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Volume 26, Number 1January/February 1975

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The Historic Heartland

Written and photographed by Tor Eigeland

I believe that, like the standard City Tour, an aerial reconnaissance is a very good way to get a quick first impression of a country and learn the lay of the land. At the crack of dawn an F-27 lifted off from Dhahran and headed west for the Qasim district of the Najd, in the north-central part of the kingdom. Well over an hour later we circled over the big twin oasis towns of 'Unayzah and Buraydah. Both towns are surrounded by reddish sand dunes, palm gardens and planted forests of tamarisk trees. Many of the dunes seemed to loom dangerously over the carefully maintained agricultural areas, but were held in check by thin lines of tamarisk trees, often planted along or just below the slip face of the dunes.

I was relentlessly shooting photos, oblivious of the time, when the pilot nudged me and suggested politely that we might be running low on fuel and had better head south for Riyadh, the booming capital of Saudi Arabia, to refuel. We banked sharply and winged southward, following the sharp line of the Tuwaiq Mountains. This rugged escarpment divides Saudi Arabia down the middle in a sweeping, crescent from the Qasim almost as far south as the Empty Quarter. After a brief stop in Riyadh we were airborne again, heading toward the oasis outpost of as-Sulayyil at the foot of the escarpment where a large wadi cuts through the ridge. Most of the scenery below us from Riyadh south was desolate. In some places the land from the air looked like the wrinkled and cracked skin of an old elephant, a million times enlarged. In the Aflaj area, near the town of Leila, we saw some natural pools and a few palm gardens. Here and there we could see larger new buildings that stuck out among the traditional brown adobe-style houses in the villages. We guessed they were schools, new farms, and probably administrative headquarters.

Then we saw virtually no settlements of any size till we reached as-Sulayyil, a town of large brownish-gray adobe houses, walls slanting slightly inward towards the turreted roofs. Every house looked almost like a fortress—which in less peaceful times is what they were.

Again, the pilot nudged me and pointed to the west. "Shamal!" he shouted, meaning a sandstorm. I could see a brown haze on the horizon. There was no danger, but we would have no visibility. I nodded, closed the co-pilot's side window so we could pressurize, and we climbed. We had come south along the eastern side of the Tuwaiq Mountains and flew back north along the western side of the ridge. We could see no sign of life anywhere along here. The escarpment dropped into the sand desert where a few black boulders looked almost as if they had been scattered out of the sky and then seared with a blowtorch.

It was nearly dark when we again overflew Riyadh on our way back to Dhahran. The first lights had been turned on, and from high in the air the bustling city looked serene, peaceful.

The next day any thought of serenity vanished. I had flown to Riyadh from Dhahran on Saudia's scheduled commercial flight and, at rush hour, drove down Airport Road, the boulevard on which most ministries and government offices are clustered. It seemed as if every car in the city was simultaneously trying to make its way down this broad avenue, letting all the other cars know it was there by continuously blowing its horn.

From my hotel room on Airport Road the sounds of traffic had no sooner dulled to a gentle roar than I heard screaming sirens. I looked out the window. Hundreds of soldiers of the National Guard, at attention, lined the avenue. Soon a motorcycle escort and VIP cars shot by, headed for the airport. A short while later they passed again in the opposite direction, sirens still wailing. In the lobby now, I asked the receptionist who the important visitor was. He shouted across the lobby to the doorman: "Who's visiting today?" The doorman asked a cab driver outside, and the reply was relayed back in. "The President of Yemen." During my week's stay in the capital it seemed to me as though the National Guard was lined up along Airport Road most of the time. President Sadat of Egypt, Colonel Qadhafi of Libya, Prince Juan Carlos and Dona Sophia of Spain, the U.S.'s Henry Kissinger and many others all came and went. No wonder the receptionist didn't know who was arriving that day. My hotel lobby reflected what was happening on the streets. Since my last visit to Riyadh Saudi Arabia's capital had blossomed into a true world crossroads, an international city. Chauffeur-driven cars zoomed up to the hotel entrance every few minutes disgorging or picking up Arabs in thobes, Arabs in business suits, Europeans, Americans, Japanese, Africans, all brisk and businesslike, all here to accomplish something, no one just to play tourist.

Calling at several ministries, I found the same no-nonsense tone, although still tempered with the traditional atmosphere of desert informality. Offices are open, it is easy to get to see people, one is always courteously received, and it is possible to state one's business very quickly. Yet, everyone still finds time to offer the traditional cup of tea or Arab coffee—or both.

The ease with which one can see decision makers goes all the way to the top. I was told that at the modern Arab-style building which houses the offices of the Governor of Riyadh, the Kasr al-Hukim, His Majesty King Faisal still holds his majlis —the Arab open-house reception or audience—every Thursday morning. Anyone with something important to say or with a serious complaint, or someone in need, can go and speak to the King. Chances are that any legitimate grievance will be righted. Local administrators and amirs observe the same tradition. This is the ancient democracy of the desert. In my experience there is a tremendous natural dignity in the Saudi and he respects the dignity of others. Perhaps because there is a very direct relationship in Islam between God and man everyone feels equal under God. Many old Bedouin tribesmen still address the King simply as "Faisal."

I traveled around Riyadh a great deal in the course of photographing the city. My companion for most of the trips was Ibrahim Muhawwis, a charming, outgoing Saudi. We saw King Faisal driving to various appointments around the capital at least half a dozen times during the week. Ibrahim and I visited old buildings, new buildings, hospitals—everywhere the typical old brownish sand-colored houses were giving way to tall new apartment buildings, offices and government buildings. Probably all photographers prefer the old to the new. However, when on rare occasions some of the old architectural traditions are observed in modern buildings, I found that the result can also be stunning. In Riyadh I thought the Kasr al-Hukim, the Central Library of the University of Riyadh and the Ministry of Commerce were three fine examples of this.

Proud of his country’s development Ibrahim Muhawwis naturally preferred to show me the new things. Yet he would not let me miss the old al-Masmak fort in the center of Riyadh. Here, at an old wooden gate, the history of Saudi Arabia turned. Ibrahim told me the story of how the House of Sa'ud, expelled into exile from this region, their homeland, by the Rashids, had recaptured the city in 1902 under the leadership of young 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud (Aramco World, Jan.-Feb, 1965). 'Abd al-'Aziz, known in the west as Ibn Sa'ud, was King Faisal's father.

During an exciting dawn battle at the gate of the fort 'Abd Allah Ibn Jiluwi, one of 'Abd al-'Aziz's men, threw a spear at Ajlan, the Rashid's governor. "It missed, but the point of that spear is still embedded here in this wooden gate." Ibrahim pointed dramatically. Two old gatekeepers nodded knowingly, though he told me the story in English. They knew the details by heart. Ibrahim continued: "In the end Ajlan and half of the 80 defenders were killed and the fort was taken. This was 'Abd al-'Aziz's first big victory in his family's long struggle to unite Arabia. In 1927 he was proclaimed King of the Hijaz and the Najd and its Dependencies. In 1932, the country was officially named the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia."

The old wooden gate will not be forgotten in the history books of Saudi Arabia. But today a new kind of monument is being built in Riyadh. As al-Masmak fort tells us something of the kingdom's past, a new building in the suburbs tells us something of its future. There, finishing touches are now being put on what is expected to become one of the most modern medical facilities in the entire world—the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Clinical Research Center. More than 1,000 people of varying specialities will serve in the 450-bed inpatient hospital designed to handle special problem cases.

The specialists will have at their fingertips such useful toys as 18 computers integrated into a single system supported by visual display units and teleprinters, electric trolley trains, an automated conveyor system, electric beds with full range of movement, a seven-theater operating suite equipped for everything, including laser surgery, and an intensive-care unit with full monitoring computer surveillance. Completely carpeted except for special functional areas the hospital will also have what may be the largest color closed-circuit TV system in the world. Television signals can be transmitted to more than 500 color receivers and the system includes two entertainment channels, one educational, and one "on-line" live program. The special-care zone will have a black-and-white TV surveillance system utilizing 56 cameras. It sounds almost as if the 21st century will enter early, when this hospital goes into full operation.

Helping to guide other areas of Saudi Arabia towards the 21st century is the government's Central Planning Organization. In Riyadh I spoke to Richard Kaynor, a senior industrial economist (from the Stanford Research Institute) who at the time was working with the CPO. I asked him what he considered to be the guiding principle behind present Saudi planning. I had pressed the right button. Kaynor has a mind like a computer.

Kaynor: "As you know, Saudi Arabia is financially dependent pretty much on its oil, with the minor exception of exporting some hides and dates. Naturally the kingdom is interested in diversifying its economy—utilizing oil and oil products as a base. One of the main goals will be to utilize the natural gas of the Eastern Province in a number of different ways. Already, as you probably know, there are projects of some magnitude under consideration in both the eastern and western regions of the country, projects for such things as a petrochemical complex and a steel mill, oil refineries, the possibility of magnesium export, and so on. The petrochemical complex is perhaps the single most important project, because by producing some of the basic industrial raw materials such as polyethylene and PVC needed in plastic fabrication operations, the country will be able to start a number of smaller plastics industries in different regions."

"How about export of these products?"

Kaynor: "That's part of the aim. Not primarily for the money, but because Saudi Arabia wants to be a trading partner in products and now has little to trade. The Saudis could penetrate foreign markets because of their inexpensive source of raw material and power coming from gas and oil. They have already proved that it can be done as there are a number of plastic fabrication plants already in operation. There is one right here in Riyadh, 100-percent Saudi owned and operated, except for one foreign technician. They've been in business for over 10 years."

From petrochemicals Kaynor moved on to other things. "There are mineral deposits in the western region—copper is now looking pretty good, marble looks good, there are possibilities for bauxite, and so on. Then there is this business of silica—there is already a glass-bottle plant in the eastern region, making soft-drink bottles. And there are reportedly a number of very fine silica deposits in the kingdom which will lend themselves to a fiber glass operation which again would tie in with hydrocarbons."

I asked if education figured prominently in the country's planning. Kaynor answered that there is a big push on at nearly every level of education. "The government is extremely aware of how important this is. On the university level they are already doing a lot of interesting things in research. I read an article just the other day about a number of Saudi scientists who are engaged in solar-energy research—the next logical step when the oil is used up. And they are certainly in the right spot for it," he added, smiling.

I'd seen the Qasim from the air. Now I was going to cover much of the same north-central region the hard way—by Land Rover. A friend from Dhahran met me in Riyadh with his vehicle loaded with camping equipment and food.

Jim Mandaville grew up in Arabia and as far as I can tell knows the name of every plant and animal in the kingdom (Aramco World, Jan.-Feb., 1968; and Sept.-Oct., 1968). Jim has crisscrossed the country and speaks fluent Arabic, so he would make a good guide for this leg of my trip.

The fine paved highway north from Riyadh travels through desert, mountainous areas and a number of villages. The architectural style in that area is a relic of an unsettled age. Surrounded by mud-and-brick walls, with watchtowers built all along the perimeter, the villages and their palm gardens form compact little worlds of their own. Within each little world every brownish mud-brick house with crenelated roof and tiny windows is another fortress-like private unit.

The further north we drove the greener the scenery became. Big rains had fallen this winter. Even the desert, except the moving dunes, looked like a pale green carpet. On the highway hundreds of big diesel-powered trucks rumbled along in our same direction, rugs, tents, and waterskins tied dangling on the outside, seemingly two or three layers of goats and sheep stacked inside, with windblown Bedouin families riding happily on top. These are the ancient nomadic migrations modern style. They were heading north to the greenest pastures. Jim told me that nowadays many Bedouin families rent big trucks such as these to gel their flocks to new grazing faster. Probably some of the men were following behind or foot with the camels.

We slept in the desert just outside 'Unayzah, one of the biggest towns in the Qasim. I awoke to the put-put-putting sound of what I thought at first was a small fishing boat. After some eye-rubbing it became clear that I was sleeping in the desert and that there were few fishing boats in the area. In fact, the putting came from nearby water pumps. Later we grew accustomed to waking to the rhythmic sound of water pumps, as this turned out to be the comforting early-morning theme song of most oasis towns.

After breakfasting on Mandaville's specialty, Tang and tea, we drove to the top of an escarpment overlooking 'Unayzah. Encircled by sand dunes, a protective tamarisk forest, date palms and small garden plots, the brownish mud houses and mosques of 'Unayzah looked serenely as if they had been there forever. Only some modern school buildings in the standard white-and-gray design one sees frequently throughout the country and the new telephone exchange reminded us that changes were sweeping in. From a photographer's point of view I was pleased that many 'Unayzah houses, though brand-new, still observed the harmonious style that had evolved over the ages to meet the needs of the climate.

Jim and I paid a courtesy call on the Amir of 'Unayzah, Hamid al-Khalid. The Amir, a young, good-looking man with quick, intelligent eyes, waved us in and ordered coffee for us. The coffee was served by his bodyguard, a black-eyed Bedouin with a revolver in his shoulder holster but a broad friendly smile across his face. We told the Amir that we had come to photograph the Qasim in the coolness and green of spring. He welcomed us warmly. "Of course, go and see and photograph anything you please." With Jim's help as translator, I asked the Amir how long ago the guardian forests had been planted here. "It's an ancient tradition," he replied. "They were planted a very long time ago. The trees protect our fields from the sand and on holidays family groups go out from the town to picnic in their shade."

The Qasim is a rich agricultural region. I asked what grew best around 'Unayzah and the Amir-had an answer at his fingertips: "We have the vital date palms, of course, about 300,000 of them, also wheat, corn, alfalfa, barley and millet for livestock feed, tomatoes of different kinds, which we hope to be canning soon. Onions grow very successfully here, and we also raise seven different kinds of melon. Our livestock includes sheep, cows, chickens and about 12,000 camels, mostly for milk." He added with a chuckle: "And there is one escaped pet monkey running around. Now we are also introducing grapefruit, oranges, lemons, peaches, apricots and pomegranates and we're experimenting with different kinds of grapes. Some of them are doing very well."

Any Saudi official will tell you about schools, whether you ask or not. We didn't have to ask. Amir Hamid told us that in 'Unayzah there are now 14 elementary, three intermediate schools, and one secondary school for boys. There is a special school for the blind, with a vocational section. For adults and farm youth who work during the day there are five or six evening schools. There are now eight schools for girls, with some 2,300 students, 250 at intermediate level.

Amir Hamid offered to have his bodyguard guide us around the town. The Bedouin was well known and obviously liked by everyone we met. Up and down streets, alleys, covered passageways, through suqs and open-air markets, followed by a retinue of curious children, the three of us strolled until both Jim and I felt as though we had become qualified tourist guides for 'Unayzah ourselves.

On the outskirts of 'Unayzah we looked into a palm garden that conformed to my idea of paradise. Three farmers were seated in the cool morning shade of a palm tree having coffee and tea. The ground was sprouting with young green wheat about 10 inches high. It seemed the most natural thing in the world for us to walk in and join them. The farmers instantly invited us to sit with them and served us coffee, then tea. They told us they were cutting the palm-leaf thorns so they could later climb up into the trees to harvest the dates.

After spending the night and dining in a hotel in 'Unayzah as the Amir's guests, Jim and I drove north through the nearby town of Buraydah, then headed west through open desert toward the towri of az-Zilfi (Aramco World, Jan.-Feb., 1972). A good paved road is nearing completion through this difficult terrain, but we deliberately chose a desert route part of the way. Here too, the sand was like a green carpet and we passed hundreds of grazing camels. Black Bedouin tents were everywhere. Some had pickup trucks parked outside and we saw a motorcycle leaning against one tent wall. Towards evening a 75-foot, three-quarter-circle sand dune provided a fine shelter for our campsite.

A bird's sweet song woke me up. The wind, which came up fiercely during the night, had died, but it was still chilly. I had heard that particular bird before and asked Jim whether it was following us. "No," he explained. "That's Umm Salem, which means 'Salem's mother.' The Bedouins are very fond of that bird. They might hunt any other bird, but not Umm Salem. You find them everywhere in the desert."

In the town of az-Zilfi we bought more of the flat Arab bread for "breakfast. Just south of the town, near a village called al-Ghat, Jim started feeling adventurous. He told me he thought there was an oasis and perhaps another town west of here, though there was not even a name on his map. We decided to explore, and bounced off in a westerly direction through an extremely desolate region. Here there was nothing green. After what seemed like hours we came to a flat full of bones. Camels' legs. Nothing else. Just bleached legs. Thousands of them. I felt a little spooked and would just as soon have turned around, but we continued.

Finally we climbed a rocky hill and spotted some watchtowers in the distance. We drove along a plateau and, suddenly, directly below us we saw: 1, a fine paved highway; 2, a brand-new school and an old oasis town beyond it; 3, a taxi stand. Laughing at ourselves, we drove into the town and found that it was called Tumayr. The road had just been completed and led right back to where we came from. And the mysterious Plain of the Bleached Camels' Legs, we were told, was the local slaughter house. After a camel is butchered for meat only the shanks are left.

From Tumayr back south to Riyadh the great explorers did not hit one single bump. It was a fine highway all the way. They entered Riyadh, stopped for a meal at the home of hospitable friends and moved on late in the afternoon, heading southeast. It was turning dark and we were looking for a suitable place to sleep in the desert. The capital is beginning to sprawl in that direction, but after passing Riyadh's brand' new multi-million-dollar refinery and a number of the automobile graveyards familiar now in America we finally found some empty desert. It stormed again that night and was bitterly cold.

The morning brought no improvement. On the contrary, visibility was near zero. We were hoping we would be able to see a spectacular hole in the ground that we had, come to photograph. We drove through al-Kharj, a flourishing agricultural area which was one of the kingdom's first ea perimental farms back at the close of the Second World War, then with a sand storm howling around us, drove on south into the desert. As far as I can tell Jim's sense of direction is something like a Bedouin's. In the middle of a brown dust cloud he hit it right on the nose.

We stepped out of the car and, buffets by the wind, walked over to what seemed simply like a big hole in the middle of the desert. It was oval-shaped, about 200 yards long and at least a hundred wide. We moved closer to the edge and looked down There it was, a black, deep natural pool ladder led down to the surface far below Some kids had climbed down and were happily splashing around. A roaring pumping station on top sucked the warm, sweet water up to be piped off to al-Kharj an spilled across thirsty fields there.

Returning to al-Kharj, we stopped to an ancient, now abandoned, system irrigation, called aflaj. Mud protrusions shaped like ships' funnels stretched in line through the flat dry landscape about 10-12 yards apart for as far as we could see. Looking into each funnel we could see down into what had once been an underground irrigation canal. In ancient times the ingenious people who built this complex system could extract water anywhere along the way, or climb down one of the funnels to clear obstructions.

The windstorm got progressively worse and visibility was nearing zero. As we left al-Kharj for Riyadh we passed a Toyota pickup truck driven by a farmer. In the back, like a friendly dog, stood a large black goat with its front legs up on the driver cab, bleating away, his ears straight out behind in the wind.

Tor Eigeland, a Norwegian-born American citizen now based in Spain, has photographed and Written about countries from Australia to Mexicothe long way aroundfor such publications as National Geographic, Fortune, Time and Newsweek. He covered the Middle East from Beirut for five years and has been a frequent contributor to Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 14-25 of the January/February 1975 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1975 images.