour. Little did I know that my day’s adventure had so much more in store for me.

The officer was plain clothes, dressed in a traditional Saudi thobe and shemagh. He didn’t speak much English, possibly even less than I speak Arabic at this point, but we managed to have a sort of conversation on the drive out with our limited vocabulary and some charades. He was actually very open minded and well traveled and quite pleasant company. I hope that he’s a good example of Saudi police, but honestly he’s the only one I’ve ever talked to, so I have no way of knowing.

When we reached the last stop, a very high peak overlooking the whole town of Al Ula, we were right behind another tour group that we’d passed a couple times throughout the day. In fact, it was the same group we’d talked to at Madain Saleh. The lady worked at the Swedish Embassy in Riyadh and her husband was one of the few male dependent spouses among the expat community. Her parents had come in on a family visa for a visit. (Apparently it’s easy enough to get visitor visas for parents, but not for siblings, so Mom, Dad, lemme know if you wanna come visit).

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We had come to the site to overlook the city and all the places we’d been during the day and to get a great view of the sunset. Their tour guide exchanged idle ribbing with my escort, teasing him that police officers were becoming tour guides now. The Sweds and I chatted idly about our experiences in Saudi and for the day’s tour as we snapped photos and waited for the sun to paint the sky. We were not disappointed.

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Dinner in the Desert

As I mentioned before there are only a few flights in and out of Al Ula every week, so they were heading out on the same evening flight as I was. We thought we were parting ways until the airport, but their tour guide told me that they were all heading to a Bedouin dinner in the desert before the flight and I was welcome to come along. Since it wasn’t even 6pm and the flight was at 10pm, I said sure.

So we piled into the cars and drove back out to the cliffs of Madain Saleh. While we couldn’t enter the historical site at night, we pulled off right across the road and went up a small hill toward some more stunning giant rocks that had been light from below with electric lights. There was a Bedouin tent set up with carpets inside and a fire crackling. We took a little while to explore the rocks, finding a little stairway that led up to another viewing platform, then returned to the tent for hot sweet tea and dates while we waited for dinner.

The dinner was a home cooked meal made by some of the local ladies, traditional foods like kabsa and jareesh and kofta and tabuleh and sambosa (yum). However it was also substantially late. Our poor guides were beside themselves since they had expected the food to be waiting for us when we arrived and it didn’t show up until after 8pm! Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue, but they were especially worried that we wouldn’t make it to the airport. I can’t say that they would have been so worried if half of the guests weren’t carrying diplomatic passports, but regardless they were quite vigilant that we catch our flight.

While we were waiting for our meal, we found out that the French Cultural Attache had been misplaced. He was in town visiting the French archaeologist at the dig site in Madain Saleh, but no one could find him and his phone seemed to have gone dead or been turned off. My ersatz guide began making phone calls to the town police to set up a search party. No one likes to loose diplomats.

After a long day of walking and hiking, we set to the food with a will when it did arrive. I don’t think the lack of time to eat was actually an issue since we were all quite hungry and ate with what can only be described as gusto. The food was also excellent. I feel like its a real shame that younger Saudi women aren’t learning how to make these dishes because I fear the cuisine may be lost.

Their version of kabsa was especially nice. The traditional cardamom spiced rice had been augmented with a mixture of caramelized onions and sultanas and the chicken was both sweet and savory. Jareesh is going to be one of my favorite foods forever now, even though I know I won’t be able to eat it in America (silly Monsanto wheat!). This one was so creamy and rich I could only eat a tiny bowl but it was amazing! The kofta meatballs were huge and made of a velvety texture that only the best meatballs ever achieve, soaking in a spiced broth that was ideal to slurp up with the broken up kofta. The tabuleh salad was cool and had fresh greens and a light tahini taste and the sambosa were quite generous as well, filled with spiced meat and chopped vegetables. I didn’t try the okra stew, since I’m not a huge okra fan and all the other foods were so delicious.

That One Time I Helped Rescue the French Cultural Attache (ok, so that may be a tiny exaggeration, but it sounds cooler this way!)

After dinner we quickly reshod our feet and hied back to the cars to get to the airport on time. There was still no sign of the missing diplomat, but there wasn’t really anything I could do, so I watched the traffic and the clock, hoping that if we were late for check in at the airport my police escort might help smooth my way.

Then the officer escorting me got a phone call and pulled over behind the vehicle in front of us. It turned out that one of his officers had found the Frenchman (Cyrille is his name) and we were stopping to pick him up and add him to our airport caravan. Cyrill hopped in the backseat quite flustered and two things soon became apparent: 1) Cyrill spoke¬†no Arabic, and 2) he’d lost his passport sometime during the day.

He told me that he had a strong interest in history and archaeology (a Ph.D worth of interest to be precise) and that in addition to visiting his country’s resident archaeologist, he’d been doing some exploring on his own when his car became lodged in a sand dune. The sand out here is tricky. One moment it’s packed like a dirt road and the next its a shifting sliding slog. The two don’t always look different either, a fact I’d noticed on previous outings off road in the Kingdom.

While he was stuck only 5-6km from the hotel, it was an unpleasant terrain and on top of that his cell phone battery had died! He had been rescued by some people passing by (another testament to the hospitality and the power of charades) and driven back to the hotel by them where he was able to then get yet more folks to come and help him dig his car out. In the ensuing confusion, however, he’d left his camera bag (with diplomatic passport) in the car of the first helpful group.

Most unusually, I had been seated in the front of the officers car while he drove me around, figuring that no one was going to stop us and ask for papers since he¬†was the police. (it’s not ok for me to do this normally, only wives or relatives can sit up front with the male drivers). And when Cyrill saw me communicating with the officer driving us, he leapt to the conclusion that I spoke Arabic and somehow I became the defacto translator between them.

Thankfully, the story of the missing passport/camera bag and some kind of vehicle description had been relayed to our escort by one of the other folks in the phone chain, because I cannot be sure I would have been able to convey all of that, but once I established that he knew what the problem was, we were able to discuss the plan of action.

To help you further understand the insanity of this situation: Our flight was at 10:20 pm. Check in for flights closes an hour before take-off. Yes, ok, I knew from previous personal experience that this wasn’t an absolute, and I was fairly sure that we could be a little late and that between the police presence and diplomatic presence, we’d be allowed to board, but it was already after 9pm at this point and both Cyrill and I were becoming a little anxious. Since he was just flying back to Riyadh, he wouldn’t need the passport to board, but then it would be lost in Al Ula, which is not what you want to take back to your Ambassador, I’m sure.

I gleaned that the plan was to have the unis track down the camera bag and bring it to us at the airport. So here’s me with something like 30-40 Arabic words to my repertoire trying to navigate the complex explanations of our host whose English parts of the explanation included “camera” and “passport” with a French diplomat relying on me to help translate his needs and concerns, and to reassure him that the passport was being recovered and we would make the flight on time. I cannot make this stuff up.

The officer had stopped several times to talk to uniformed police as we continued on our way, and we were growing increasingly anxious about the check in time. Cyrill and I continued to talk on the way, perhaps he was trying to keep his mind off the missing passport, I know I would be going nuts if I lost mine. Within a minute of the cutoff time we pulled into the airport parking lot and headed inside. Let’s check in, I told him, then we can take our time following up with the passport.

However, like so many people in the modern world, Cyrill’s flight information was safely tucked away in his phone, which was dead. Me to the rescue again with my trusty back up charger! I got this spare battery basically with solar panels and all because I thought it would be horrible to be out travelling and not able to charge my devices that I depend on for everything from music and camera to document storage, to translation dictionary. Turns out it is horrible. So I hooked up Cyrill’s phone and got him back up and running.Shortly after that the officer told me that the camera bag had been recovered and was on its way. Not surprisingly we also met the Swedish delegation at the check in counter and got to relay the whole thrilling tale to them as well.

Once the bag and passport were safely returned, we profusely thanked and bid farewell to our guide and host and gratefully flopped into the seats in the lounge to await the flight. And now I have a French diplomat in my contacts list and an invitation to whatever event happens to be going on at the Embassy the next time I’m in Riyadh, so we’ll just have to see how that pans out next month.


So that wraps up the first full day of adventures for this vacation. I don’t think it could have been any more fully packed if we’d used a prybar but it certainly was amazing and unforgettable. Some people may say tourism in Saudi isn’t worth it, but I find that every time I set out for a trip I get all that I could have dreamed and more. One of the guides told me that the reason Saudi isn’t open to tourism is because they want to finish developing all the roads and access to the tourist sites so that they can present an image that is commensurate with the country’s great wealth, but I know it won’t be the same by then and while I will always encourage others to see this country as more than the home of Osama bin Laden or the place where oil grows, ¬†I know that we will loose something if they turn all these sites into wealth-showing attractions, and I will always treasure my time here in these days of change.

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