Saudi Arabia Tour Guide: The Western Region

Saudi Arabia Tour Guide: The Western Region Last updated on Sunday 25th April 2010

As far as non-Muslims are concerned, Jeddah is the most important city of Saudi Arabia's western region, known as the Hijaz.

Jeddah is by far the most cosmopolitan city in the Kingdom, hardly surprising when you realize it has been the main port for Makkah since early Islamic times. Indeed, until well into the twentieth century thousands of pilgrims arrived at Jeddah seaport annually as the first step on their trip to Makkah and Madinah.

The Hijaz came under nominal Turkish control in the 16th century, though local rulers kept a great deal of power and influence. The first foreign consuls arrived in Jeddah in the first half of the nineteenth century. King Abdul Aziz and his troops took control of the city in 1925 and afterwards, foreign representatives to his court lived in Jeddah rather than Riyadh. The embassies remained in Jeddah until the mid-1980s when they were all transferred to the Diplomatic Quarter in Riyadh. Nonetheless, there are still a large number of foreign consulates in Jeddah as the city retains its importance as the commercial capital of the Kingdom and it is, of course, the main port of entry for the millions of pilgrims who visit the Holy Cities each year.

Most of Jeddah's historic sites are along the old city walls, which were demolished, in the late 1940s. The old city (pictured) is now a protected urban area in which buildings cannot be torn down unless they are absolutely beyond repair and, if they are torn down, they must be replaced with something of similar size and architectural style. Within the old city, many of the traditional houses are built of coral, taken from reefs in the Red Sea.

Within the old city, there is the Sharbatly House and the Naseef House. These are two old houses, the traditional homes of two of Jeddah's merchant families and both have been restored to their original state.

The Municipality Museum is opposite the National Commercial Bank headquarters in the old city. It is the only remaining building of several which comprised the British Legation in Jeddah during World War I. The museum is open in the mornings from Saturday to Thursday; admission is free but a permit from the Jeddah Municipality is required (telephone: +966 2 669-5556 or 660-7671). Once the permit has been granted, it is still necessary to make an appointment with the curator of the museum.

There is a Christian cemetery in Jeddah in a street in the old city named the "Street of the Cemetery of the Foreigners". It is no longer in use and the last burial had taken place in the early 1950's, but is kept up in turn by several of the foreign consulates in the city. It is walled and there is a large gate, but can be peered into from some of the buildings surrounding it.

Al-Balad district of Jeddah is a historic area. Houses have been reconstructed as they were 100 years ago and it is an interesting area to walk through and observe. These houses, which have been restored and are open to tourists, belong to various old Jeddah families.

About 70km east of Jeddah is the Holy City of Makkah where the Prophet was born in the 6th century AD. He began to preach in Makkah and it was to Makkah that he returned shortly before his death in AD632. Makkah and its environs are strictly off-limits to non-Muslims and there are checkpoints on the roads leading into the city.

Makkah is Islam's holiest city and it is to Makkah that all devout Muslims dream of coming at least once (the hajj) in their lifetime. The centre of the city is the Grand Mosque and the sacred Well of Zamzam beside it. The Kaa'ba to which all Muslims turn when they pray is in the central courtyard of the Grand Mosque and, according to Islamic tradition, it was built by the first prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael.

In the mountains above Makkah and Jeddah is the town of Taif. Its elevation gives it a climate far cooler and pleasanter than either Jeddah or Makkah and without the uncomfortable humidity of the former. Many families from both Jeddah and Riyadh maintain houses in Taif as an escape from the uncomfortable summers in those two cities.

Taif became a part of modern Saudi Arabia in 1924 when the soldiers of King Abdul Aziz took the city. Most recently, Taif was the seat of Kuwait's government-in-exile during the Iraqi occupation of that country in 1990-91. It is also well-known as a producer of high quality attar-of-roses from its roses, which have a particularly sweet fragrance.

There is a museum in the city in the Shubra Palace, open only on Thursday from 9am to 7pm.

Madinah is the holiest city in Islam after Makkah and was in fact the first to accept the Prophet's message. The Prophet fled to the city, then called Yathrib, from Makkah in AD622. (The Islamic calendar dates from His flight to Madinah.) The most important place in the city is the Prophet's Mosque, which contains His burial place. Everything of historical or religious significance is within the precincts forbidden to non-Muslims, although the outskirts of the city and the airport are open to all.

Located several hundred kilometres north of Madinah is the ancient -- and now uninhabited -- city of Madain Salih (pictured). It is the best known and the most spectacular archaeological site in Saudi Arabia. During its prime, it was an important stop on the caravan routes from the incense-producing areas of southern Arabia to Syria, Egypt, Byzantium and other points. The immense stone tombs, which have made it famous, were carved between 100BC and 100AD and the city itself was the second city in the Nabataean Empire, after Petra in modern-day Jordan.

The ruins at Madain Salih are in fact better preserved than those at Petra in Jordan, because of the hardness of the local stone. The Nabataeans became rich through their control of the incense route and their charging caravans tolls of up to 25%. They entered a decline in the first century AD when the Romans realized that the incense could be loaded onto ships and taken to Egypt. Less expensive items continued to move along the route and it was never totally abandoned. In Islamic times, the pilgrim route from Damascus to Makkah passed through Madain Salih.

For those who want to visit Madain Salih, a great deal of bureaucratic bother and hassle can be avoided by booking a tour through the Madinah Sheraton. Both the hotel and the airport are on the outskirts of the city and so are open to non-Muslims.

The hotel's tour is a weekend one -- covering arrival at the hotel on Wednesday evening with a slide presentation. The trip to Madain Salih with a guide begins on the Thursday at 6.30am, and returns to the hotel in the evening. Friday is a free day and the price of around SR700 or SR750 includes the trip to the site, two nights at the hotel, all meals from dinner on Wednesday evening to lunch on Friday and airport transfers.

Normally the hotel needs three weeks to arrange the tour, which is for groups of 10 or more and which only operate when there are enough people. To contact the hotel, telephone +966 4 823-30240 or fax +966 4 825-1628 and speak to the sales department.

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