I live about 45 minutes away from Al Ahsa, the largest oasis in the world. It is in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, and is known for its date farms. We spent the whole day on a tour of the region, and now I have a much better understanding of where I live. This is a tale best told in pictures, so here goes!
We started the day at the camel market, a big operation outside of town. There must have been hundreds of camels there, including lots of baby camels. Camels make strange, loud, Wookie-like noises, and they smell slightly rotten. Their lips are floppy, often revealing teeth and gums slimed greenish or brown.
We were told that adult camels often don't like humans (quite possibly because some are not treated well), but baby camels are almost always friendly and playful.
Camel and Camry
This illustrates just how big a camel is. We visited with one of the Bedouins there at the market, who offered camel rides and free camel kisses to anyone interested.
Ibrahim Palace Wall
Next we visited the Ibrahim Palace Museum, in the center of the oasis, in the city of Hofuf. This is really more of a fortress than a palace; it was built by the Ottomans and includes a room that was originally a Turkish bath.
Turkish bath in Ibrahim Palace
When the Arabs reconquered the region and took over the palace, they converted the Turkish bath into a storage room. Our tour guide said that Bedouins are too tough for baths and massages.
Ibrahim Palace mosque dome and minaret
The palace had inside its walls a beautiful, simple mosque which was open for us to tour.
Inside the mosque
The mosque was lit with this simple chandelier, which had been converted to electricity. It was easy to imagine what it must have been like, though, with the domed interior lit by candles in those glass globes, along with the perforated openings higher up on the wall.
Inside the courtyard of Al Mullah House
We drove just a few blocks from the palace to Al Mullah House, a residence which was established in the late 1700s. The house presents a blank wall with just a single door to the street. Like most traditional architecture in this region, the windows and doors of the house face inward, into a central courtyard.
Al Mullah interior living space
Traditional Arabic cushions furnish the interior rooms, which are dark and ventilated with cool air thanks to the perforated filigree that allows air to pass through the walls.
Still in Hofuf, we visited Ameriya School, a traditional school for boys (as all traditional schools were), and the Al Ahsa Museum, which offered an easy-to-digest history of this region and Saudi Arabia generally. And then: lunch!
The bus took us to a walled compound--there are 101 such resort compounds in Al Ahsa, we were told. Inside, were free to relax, remove abayas (for we were to treat this like home), tour the grounds, and sip tiny cups of Arabic coffee before lunch.
Strolling around the resort
The resort reminded me a little bit of an upscale version of something you'd find in Rishikesh, the little city in India that I visited last year. The overall effect was exotic and lush, but the details were screwy: a taxidermied duck perched next to the tropical waterfall. A dusty, disused game room included a pool table that looked too small to be regulation sized. A sad, small zoo or menagerie included an ostrich, the largest turkey I have ever seen, and some long-haired felines that looked to me like big, well-fed housecats.
The resort put out a massive Arabic buffet, including hummus, tabbouleh, baba ghanouj, several green salads, kebabs, chicken in a rich gravy, seasoned rice, and on and on and on. We ate, then had plenty of time to relax after lunch. This relaxed break in the middle of the day was a really nice touch that struck me as distinctly Middle Eastern.
Lounging after lunch
It was a good thing we got to rest a little after lunch, because the next stop on our tour was Al Gara Mountain. We toured surprisingly cool sandstone caves, and then we climbed around on the mountain.
On the path to the cave entrance
In the picture above, you can get a sense of the scale of the mountain. The Al Ahsa region is flat, flat, flat, so it is appropriate to call these "mountains," though of course they're not so big compared to other places in the world.
Entering the caves
A cool breeze blew out of the cave entrance, which was quite disconcerting on a warm, sunny afternoon. Our group explored some of the caves under the mountain, but the guide explained that there are many, many others that branch off. We came across some extinguished campfires and debris that told us that people wander in here and camp.
Our guide told us that this passage was a diet test: if you can pass through, you don't need to go on one! I got through, but I was touching rock front and back.
Looking across the top of Al Gara Mountain
After we explored the underside of Al Gara Mountain, we climbed to the top of it. Parts of the uphill climb were steep, and the hand and footholds were loose with sand. This being Saudi Arabia, I was climbing in my abaya. My friend and I tied our abayas up like long shirts, and a couple of times my wide, floppy sleeves got in the way. Western women were, of course, the only females who were attempting to climb. On the ground below, Saudi women were arranging picnics on blankets and watching over their younger children, while the men and older kids clambered around on the rocks.
View of the oasis
Here's a good illustration of how big, and how lush, Al Ahsa is. The trees down below are date palms. There are hundreds of date farms here.
From Al Gara Mountain, we went to see a traditional pottery demonstration, and then to a date factory--though this is not date season, so there was nothing really going on there. We did buy some Al Ahsa rice there, which looks like reddish basmati rice. Can you imagine: they grow rice in Saudi Arabia!
Finally, we returned to the resort for another incredible meal. It was after 9 p.m. when the tour bus returned us home, caked with mountain dirt and stuffed with traditional Arabic food.