From the time that the first Western explorer visited Saudi Arabia and brought back his impressions, the world outside has pictured the Kingdom in terms of vast stretches of sand dunes, broad gravel plains, occasional welcoming oases of palms, and wandering desert herdsmen. The discovery of petroleum added pipelines, complex oil installations and thriving modern communities to the predominating image of the land.
Saudi Arabia is far less known for its meadows of wild flowers shrouded in mist. Few associate the Kingdom with terraced farming, craggy mountain peaks, tall trees and luxuriant vineyards. All these can be found in the southwestern corner of the country in the green highland Province of 'Asir.
Stretching inland along 300 miles or so of the reef-lined eastern coast of the Red Sea, 'Asir begins about 150 miles south of Jiddah and ends at the northern boundary of Yemen. Its climate ranges from subtropical to temperate; much of the area enjoys cool, even temperatures the year around, with relatively little humidity. Steep precipices rise out of narrow coastal plains all along the western edge of the province. Some mountain peaks in the area are 7,000 to 8,000 feet high. These rugged highlands, inaccessible from the sea and nearly as difficult to approach from other directions, have been almost completely cut off both from Saudi Arabia and from the rest of the world. The very name of the province means "dangerous" or "difficult" and harks back to early days when there were few passes or roads leading into the area. It is this isolation, plus what for Saudi Arabia is an abundance of rainfall, that makes 'Asir so distinctive.
The highland region supports one of the heaviest concentrations of population in the Saudi Arabian Kingdom, and die Government has built many up-to-date schools to educate the children. In spite of its isolation the area has a strong literary tradition, having produced a number of historians and poets well-known in the Arab world. Weekly plane flights connect some of the provincial towns with Jiddah, and planned roads will help further to break down the region's insularity.
No careful measurements have ever been taken of the amount of rain that falls on 'Asir, but because agriculture there requires little or no irrigation it is assumed that most parts of the highlands get at least 12 inches a year. Farms in the region are commonly laid out in broad terraces, some 200 to 300 feet wide, astride the hilly contours of the land. Cereal crops—wheat, barley and millet—dominate commercial agricultural production. Fruits—apricots, figs, apples, pears, oranges and tangerines—are plentiful. Highland farmers also grow quince, plums, cherries, walnuts, olives, pomegranates and many kinds of grapes.
Abundant rainfall has profoundly influenced the architecture of the houses found along the coastline and in the highlands of 'Asir. Houses in Jaizan, the region's principal port on the Red Sea, are made of rush-reed thatch and cordage and are conical in shape, resembling large beehives, the better for the rain to wash over them.
In Abha, the highland capital, 7,000 feet above sea level, homes are made of a clay brick construction, but to keep the clay from washing away, builders have inserted rows of slate slabs into their sides. The foundations are masonry to keep them firmly anchored in the rain-washed soil. Windows and doors are framed with wood from the tall 'ar 'ar tree, indigenous to the area. Inside, many of the walls around these frames, as well as interior ceilings, are decorated in multi-colored designs, traditionally by the women of the households.
'Asir is far more accessible today than in the past. The camel trails that famed Arab traveler ibn Battuta followed during his visit to 'Asir in 1330 have long since been replaced by modern roads connecting Abha and Jaizan and all of the province with the port city of Jiddah, 150 miles to the north. Soon an airport at Jaizan, projected as one of the largest in the Kingdom, will bring even more visitors to the once remote Province of 'Asir.