By Maryann Horne
Just scratch the surface. No, go on… Literally !
Less than half a minute later, a perfectly shaped seashell emerged from the rock that my daughter had cut out armed with a sharp stone. Within an hour, we had found carbonised wood, more seashells, a perfectly formed fish and pink coral. All this, in the heart of the desert.
Scratching the surface in Saudi Arabia literally means taking a long journey down one of the most fascinating and undiscovered countries and regions.
May it be archaeology, natural history, anthropology, geography or simply curiosity, Saudi Arabia has it all. It may not be signposted or available in a pocket guide book. But it is there to be discovered with a little bit of effort as history unfurls in every corner of this kingdom.
As like thousands of expat families in Riyadh, Jeddah or Khobar, the Kingdom has drawn us to deserts and shores alike. A favourite family past time has been to identify a region or site of historical interest and research it and discover it. Armed with a shovel, sometimes a camera and other times an internet search engine, every corner of the Kingdom
It’s not just us expats who seem to have found the country a treasure trove to discover. Our Saudi friends marvel at the idea that their country is opening, including to account of pre-Islamic Arabia.
In Abha, in the Asir region, we found sites of great historical significance. Habala was a village suspended against the mountain. Originally inhabited by a tribal community known as the “flower men”, it was used as a refuge aginst the Turks at the time of the Ottoman Empire.
Further north, al Balad in Jeddah is one of the most enthralling cities of the kingdom. The UNESCO heritage site is a medinah of narrow streets full of shops and mosques, open markets and old restored houses. Get lost. This medieval city wears its identity as one of the most cosmopolitan cities on earth as travellers from the four corners of the earth flock here on their way to Mecca and Medinah and have done for centuries.
Houfouf is just a train ride away in the Al Ahsa region. Also a UNESCO heritage site, it is known for its dates but also its incredible souk of al Qaisariah which to this day reminds visitors of its Ottoman origins. Al Ahsa is also perhaps the greenest areas, and its population prides itself on being the most integrated, often overlooked but never forgotten once you sample its hospitality. Nearby caves are reminders of another era.
Al Faw, close to Wadi Dawasir in the central region is another gem for any history lover. Qaryat Al Faw was the first capital of the Kindah kingdom. It is one of the most important pre-Islamic cities not just in the country, but also the region and is about to be recognised as yet another UNESCO World Heritage site.
Closest to Riyadh are Masmak fort and Ad Derriyah, an all-time favourite now with its restored At Turaif old city and Budjeri plazas. Ad Derriyah has become synonymous with the e-Grand Prix and various events. But its charm remains its place as the birthplace of the first Al Saud dynasty, a heritage that His Majesty King Salman has renovated and celebrated with a project over 15 years in the making.
Taif further North is another trove of historical sites, with on its way Al Ula and Madinah Saleh. While these are featuring heavily on Saudi’s entertainment and tourist map, they are first and foremost historical sites that have attracted historians for generations.
Wherever we roam, our favourite is however the simple treasures under our feet. May it be in Wadi Hanifa, the Camel trail close to Riyadh or lost corners of the desert, fossils are everywhere. The legacy of a bygone ear is everywhere, at our finger tips.
In some ways, scratching the surface in Saudi Arabia has, for our family, not just been about the past. It has become about the future because the more you discover here, the more want to spend the time ahead travelling back in time.