To many, the word "oasis" summons up an image of a little patch of green in the desert, containing, perhaps, a half dozen palm trees and nourished by a puny spring. That picture is, however, hardly fair.
Take, for example, the oasis of al-Hasa, biggest in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Al-Hasa's 40,000 square acres can hardly be called a "little patch of green." And instead of a half dozen palm trees, al-Hasa has over 2 million, as well as 50 to 60 artesian springs, some with pools that are actually fair-sized lakes.
In Arabic, the word for spring is 'ain and the springs, of course, are what make the oasis, for their gift is the most precious in the desert—water. Water to drink; water to keep the date palms growing; water to irrigate the small farms, so vegetables can grow; water for animal pasture land. And, water to supply beauty. All of this water comes from rock layers, 500 to 600 feet down. In some places, like the al-Kharj area, the water rises to within 40 feet of the surface, where it is lifted the rest of the way by modern pumps or in goatskin bags by donkey power. At other spots, especially Qatif and Hofuf oases, natural pressure and ideal elevation conditions bring water to the surface.
Four of al-Hasa's springs are very large, each with a flow estimated at 20,000 or more gallons per minute, and all of al-Hasa's springs together produce more than 150,000 gallons per minute. The lakes that the water forms are like magnets, not only for the oasis dwellers themselves but also for the people who live in the surrounding area. Many come for miles to enjoy the scenery, to picnic, bathe, or just to relax in the shade and visit with friends. At 'Ain-al-Harrah the water reaches the surface through three outlets and forms a lake approximately 400 yards long and 100 yards wide, creating one of the oasis' most popular show places.
Each spring has its own name, not at all surprising when it's remembered that American pioneers in arid areas of the West named every trickle of water they came across. 'Ain umm Sab'ah, another of al-Hasa's oases, means "Mother of Seven," for at one time seven canals carried water from the spring to groves and gardens. Today, only five canals remain, but the name lives on. 'Ain umm Sab'ah is distinguished by the high temperature of its water: 101° at the edge and 103° or 104° at the center of the waterflow.
Most bountiful of the larger springs is al-Haql, with a flow estimated at 22,500 gallons per minute. The channel that carries its water off to the northeast is one of the widest and deepest streams in the oasis. It is provided with the characteristic women's bathhouses at several points along its course.
Last of the larger al-Hasa springs is al-Khudud, which supplies about half the water to the Sulaisil Canal, the only canal in the oasis that is sometimes called a river—Nahr al-Sulaisil. About 30 feet wide and four feet deep at its beginning, the canal divides itself into several sub-channels further on.
'Ain Najm is one of the more popular of the smaller springs. The word najm means "star," and it is told in the legend of the land that the 'ain was created by a falling star. Back in the days of the Turkish occupation, 'Am Najm's sulphurous water was favored for its curative value. Today, two domes cover the bathing area, and an outdoor majlis (reception area) has been erected for the entertainment of guests. High personalities in government and distinguished visitors are usually entertained at Najm when they come to the al-Hasa oasis.
Those visitors leave Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, not with the idea that an oasis is a "little patch of green," but with an understanding that an oasis can provide thousands of people with a livelihood and recreation.