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Volume 14, Number 7August/September 1963

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An old, old city in central Saudi Arabia has a long history of visitors from afar.

The province of Najd, meaning "highland" in Arabic, is a broad, flat plateau spreading over the entire upper central portion of Saudi Arabia. Because Najd is almost all alluvial plains, relieved only occasionally by weathered granite outcroppings, it is startling to see two medieval-style fortresses rising out of the middle of that vast expanse. The fortresses used to guard the southern flanks of Hayil, largest and most important community in north central Najd.

Hayil is significant in the history of Arabia as the home of the House of Rashid, for generations the rivals of the Sa'ud family, which has provided the modern nation's rulers. The Rashid forces were overthrown at Hayil in 1921 by the late King 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud. That event was a vital factor in the unification of the country under one crown.

The extreme geographical isolation of Hayil has never prevented travelers with an adventurous spirit from going there, nor the people of the old city from receiving them well. Some of the most vivid first-hand impressions of urban Arabian life as lived in the highland city are contained in the journals of Doughty, Palgrave, Guarmani and Lady Anne Blunt, who all made stops in Hayil during the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Remoteness from waterways, good roads or any of the other normal avenues of trade has not been a handicap to commercial enterprise in Hayil, either. The city is on one of the main routes traditionally taken by pilgrims from the north to the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina in the Hijaz. Many a traveler on a camel caravan has crossed through Hayil on long journeys between the East and the Mediterranean.

Ninety years ago Charles Doughty observed the people of Hayil wearing calico from Manchester and Bombay, working with European-made spades and crowbars, using chests from China for storage, and trading in Spanish reals, Turkish crowns, English sovereigns and Maria Theresa dollars. Karl Twitchell reported in the 1940's that the main market street had a "surprisingly large" variety of commodities, consisting of both local and imported products. Today several enterprising merchants from Jiddah operate branch stores in Hayil.

Last spring a planeload of passengers from Aramco made the 525-mile trip from Dhahran to Hayil to participate in the opening of the company's Mobile Exhibit being held in the city. The same features which have been impressing visitors for the last hundred years struck members of the Aramco party. They noted the neat, rectangular blocks of houses, separated by unusually large streets. They admired the general cleanliness of the city. With water resources as deep as 75 feet under the ground, the people of Hayil have managed against all odds to maintain a high standard of agriculture. For ages guests in the area have enjoyed the fruits of their labors.

This article appeared on pages 13-17 of the August/September 1963 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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