Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Original Old Town


I had the title and even the content in mind when I was away for the two weeks in February. I was sure I was going to write it the way I saw it - nothing more, nothing less.

But I had second thought of writing my mind upon my return. I was told by Ustaz Andi, that it is better to write about the good things so as to encourage others to make the journey of a lifetime rather than discourage them.

Furthermore I thought what I had done, seen or experienced was way too personal for me to blog here in detail.

Sure, this is a personal blog. Everything that has been written is mainly for my internal consumption and record of my thoughts and my own journey in this world, but it is open to the world to read though 'open to the world' is a bit of an overstatement.

I realize that.

There are things better left unsaid or unwritten, I guess. So, many - it is relative anyway, will remain etched in my memory, untold.

There are many books or essay or blog - good and bad, written about this topic. I would welcome you to read them. Mine will always remain with me.

Unless I am invited over for some teh tarik sessions with some friends, like in the aftermath of the funeral of Atuk's wife on the 1st of March. ;-)

And may be over time I will be persuaded to change my mind.

Oh and please listen to Ron Goodwin while you continue reading this.

Al Ula Old Town

I guess it has nothing to do with white coffee and roti bakar kaya, so don't start looking for them. We were given a (small) cup of coffee upon our arrival as an Arabic greeting, but to be honest, I could not finish it off. The coffee and whatever in it was just too strong and the taste too peculiar for me.

But at least I can vouch for its halalness, compared to the local Old Town, right?

This is the real (and original) old town. Whatever else that we may have over in our malls are fake! ;-)

This old town is a unique example of an Islamic city from the classical period. its houses were built during the 13th century AD (7th centure AH) with extensive use of stone retrieved from the ruins of al-Khuraibah. Many of these stones bore inscription and decoration. These houses had no opening on the ground floor other than a fortified entrance. The ceilings were made of palm trunks and then covered with palm fronds and mud.

I am glad the Saudi government has decided against tearing this town down as they have always done with many other historic sites especially those related to Islam.

Bid'ah would be their reason to keep everybody quiet.

And this is one of the reasons I should be keeping my thought to myself.

As it is indicated, a castle, from which many of the pics below were taken could be linked to a Islamic commander Musa bin Naseer.

If you read carefully the inscription above, you would be amazed with the planning taken in building this town.

Al Ula, to the uninitiated like me before the journey, was an important mercantile centre located in the principal trade route in the ancient time linking southern Arabia like Yemen with the likes of Egypt and Syria. It lies 370 km North of Madinah al-Munawarrah.

It is related to the Kingdom of Dadan dated fifth or sixth century BC.

Our prophet Muhammad, SAW, passed by Al Ula on his way to Tabuk in the year 9H (630 AD).

The Al Ula valley is blessed with fertile soil so it is a very important valley in producing fruits, grains and vegetable in Arabia.

We had the opportunity to visit this old town in February. Let's give you an aerial view of the old town first. This can be done by climbing up the castle next door to the town.

Halfway climbing the castle, one can now see the old village.
The old village is in the foreground, with part of the castle on the left. This old town has been left aside for conservation. The new town of Al Ula, where the current residents reside, is in the background.
A close up of the heritage village. It may look ugly and unkempt, but to my eyes, this town is so beautiful.

And now that we have an idea of how the village looks like, let's go inside.

We started going inside the village. It was quite late - very late actually, in the afternoon actually, but wanting to now more how people lived in the old days, we cast aside any doubt or apprehension.
Charles Doughty who visited Al Ula in 1876, gave the following account of his visit, "The narrow town streets are very clean but very much darkened because of overbuilding, necessitates by the restricted ground area. At every door step, there is a typical Arabian style clay bench."

"There is no litter in the streets and dogs are not allowed to walk by. There is no market either and daily provisions are sold after sunrise at street corners; mutton and goat meat are sold in mid afternoon outside the city walls and every inhabitant comes out to sell the fruits grown in his own house garden."
A street in the old town. Narrow street is the feature of the town. The shape of the facade was probably inspired by incense burners or altars brought from al-Khuraiba.

C Doughty carries on with his account of Al Ula: "I sat down on a bench with a group of people, in the street; they were very friendly with me and none of them made any improper comment to me. Sheikh Dharir's son then came to invite me to have breakfast at his father's house before we went to the quest room. Every Sheikh has such a room in the ground floor of his house, where coffee is served at special times of the day."
Akmal posing along the lane we were not allowed to venture into, for safety reasons.

Inside one of the house.
More of the lanes inside the village. It surely feels like a maze of corridors inside the old town.
If you decide to be the last person, the atmosphere can be quite intimidating and the surrounding eerie.

At a glance, it does look like a cowboy's town. A deserted one that is.

This is the view at the back of the village. There is a sundial used to show the beginning of each season. May be here was the market in the old days.

Can you imagine people living here in the old days?

As pointed out, there is a castle on the side of the village on top of a hill/rock. To me it looks like a tower watching over the village.
This is the castle I mentioned above.

Part of the original staircase carved out from the hill 2600 years ago.

The view on the opposite side of the village.

The very first pix is the view of the hotel we were staying in from the castle.


  1. Amazing pictures. Never know such a place exists in Saudi. Last time when we tried to go to Taif , we were stopped by military personnel.

  2. I think they have quite a bit of these, but most werent publicized for many reasons. YOu will need visa/permit to enter many of these places - it is quite a hassle. we do experienced something similar at Madain Salleh, but we were able to go to Taif without a hassle.

    I think this may be the second time you are commenting. Are you the Iskahar I knew from the 90s, who went on to work with Drew?

  3. Yup, it's me alright. I've since left Drew and spent some time in Sudan. Now I'm with MPOC,Kelana Jaya, trying my hands on palm oil.

  4. So you are the man! it has been a long time since we last crossed path. Nice to hear from you.

    Eh give me a call at 012-383 2180 or let me know your cell and I'll give a call myself. We should go for a teh tarik session sometime.

    Oh, so form oilman you became waterman, now palm oilman. Hmm..interesting.

  5. Yup, maybe we should. I would like to hear more story on your latest adventure in the land of the Sauds. My number is 019-9143010.