A tour of an ancient land in the 21st century

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Artichokes, watermelon, pomegranates, oranges, lemons, limes, figs, spinach and eggplants, olive and date palms are some of the many crops grown in the gardens in the middle of downtown Abha. Some of the harvest from this riverbed ended up in the Tuesday Market, an open-air souk. Photo by Fahad Al Megbel.

There are mountains, beaches, grasslands and forests. Let alone the largest sand sea in the world. It has a human history that stretches back in time more than 7000 years.

I have travelled several times to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as the executive vice president at the Huntsman Cancer Foundation.

When Saudi Arabia opened its doors in 2019 and actively started encouraging tourism as part of its Vision 2030 strategic initiative, I wanted to return.

I went to Southwest Arabia – The Asir Region. This time as a tourist, with the intention of photographing and writing about my experience.

Saudi Arabia is approximately the size of France, Spain, Germany, Italy, United Kingdom (twice), Greece, and Portugal combined. In reference to the United States, its land area is roughly equal to all states east of the Mississippi River.

Asir has a short border with Yemen and a coastline on the Red Sea. The Hijaz Mountain range runs north to south, parallel to the southwestern coast of Saudi Arabia. It is the fourth largest region in Saudi Arabia, encompassing four thousand villages with more than 2.2 million residents. Asir is the size of Austria.

It’s spring in Southwest Saudi Arabia, and green buds are popping on the bushes. Bougainvillea of all colors thrive. Almond and cherry trees are in bloom.

The government has planted more than 25,000 jacaranda trees in Abha. Jacarandas are to Saudi Arabia what cherry trees are to Washington D.C. Jacaranda trees are native to south-central South America and do very well in the Asir climate. It has a mild climate and usually rains on a daily basis in the spring and weekly in the summer.

Families under the jacaranda trees. Photo by Salah Al Garni

When I arrived in Abha, “The High City,” I reached out to my colleague at the National Council on US-Arab Relations. His brother, HRH Prince Turki Bin Talal Al Saud, is the governor of the Asir Region.

That evening I met the Governor at his forest camp.

Our seats were draped in sheepskins. The design of the seating was a traditional sturdy red triangular pattern. The tent was lined in black goat hair. Rugs covered the sand. The tent was warmed by tables holding long-burning smokeless tube-shaped charcoal. Greetings. Meetings. Dinner. And an invitation to return to lunch the following day.

My shoes outside the tent.

I met the Prince and his family back at his forest camp. I greeted them with my right hand on my heart. In turn, each put their hand on their heart. A slight bow of the head. Tradition.

The Arab region drove humanity’s scientific progress for centuries. They contributed significantly to many fields of science such as mathematics, astronomy, navigation, medicine, geometry, physics, and optics. This is part of their remarkable heritage. From coffee and algebra to guitars and universities. Let alone the legendary hospitality of the Arab culture … and the delicious food.

The Prince wanted to take me and his family around the region. Several SUVs kept up with us.
Prince Turki Bin Talal with Paige Peterson.

As we curled around ancient back roads, the Prince would stop and talk to people. Most knew him. He introduced himself  —  simply, as Turki Bin Talal — without pretense. “How are you?” he asked. “Is there anything I can do for you?” “Is there anything I can help you with?” They approached the side window without hesitation.

The Prince talked to this boy who was clad in his farwah (coat) to keep him warm.
The thrill of seeing the Prince was evident on this young entrepreneur’s face. We bought tea and he served us all.
This lady was explaining something.
This gentleman told the Prince about a family member’s illness.

Long after the sunset, we made our way back to the camp. It was cold. I covered myself with sheepskin. The Prince worked on his phone. His family gathered around him.

Tables of hot charcoal were brought in to warm the tent. Tea was delivered and served.
Tent in the forest camp.

During the next several days, I was driven around the region of Asir. I could have driven. Women are now allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. I asked another driver how long she had been driving. “Thirty years! Only two of them legally!” she winked with a smile and slyly sped off.

I walked the pathways through the gardens in the middle of downtown Abha. Well organized and beautifully maintained by what appeared to be several gardeners. Some of the harvest from this riverbed ended up in the Tuesday Market, an open-air souk.

Artichokes, watermelon, pomegranates, oranges, lemons, limes, figs, spinach and eggplants, olive and date palms are some of the many crops.

I visited Tuesday Market (Souq Al Thulathaá): Traditional markets/souks sell basil, mint, jasmine, and anise. They sell local herbs, spices, flowers, and vegetables. Oud, incense and myrrh. Traditional clothes, household items. These riverbed gardens have sustained the city of Abha for millennia. Tradition.

The Flowerman Festival celebrates the ancient tradition of wearing garlands. Flowermen crown their heads with flowers and herbs. Many women create and sell the flower crowns in the streets and souks.

This gentleman shows us modern Saudi attire thobe, ghutra and agal (robe, headdress and cord) with his friend in Flowerman attire. These garlands are made of a combination of herbs, wild basil, grass, flora, marigold, and jasmine. The headpieces are worn for the sake of beauty and health. Many vintage American cars are displayed in rural private museums open to the public.

We arranged a picnic in Prince Sultan bin Adbulaziz Park with Abha native Dr. Raniah Al Mufarreh. Raniah is an Assistant Professor of Linguistics at King Khalid University. She received her Masters and PhD from the University of Florida in Gainesville. A large majority of the Saudi men and women I met had degrees of higher education from schools outside of the Kingdom giving them a broader perspective and globalized worldview. There are many woman occupying the high ground in companies, education and in government.

Many entrepreneurial women make and sell homemade food. We dined on kabsah, okra edam and sambosah.

If I was not wearing a hijab (headcover), I wore a ballcap. I chose to cover my head out of respect, although it is not required and neither is an abaya (robe.) You can wear anything you want.

Abu Sarrah Palace is located in the middle of the Azizah Village in Asir. The traditional palace is nearly 220 years old.

A breezeway connecting the two palaces.
Abdulrahman Abu Sarrah, the sixth generation in the palace, with Paige Peterson
On the ground floor of the palace there is a wooden gate that once kept camels and cattle from climbing the stairs.
This stamp translates to “May Allah ease everything.”
Turrets on the roof of the palace.

Am Dahdooh lives in the small village of Tanoomah. Am means Uncle. He is called Am because he has been like an Uncle to his entire village.

Am Dahdooh is brewing freshly ground Saudi coffee. His tent is covered with traditional carpets. The walls are decorated with al-qatt (graphic designs.) The scent of oud — warm, smoky and ancient — filled the air. Many tents now have televisions broadcasting worldwide news programs.

Am Dahdooh and his son enjoy welcoming visitors, offering them coffee, butter, dates, and sweet bread. Dr. Uhood Alshehri and her daughter joined me. And Uhood does not cover her face. Covering is her choice. In our presence, her daughter chose not to cover her head or face. We were all wearing abayas.

Across the street in Am Dahdooh’s home his daughter and wife bestowed upon me this lovely ritualistic custom. Wearing the black scarf means you are married. Orange — you are single.

The following day, Am Dahdooh (above right) paid a visit to his friend Prince Turki Bin Talal at the Prince’s palace in Abha. In 1950, there was no road to Dahdooh’s mountain village. He visited each village, meeting with the heads of the tribes. They organized villagers to jointly construct a road, mostly with their hands. Over several weeks, their roads converged. The new road allowed trucks to drive to the villages, delivering food, water, supplies, building materials, and more. Dahdooh had come to the palace to ask the Prince if he could arrange to have the road paved in his lifetime. The Prince wrote a memo that the road would be reviewed for a possible upgrade. Politics is personal in the Kingdom. Tradition.

The crescent moon on top of a traditional Asiri mosque.
Traditional mud houses in the Al Bastah district are under restoration.
Slate extends from the mud houses to protect the structures from harsh summer rains.

The Sarawat Mountain peaks reach 7,500 feet (approximately 2,250 meters) above sea level. Asir means ‘difficult’ in Arabic, reflecting the challenge involved in crossing the mountains. It is this remoteness that has helped preserve the distinctive cultural heritage of the region.

We stopped by the Aljhali Museum. Al qatt (graphic designs) decorates the walls inside traditional houses. Women paint these graphic shapes in traditional colors. Each village has its own unique designs.

Henna finger tips are an old-world sign of beauty.

A private museum open to the public.
The proprietor in front of his portrait as a younger man.
Al Sahab Park (Clouds Park) is one of the highest peaks in Asir.
Top of the mountain.

Yes, troops of baboons live in the mountains. They are socially sophisticated and have complex family systems. They are over populated at this point mainly because their natural predators, Arabian Leopards, are now nearly extinct.

I am on HRH Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud’s board of Catmosphere.org, an organization that reintroduces cats into their native environments — keeping nature’s balance. HRH is the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States.

Rijal Village is the capital of the Rijal Almaa Province. Rijal Alma literally means “the brightest men.” This is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Lying along a natural corridor linking Yemen and the Levant to Mecca and Medina made it an important regional commercial center.

There is a rich history here. In 1825, Asir tribes defeated a Turkish army of 50,000 and forced them to sign a treaty granting Asir independence from the Ottoman Empire. The agreement was the first of its kind in the Arabian Peninsula.

The gingerbread village in southern Saudi Arabia.
The village is more than 900 years old and consists of 60 multi-story buildings from natural stone, clay, and wood.
All of the forts are still kept in ownership by the original families.
I love how the buildings cascade down the mountain.
Covid regulations.

Not far from the UNESCO World Heritage site is the Bees Tower Honey Refinery.

Honey is deeply rooted in the culture and trade. It is one of the most popular products from the Kingdom’s southern highlands. Artisanal honey is held in high regard and considered medicinal. The local honey of the southwest has many varieties, the most famous being Sidr honey. It is an essential part of the breakfast ritual for many Saudis.

Methods of beekeeping and honey production vary between hobby and commercial purposes. Some beekeepers create special hives in backyards, parks, and near their homes and farms. Along the mountain roads, beehives are set up in numbers from a dozen to hundreds. The projects hope to promote the culture of beekeeping in the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 plan to diversify the labor market.

Oven-baked bread called Khobz Al Tannour is a popular street food. Dough with cumin and sesame seeds is padded down with sharp cheddar cheese piled high before being folded over.

It was so delicious I ate the entire thing!

Talal Maddah was a popular Saudi musician and composer. He died suddenly on stage in August 2000 at the Al Muftahah Theater. In 2019, the Minister of Culture renamed the 3800-seat theater Talal Maddah Theater in his honour.

A fog floating over the mountains highlights the bright lights of a vibrant young coffeehouse culture night life.

View from Abha Sky Park.

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