"All good men want to visit Mecca," an old Bedouin once said, "and they want to die in Taif."
You have to see Taif to understand. The city sits in the mountains of the Hijaz, 5,000 feet up, where the air is clear and cool and the rains splash down from the sky to rinse the dust away and grow wonderful things to eat. It is only 73 miles east of steaming Jiddah but the real direction is up—up where the air is as clear as a good white wine and the sunshine has a taste of lemon in it.
People feel better in Taif and it isn't simply that they have escaped the stifling heat of the Red Sea coast. It is a whole change in attitude—a crisp, alive feeling that for an hour, or a day, or for however long you are privileged to stay in Taif, helps you to forget the hard demands of life on the arid plain below.
Normally the population of Taif is about 75,000. But when the summer heat settles down over Mecca, Medina and Jiddah, the main cities of the western coast of Saudi Arabia, the "summer people"—residents, visitors, pilgrims to Mecca plus many government officials—pour in by the thousands. No one knows how many really come but at the peak of the season you can't even rent a rope cot in a coffee house without a reservation. Months before the hot weather begins, in fact, most hotel rooms, most apartments and most spare rooms have been reserved. Outside the city, whole communities of tents spring up and some visitors counting on the generally rainless summer nights, simply spread their blankets on the ground beneath the stars. In the swank Aziziyah Hotel owner Na'im Idris packs 24 rooms and four suites with well-heeled merchants and well-to-do pilgrims who shell out the equivalent of $25 a day for accommodations and meals. In the hot season, it would be easier to rent a flying carpet than to walk into the Aziziyah and get a room without a reservation.
When people talk about Taif, they always seem to use the word "colorful." That's because color dominates the city. Unlike most desert communities where buildings are the color of sand, in Taif they are painted yellow, gray, ochre, light green, and white. Bright three- and four-story buildings stand in the center of town, where throngs of shoppers jostle each other between glinting cars and trucks carrying fruit and flowers and bricks and books. Vivid green trees sway against the sides of the gray mountains whose peaks run together like the notches on a saw. Below the peaks strange dark walls wobble off like long shoelaces, probably as an ancient way of controlling grazing animals. White sheep crop grass near the walls, while a new black highway snakes through the country-side where purple grapes wink through green leaves and orchards of apricots lean over mud walls like women talking across the back fence.
The center of the town is a busy place. Shops carry every product made in the Arab world, as well as many imported from Europe and the United States. Red rugs hang above crowded suqs where the unveiled women of the Hijaz sit and sell fresh figs and pomegranates to men from Afghanistan as well as men from the Hadhramaut, men from Indonesia, men from the Najd and even men from Algeria and Yugoslavia. Children carry school books as they stand in their blue thobes listening to an old man with white whiskers sell a watermelon that he holds in his hands as he talks. Over some shops around the town's heart, heaps of crooked firewood wait to be sold, piled high on the roofs like a witch's tangled hair, and out at the edge of town in an area specializing in hides and rope there are piled the warm, woolen, nubby cloaks called bidis. Bidis are woven in Taif—indeed are the last remnants of an important textile industry—and are popular with shepherds who must work on the wintry mountain sides or track their herds on the cold desert nights in December.
Taif, they say, makes a man feel young. But the city itself is old. People lived inside Taif's walls before history began. The name, indeed, means "to encircle or surround." Some signs of the ancient past still survive. There is the statue of Allat, a pre-lslamic goddess, standing on a tower of red granite not far from the Taif-Mecca highway, a statue, incidentally, that only a few people have seen. There are the deserted ancient dams in obscure wadis, one bearing an inscription that reads, "Built by Abdullah Ibrahim by Allah's instructions, 59 Anno Hegira." (A.D. 680.) This dam, nearly 13 centuries old, was constructed without a spoonful of cement. Instead the blocks were cut to fit—like the pyramids—and, despite its disrepair looks every bit as strong as the spanking new Akramah Dam that helps irrigate farms today.
In the years that have passed since the days of Muhammad, Taif has survived the storms of nature and the grief of man. Its wadis have gone dry, its great dams have fallen into disrepair and its fame as a center of textiles and leather has faded and vanished. For years it lived under the iron rule of the Turks whose stay is still marked by the Shruba Palace, a handsome, four-story building of Taif's own distinctive red granite. And here, in 1953, Taif—and all Saudi Arabia—lost its greatest leader. King 'Abd al-'Aziz. Even now people of Taif talk of the day when His Majesty suffered a heart attack but refused to leave Taif and how, before he died, the city had to face the monumental task of finding quarters for the throngs who came with their families to mourn his passing.
Today, of course, as in all parts of Saudi Arabia, the modern world is crowding in. With a new road to bring in visitors, and what amounts to a regular air shuttle from the country's major cities in the summer, the city is expanding every year. The walls gave way to growth 20 years ago and still the city spreads. Where pilgrims and other visitors once hobbled up the long mountain road on foot, they now come by car, by bus, by jet. Most do not stay of course, but many do—to breathe its air, absorb its color, rest and—the lucky ones—perhaps end their lives in peace.
Frank T. Boylan holds A.B. and M.A. degrees from Loyola University in Chicago and is now an instructor in Aramco's Industrial Training Center at Ras Tanura.