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Volume 31, Number 5September/October 1980

In This Issue

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Back to the Highlands

Written and photographed by Tor Eigeland
Additional reporting by Paul Lunde
Additional illustrations by Michael Grimsdale

Asir, the southwestern province of Saudi Arabia, is one of the most breathtaking regions in the kingdom. Stretching from the town of al-Nimas, south of Taif, to the frontier of North Yemen, it includes a narrow strip of the Red Sea coast, a chain of mountains up to 9,000 feet high and a variety of tribes described by explorer Wilfred Thesiger as a "graceful, laughing people."

Thesiger is dead right. From sea level to mountain top, the peoples of 'Asir are happy, casual and relaxed - a result perhaps of their life in a region that is fertile, cool and scenically magnificent.

Seven years ago, during my first trip there, I jotted down some first impressions of 'Asir, one of which said it all: "This green, mostly mountainous region is God's own country. Till very recently untouched by the world in general, and tourism and oil in particular, 'Asir is as close to Shangri-la as anything I have seen."

Later notes confirmed this initial enthusiasm. "Every mountain village in 'Asir has a different character - and a different color - all of a dreamy beauty. In one, brown was the basic color: two or three-story houses with brown mud walls slanting slightly inwards to the crenelated roofs, and every window and the top of the walls painted white. Like a cake with frosting on top.

"In the next village the white frosting was the same, though the walls had layers of slate jutting out as protection against the rain, and broad stripes of brown and white. And in the village beyond that, each house was painted a different color. It was wild and bright, yet oddly consistent."

Reviewing those notes recently, prior to a second visit, I wondered how much 'Asir had changed, as, like the rest of the kingdom, its cities, its roads and its economy reacted to the impact of development programs.

During the past 10 years, I reflected, development programs have been reshaping 'Asir. In 1971, for example, the province had 154 schools; it how has more than 400 - 200 of them for girls - and the educational budget has grown from about $1,300,000 in 1971 to about $130 million in 1978. As another example, there were only about 140 miles of paved road in 1954; now there are more than 900.

On arrival it seemed that there were changes. In Abha, I immediately noticed a new airport, rows of new buildings, a new school and, overlooking a new dam, a new hotel with tennis court and swimming pool.

There was other evidence too. Five years ago when you left Abha, you were immediately in the country, but now Abha goes on and on, and the traffic is quite incredible. Where there was once a narrow road there is now a four-lane highway, and development sprawls over the countryside for miles.

But I needn't have worried. 'Asir is being developed under the careful guidance of its amir, Prince Khalid, a son of the late King Faisal, and he, in accordance with his hope of five years before, has seen that the new planners and architects respect the traditions of the past. There are changes, yes; but architecturally at least, and in its cheerful heart, the 'Asir of today is much like the 'Asir of history.

Because, until recently, few Westerners ever reached 'Asir, that history is not well known in the West. Indeed, until the 1930s, when H. St. John Philby explored the area, 'Asir was virtually unknown. Yet Asir, even in ancient times, was important.

In 25 B.C. Aelius Gallus marched his legions south from Egypt on a 1,300-mile expedition to take control of the ancient overland trade routes between the Mediterranean and what is now Yemen and Hadhramaut. The Romans wanted control of those routes because they were desperate for money and hoped to raise some by capturing Marib, capital of Yemen, and taking control of the trade in incense - then a priceless commodity - and other valuable aromatics. As it turned out, however, the expedition was a disaster (See Aramco World, March-April 1980) and little information about 'Asir emerged.

Muslim historians, naturally, provide most of the information about the early periods in 'Asir and neighboring areas. They mention, for example, the city of Najran: near the site of the Romans' only major battle during their invasion, later seat of a Christian bishopric and the scene of a massacre when Dhu Nuwas, king of the Judaized state called Himyar, provided the first martyrs of Arabian Christendom at al-Ukhdud, not long before the birth of the Prophet Muhammad.

It was also at Najran that Bishop Quss ibn Sa'ida - famous in Arabic literature - composed the prayers and orations, carefully preserved by Muslim historians, which have earned him the title of "the Cicero of the Arabs." And when the Abys-sinians invaded South Arabia it was at Najran that they established themselves and from which, in 570, the year of the Prophet's birth, they launched an attack on Mecca using elephants. Their route through 'Asir is still known as the Darb al-Fil - the Path of the Elephant.

Later, with the advent of Islam, the tribes of'Asir embraced Islam; Muhammad himself signed a treaty with the Bishop of Najran in which, on payment of tribute, the Christian community was granted religious freedom. But then, as the political center of the Muslim world shifted to Damascus and Baghdad, the attention of historians shifted too. As a result, the history of 'Asir and its peoples in the subsequent centuries is obscure. It was not until the beginning of the 19th century that the region again assumed a prominent role in the history of the Arabian Peninsula, when Muhammad Ali, the new ruler of Egypt, invaded Arabia.

Because, earlier, tribesmen of 'Asir had joined the House of Sa'ud in an 18th-century religious revival - which led the Ottoman Sultan to send Muhammad Ali to Arabia - the Egyptian forces repeatedly sent forces into 'Asir between 1818 and 1839. And since Muhammad Ali's forces included a handful of European technicians, the West began to get its first trickle of information about 'Asir: verbal and written accounts which enabled European cartographers to enlarge on data which hadn't been updated since the days of Ptolemy.

When the Egyptian forces withdrew from Arabia in 1839 - the same year the British occupied Aden - the 'Asir highlands were left in the hands of a local dynasty. But when that dynasty extended its control to the Tihama - the Red Sea coastal strip - and its important ports, the Ottomans intervened once again, attached 'Asir to the Ottoman vilayet of Yemen, and established a governor in Abha. And though the Ottomans never succeeded in extending their power much beyond Abha itself, 'Asir, as part of Yemen, remained in the Ottoman Empire for 40 years.

By 1920, however, 'Abd al-'Aziz, founder of Saudi Arabia, had begun to recoup the losses of the House of Sa'ud and to unify most of the Peninsula under his rule. As part of this campaign, he sent his young son Faisal - later king - with an expeditionary force to occupy 'Asir, and from then on 'Asir was controlled by the House of Sa'ud - a situation formalized in 1934 with the signing of the Treaty of Taif between Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Even then the region was still largely unknown to the West. In 1932, H. St. John Philby, one of the first Europeans to explore and map the Peninsula, did enter 'Asir, but as he didn't publish his observations until 1952, the area remained one of the blank spots on the world's map.

As he always did, Philby described "the fabled highlands" in numbing detail: the zigzagging roads, the crumbling Ottoman forts, the great flat boulders inscribed with pre-Islamic scripts, the jabals, the trees, flowers and birds, the customs and costumes, the crops and - as one Philby critic put it - "all those damned wadis"

Although he was far more geographer than poet, however, Philby was not insensitive to the rugged beauty of'Asir. In writing about Abha's "great ridge of mountains," for example, Philby calls it "the very backbone ... of Arabia" and goes on to add an enthusiastic description of the walls of rock, the jagged peaks, the rounded summits, the tumbled boulders and the torrents, gorges, abysses and buttresses - "a grand but forbidding scene."

Which, I discovered, it still is. Despite the construction projects that are visible everywhere around Abha, the mountains of 'Asir are as magnificent as Philby first found them. Harsh and barren, yes, but, as Philby said, grand - particularly in the morning when the sun rises over the peaks. There's a mist, of course, but at dawn the cool breezes swiftly disperse it and when the sun comes up the air is so clear that the sky simply reddens slightly then bursts into clear, almost white, sunlight as, over the escarpment, fantastic cloudbanks, forced upwards by hot air from the Red Sea, billow into the sky

Not far from Abha is a village called al-Habbala, "the rope village," so named because the villagers once lived in a 600-foot-deep gorge and got most of their supplies by a rope and pulley on the ridge above. There were 60 families still living down there when I went to see al-Habbala and some of them immediately began to shout, "Don't throw rocks at us!" Apparently visitors had been lobbing rocks over the spectacular drop, inadvertently endangering the families below.

Al-Habbala, I've since learned, was the refuge, 300 years ago, of some 'Asir tribesmen seeking safety. Finding a well-watered place at the bottom of the gorge, they settled there and built the village where their descendants lived until recently; not long after my visit Prince Khalid built a new village for them.

Elsewhere in the province, I continued to find that odd mixture of barren aridity and blooming fertility. Enroute to Najran - actually a separate district - I visited Dhahran - 'Asir's Dhahran - and found villages that are incredibly beautiful. But almost immediately we descended to a monotonous deserted plain. It too is lovely but, as Philby said, in a forbidding way: mountains in the distance; clusters of tamarisk trees; rocks weirdly sculptured into mushrooms; Bedouin tents, the color of light camel hair; the earth a strange rust red; and great boulders strewn across the land, a shiny volcanic black. Then, in the Najran valley, the scene shifts dramatically again: to banana plantations, coconut palms, date palms, fields planted with durra and alfalfa and citrus orchards alive with oranges, tangerines and lemons.

Najran itself is a huge sprawling place, part town, part farm, half modern, half ancient; and on the outskirts I came across some remarkable stone-cutters in a remote quarry. Engaged in cutting slabs of stone to decorate the facades of buildings, they first drill holes in the rock, then insert iron bars and drive them in with sledge hammers in a melody of different notes from each bar.

Then there's Jizan in the Tihama, the coastal plain, once described (See Aramco World, January-February 1974) as "ugly, mosquito-ridden and humid," but now a symbol of Saudi Arabia's efforts to take full advantage of Asir's natural fertility.

North of Taif, the western coast of Saudi Arabia is dry. But as the highlands lie just within the range of the monsoon rains, 'Asir receives some 11 inches of rainfall a year - enough to make it the most fertile agricultural region in the kingdom. From earliest times the inhabitants of 'Asir have cultivated a wide variety of crops. Using terracing and catchment dams, they grew fruits such as grapes, peaches, apricots, limes, oranges, lemons and mangoes, wheat and other cereals, as well as such important cash crops as sugar, indigo and coffee.'Asir was so fertile, in fact, that it contributed to the classical geographical notion of Arabia Felix ("Happy Arabia").

Despite the hard work and ingenuity of the ancient inhabitants, however, much of that rainfall, over the centuries, was lost as, in torrents, it poured down the wadis in incredible flash floods that washed away topsoil, uprooted crops, drowned livestock and then, uselessly, sank into the sands. In 1967, therefore, Saudi Arabia took its first step toward harnessing the streams; the government, with U.N. help, started to build a dam between two ridges 30 miles east of Jizan.

As dams go, the Wadi Jizan Dam was a modest effort: 1,000 feet across, 133 feet high. But when it was completed in 1971, it not only provided irrigation for some 3,000 acres of land, but also signaled the start of construction on an interlocking series of irrigation and development projects that will increase the output of sorghum, a key food, and may enable farmers to grow corn, peanuts, sugar cane, cotton and papaya - as well as eucalyptus and tamarisk trees, key weapons in the kingdom's endless struggle to contain advancing deserts.

Near Wadi Jizan, the impact of the dam is already visible - in the cool waters of the reservoir and in the gardens bright with tomatoes, beans and okra - but on the coast there was still more activity as a French firm drove towards completion of a new and modern port.

The key to this project, I gathered, was the excavation of some 10 million cubic yards of sea bottom and installation of 136 prefabricated caissons. Built in the kingdom, the caissons are to break the force of the waves and provide a tranquil 30-foot-deep harbor. On the verge of completion, the port eventually may have nearly two miles of docks and will be able to handle roll-on-roll-off traffic, as well as containers.

In beauty the Tihama cannot compare with the highlands. Indeed it struck me as a different country altogether: more Africa than Arabia. Flat and humid, the al-Darb plain is dotted with huts more characteristic of Africa than the Peninsula, and its shoreline with fishing boats from another coast. And at harvest time you can see a threshing ritual in which the farmers lay the stalks of durra on the ground and beat them with big, flat angled sticks, which they call b'assa, whirling the sticks in the air like majorettes.

But then, thafs one of the attractions of 'Asir: the subtle and not-so-subtle differences that set it apart from the rest of the kingdom. These range from architecture -brick-and-stone "skyscrapers" built like forts but decorated like birthday cakes - to costume and attitude; 'Asir women frequently do not wear the veil, and their clothes, because of the cooler climate, are much closer cut. Many, furthermore, wear huge wide-brimmed straw hats, some of which could have graced the streets of Paris 80 years ago.

In the future, I expect, 'Asir will change swiftly as the kingdom's great road-building program proceeds and the provinces grow and flourish. Already, in fact, the population has increased - as workers pour in to assist in the agricultural expansion - and so has the number of visitors, many to see, even before it opens, the magnificent new national park (See next page). At last, its long isolation has come to an end.

Tor Eigeland is an Aramco World photographer and correspondent, and contributes regularly to European periodicals and to National Geographic books.

Paul Lunde is an Aramco World staff writer.

This article appeared on pages 12-21 of the September/October 1980 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1980 images.