Saudi Arabia Tour Guide: The South-West

Saudi Arabia Tour Guide: The South-West Last updated on Sunday 25th April 2010

The Asir, as the south-western corner of the Kingdom is known, is an area where there are mountains, rainy weather, green landscapes and life without air-conditioning.

The mountains of the Asir are part of the same geological fault as the Great Rift Valley in Africa. The highest point in Saudi Arabia is Jebel Soudah, reaching a peak at 2910 metres near Abha, the administrative centre of the region.

Probably one of the earliest mentions of the area is that of the Roman general, Aelius Gallus, who was sent in 25BC to conquer the south Arabian incense-producing regions that are today in Yemen and Oman. His troops moved along the main caravan route that was east of the Asir mountains. They conquered Najran, about 280km east of Abha, but failed to reach the incense areas. A lack of water forced them to turn back at Ma'rib in Yemen.

Until King Abdul Aziz conquered it in 1922, Asir was an independent kingdom. Because of its location, Asir has always had close ties with Yemen and this is reflected not only in the customs of the people but also in their architecture. The most distinctive feature are the shingles protruding from the sides of the houses; they deflect rain away from the mud walls of the buildings.

Abha is the capital of the Asir and its cool weather, mountains and beautiful scenery make it a popular weekend resort. Within Abha itself, there is the Shada Palace, built in 1927 as an office/residence for King Abdul Aziz's governors. After being restored, it was reopened as a museum in 1987. It is open from Saturday to Thursday from 9am to 1pm and from 4pm to 7pm. Admission is free.

Abha's weather is cool -- air-conditioning is virtually never needed -- the hills are covered with trees and the mountain scenery is spectacular. Just outside Abha is the Inter-Continental Hotel which operates tours throughout the area, including one to Asir National Park, Najran and the Red Sea Coast.

The Asir National Park is an enormous tract of land stretching from the Red Sea to the desert east of the mountains. It is in fact a series of small non-contiguous parks with each one having its own camping ground and picnic area. The park falls naturally into two parts: the plains to the south-east of Abha and the mountains to the north-west.

About 280km east of Abha is Najran (pictured), one of the most interesting and least visited towns in the Kingdom. Close to the Yemeni border, it extends along the Wadi Najran and has been inhabited for about 4,000 years, most of that time spent as an important trading centre. The Yemeni cultural influence is very strong here both in architecture and in attitudes.

Najran was the last important stop on the frankincense route before the caravans took either the eastern or western route. (The frankincense route was the ancient caravan route from the incense-producing areas of southern Arabia up through modern-day Saudi Arabia and into Jordan, Syria, Egypt and the whole Mediterranean basin.)

Najran's most prosperous trading time was during the first and second centuries BC when it was known as Al-Ukhdood. It was known by this name when the Roman general Aelius Gallus captured it in 24BC. Around the year 250BC, the area came under the control of the Himyarites. During their ascendancy, the people were converted to Christianity, which ultimately yielded to Islam in AD630/631.

The Turks were interested in Najran because of its crucial location and they formed an alliance with the leading tribe of the area, the Yam. In the middle of the 17th century, however, the Yam switched their allegiance to the Zaidi imam in Yemen. For the next several hundred years, it was a border area in dispute between the rulers of Yemen and Asir.

In 1934 the soldiers of King Abdul Aziz took control of the city and subsequent to that, the Yemeni imam relinquished his claim to control of Najran as part of the peace treaty which ended the 1934 Saudi-Yemeni war.

There is a fort in Najran, the well of which is said to date from pre-Islamic times. The present fort dates only from 1942 but it does contain some of the most beautiful carved windows and doors, very colourful examples of this traditional Arabian art form.

Najran also has one of the Kingdom's newest and best museums. Admission is free and it is open Saturday to Wednesday from 8.30am to 2pm. It is in front of the ancient site of Al-Ukhdood, which was inhabited for some 1,500 years, from 500BC through to the 10th century AD.

West of Abha on the tropical Red Sea coast is the town of Jizan, a hot and humid town which, like Najran, only came under Saudi control in the 1930s. There is an interesting traditional souk in Jizan. Jizan is today a developing port.

About 330 miles east of Najran is the town of Sharourah. There is little to see in the town itself, which was originally a remote well known only to a few Bedouin. The trip to Sharourah is indeed spectacular including a drive of some 100km through sand dunes rising to heights of more than 100m on each side of he road. This is the Empty Quarter of legend and is well worth the trip for those interested in seeing unspoiled desert scenery.

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