Through our lives we have seen plenty of movies set in Middle Eastern cities – Indiana Jones, Sinbad, Prince of Persia, and more. There’s usually a foot chase that takes place through a series of narrow but twisted, maze-like streets. Turns out, there is a method to the madness of those crazy streets.

I went to a KAUST cultural lecture yesterday on Architecture of the Red Sea region. It was presented by Dr. Hisham Mortada, professor of architecture at King Abdulaziz University. His specialty is traditional architecture and he presented an informative talk on why cities and buildings here are constructed the way they are.

Saudi architecture is governed by the social needs, such as Islamic practices and keeping public and private lives separated, and by constructional needs based on environment.

Above we have typical homes in the Al Balad (old city) of Jeddah. They have a basic cube structure that has many wooden decorative pieces on the windows and fa├žade called rowshan or mashrabiyas. The preferred directional setting of the house was to the north or northwest, the best angles to catch the wind to cool the homes.

There are not many construction resources in Saudi. After all, it is mostly desert. Some regions use mud, other areas have access to limestone. On the coastal areas it turns out that they resorted to coral stone. They would go and take large coral blocks from the sea, dry them out, and use those as the main building blocks.

The problem is that coral is actually pretty fragile and easily breaks down over time, crumbling into powder. To combat this, some wood beams were used to reinforce the walls and then the walls were covered in gypsum. Windows, doors, and ceilings were wood.

The ceiling were usually a combination of wood, mostly from mangroves, and palm leaves and mangrove roots.

The front door is the entry from the public setting of the street to the private setting of the home and is therefore the most decorated. The door itself is usually wood and can be decorated by carvings and/or metal embellishments such as nails. There is often a decorative cornice above.

More decorative elements could be added via the gypsum plastering of the walls.

The most distinctive feature of these homes are the wooden rawashin (plural of rowshan) and mashrabiyas on the windows. They served several purposes, the most important being for cooling and for privacy.

Islam is known for strict privacy - the most well known being the privacy of women. By covering the windows with these creative screens, it allows for privacy as well as for allowing air to flow through for cooling.

The cooling is handled in several ways. First is the screening itself, but also by the construction of the interior of the homes. The method of room and stairwell arrangement was done in such a way as to create air flow through the home.

Another way was from the use of water. Pots of water would be set into the mashrabiyas so that the air would flow across the water and cool – a primitive method of air conditioning. This use of water for cooling explains why some homes would have fountains.

The uppermost floor, or roof, was the kharjah and used as a private courtyard, completely covered by roofing and rawashin, and often used for sleeping on the hottest nights as well as a family gathering area and for airing out laundry. They did not have courtyards or patios, so the roof was their main 'outdoor' space. 

The rawashin not only provided cooling to the interior of them home, but also for the exterior. The way they stick out from the building provides extra shading to the streets and pedestrians below.

Which brings us back to the twisting, narrow streets. This was another method of cooling because it created a way to funnel the wind through the streets.

one of the towers from inside the pedestrian tunnels
A few of these old construction techniques are used in the modern buildings of the campus here at King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST). The main buildings are set in the best direction to catch the ocean breezes and funnel them through the ‘tunnel’s that go through the buildings. Within these tunnel walkways are many water features that cool the air as it sweeps through. Finally, there are two tall towers that suck the air through and up creating the breezy air flow through the entire complex.

exterior shot of a ventilation tower

I’m glad I was able to catch this lecture because it really helped to explain many aspects of the old homes I had been seeing on my visits to Jeddah.

I was well aware of Ramadan when we lived 16 years in Saudi Arabia. It never affected me though. I was a child living in an American compound and so it never meant more than a month of fasting to me. My father, I’m sure, did deal with it in the workplace with such things as shorter work hours and a slowing down of activities.

That’s why I decided to go to the Ramadan Orientation breakfast at KAUST today. I had been hearing that you can’t even drink water in the presence of others during Ramadan. What other things would affect my daily life?

The event started with a breakfast featuring some traditional dishes. There was, of course, fool. Fool is mashed beans that you top with whatever you like: onions, peppers, yogurt, nuts, herbs, etc. It reminds me a lot of Chinese congee in the same way you put toppings that you like. There were dates dipped in chocolate or filled with nuts, omali (a sort of bread pudding), samosas, kenefe, etc. Drinks included Arab coffee and tea as well as Vimto and Rooh Afza, which is a Pakistani syrup made from a squash, rose water, and other ingredients and mixed with water.

mahmoul - date filled cookies
We learned about Ramadan being the 9th month of the lunar calendar. The dates can differ slightly by where you are in the world, but in Saudi Arabia, it is determined by physically seeing the first crescent sliver of the new moon. That means if it is a cloudy night so that the moon can not be observed, Ramadan will not be proclaimed yet. For 2019, it is scheduled to run from May 6 to June 4.

Ramadan signifies the month that the Holy Koran was ‘revealed’ to the Prophet Muhammed. Sort of like the Ten Commandments and Moses. The month is supposed to be a month of reflection and piety. Fasting takes place as a way to purify one’s heart, soul, and spirituality and to reflect on God’s word. It is also so that people can relate to the hardships of the poor and hungry. During this month there should not only be reflection on oneself, but charitable acts as well. There should be increased peace, generosity, patience, forgiveness, and charity.

Fasting takes place from sunrise until sunset, or more specifically, until after the sunset prayer Currently that’s at about 6:45 PM and will keep getting a bit later as the month progresses. They practice a dry fast, meaning they can’t even drink anything. Fasting is not only regarding food and drink, but also smoking and any other habitual pleasure. It’s like Christians who give up a favorite thing for Lent. It also includes refraining from impure thoughts, pettiness, or vanity.
People can be excused from fasting, but not entirely. Basically, if you aren’t fasting due to illness, menstruation, pregnancy, breast feeding, or travelling, then you have to make up those days later in the year. Fasting begins at age 10 and goes until they can no longer fast due to age/illness. In particular, if you have lifelong medication that requires food/drink, then you will always be off the hook from fasting.

The first meal that breaks the fast is called Iftar. It is suggested that you start with dates because they have many nutrients and are somewhat lower on the glycemic index; they won’t skyrocket  your blood sugar as other sugars/carbs. Supposedly it is a lighter meal, but I’m hearing stories that people still pork out. The ‘bigger’ meal is Sahoor and takes place between 2-3 in the morning as a way to load up for the next day.

How will this affect me?

  • Muslims will work only until 2 PM, the rest of us work normal work hours.
  • All food businesses will be shuttered during the day. For non-Muslims, the only place to eat/drink will be the cafeteria, which will be open 24/7.
  • You cannot eat or drink in front of others. I plan to fast during Ramadan myself, but I cannot dry fast. I will get a migraine if I get dehydrated. This means I’ll have to bring a bag each morning with a filled water bottle in it and take it into a bathroom stall if I want a drink!
  • This will greatly affect our shopping buses to Jeddah as apparently everything stays shut until 9 PM and then will generally stay open until 2 AM! I’m definitely trying to get any last shopping done before May 6 because I’m not interested in those late hours. I just can’t cope without sleep!
  • The Iftar and Sahoor meals are family and holiday celebrations. This is when dishes and clothing that you don’t normally see during the rest of the year come out. Think month long Christmas.
  • I’ve been wearing a couple of Mideast outfits/dresses that my workmates keep complimenting as my Ramadan outfits. Supposedly it depends on the region of the country, but here in the Hijaz area, these outfits are only worn during Ramadan.
  • As for the food, I am hoping that I get invited to someone’s Iftar. They say you should definitely experience it. At the least, there will be Iftar specialty dishes served each night at a couple of the KAUST restaurants. I will try each one for sure.

Unfortunately, I will depart in the middle of Ramadan and so I will not get to celebrate the end – Eid al-Fitr. That’s when even bigger holiday celebrations take place and KAUST will shut down for 3-4 days.

Before we begin these tales, we must make clear that non-Muslims are not allowed into Mecca. 

Circa 1972-73

I'm about 7 and my brother about 5. My dad has become interested in scuba diving and he decides that he wants to drive from Ras Tanura, on the Arabian Gulf coast, across the country to Jeddah, on the Red Sea coast, to go diving. This is about a 900 mile trip and, back then, took about 16 hours of driving. 

It has become a favorite family tale that we non-Muslims drove through Mecca. 

My dad drove through the night, mostly because I was car sick, to reach our destination as soon as possible. When you get to Mecca, there is a bypass route so that non-Muslims can go around the city they are not supposed to enter.

It was late at night, so my brother and I were asleep. Dad apparently missed the turnoff and so when he reached the security checkpoint...well, they waved him through! We're not really sure if it was because it was so late they didn't see, it was too convenient to make him turn around, or what. The point is, we always tell how we drove through Mecca. I, being asleep, really missed the whole thing.

Now - 2019

It's a good 45+ years later and a lot has changed and yet I have a new Mecca story to tell. One I wasn't slow to call and report to my dad.

This time I am with my Saudi roommate, Azhar, who is from Mecca, and Jeff, an American friend. We decided to go to Taif for the weekend and so we must drive right by Mecca. Jeff and I are well aware of the rule that we are not allowed in Mecca.

Thing is, Mecca has grown considerably. So much so that I think that it's grown past the bypass route. As we drive along I see the Royal Clock Tower in the distance. It's located in the center of one of the world's largest hotel complexes, built to host thousands of pilgrims that come each year for the Hajj. It is built extremely close to the Great Mosque where the Ka'bah is kept. (Topmost picture gives you the idea.)

There are signs about the need to separate and re-route away, but they are very unclear. Unfortunately, I missed getting shots of the really important ones: "Entering Haram Border", etc. 

Turns out that you can go to Mecca, you just can't go passed the Haram Border. Haram means "holy" and so you aren't supposed to pass into the holy zone. To be quite honest, we are unsure if we might have, just on the very edge, entered the holy zone or not. I would say that we were within a mile of the Great Mosque just based on our sighting of the Royal Clock Tower in the distance.

Mecca is now such a large metropolis that the holy zone is well within the city boundaries now. A lot of growth in 45+ years.

Since ancient times of Babylonia and Egypt, the people of the Middle East have used miswak to brush their teeth.

Miswak is made from the Salvadora persica tree. People have cut thin branches or the roots to create natural tooth brushes. Here is my video explaining how.

Miswak has natural antimicrobial properties, much like honey or echinacea. Some studies have been done with people in Saudi Arabia and also in Sudan to check their dental hygiene and they were found to have just as good periodontal care compared to people who use toothbrushes.

In addition to strengthening the gums, preventing tooth decay and eliminating toothaches, the miswak is said to halt further decay that has already set in. Furthermore, it is reputed to create a fragrance in the mouth, eliminate bad breath, improve sensitivity of taste-buds and promote cleaner teeth.
To use miswak, cut a piece as big as a toothbrush. Whittle the bark off a bit of one end and then chew the end a bit in order to loosen the fibers to create bristles. The miswak should be softened, so if it has dried out, it needs to be soaked or sucked on to get it moist and supple again. Scrub your teeth with the bristles. 

For best hygiene, cut the bristles off and start another whittle end for each use until you've used the entire stick.

Miswak is mentioned in the Koran as recommended by the prophet Muhammed for proper hygiene.

After a morning of sight seeing at Mada'in Saleh and a nice lunch, it was time to have some adventurous fun in the desert. 

Above photo: Al Ula from above, courtesy Mike Miller

Our group climbed into a dozen or so four-wheel drive vehicles and sped off as each driver competed with the others and trash talked over CB radios. The group of drivers were organized by Amazing Tours, a tour company out of Riyadh. Each driver uses their own vehicle and comes to help as a way of promoting their country for tourism. Our driver was Sami, a late 20s young man from Riyadh. 

Our first stop was to a lookout point high above Al Ula. What fascinated me was the terrain. I was craving a topographical map because I was fascinated by what we observed. We had started out on the desert floor at the same level as Al Ula and Mada'in Saleh, but climbed up one of the craggy cliffs to get to the lookout. 

As we climbed I noted the difference in rock color. The top was black rocks crumbling down the sides of the tan sandstone. The black was volcanic rock as the area had once been not only underwater, but also formed by volcanic activity. What was also fascinating was that after we reached the summit, it seemed as if that flat level went on for miles. It was as if we had risen to another floor of Saudi! 

If you look at this satellite map from Google, you can sort of see this. Left is the higher level and you can see the lower, sandstone levels and desert floor to the right.

The view would have been so much nicer if we had clearer air. Oh for smog and haze!

In this shot you can make out the historic, mud block city of Al Ula among the trees.

The other direction.

Then it was time for four-wheeling. We returned to the desert floor and drove close to Mada'in Saleh again. In the middle of the adventure we stopped for coffee and dates.

Please enjoy these shots of the interesting terrain and check out the video of us in the vehicle at the very end of the post.

In the 1970s I had the opportunity to visit the ancient city of Petra in Jordan. For those not familiar with the name, you might recall it from the ending of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Back then it had few tourists and there was only one small hotel at the top of the canyon path that leads to the site. I'm afraid to think of what it looks like now. I'm sure you have to run a gauntlet of souvenir shops selling trinkets made somewhere else. 

Later in life I learned that there were similar carved structures within Saudi Arabia itself and that they were related to those at Petra. The site here is called Mada'in Saleh and, while Petra was the capital of the Nabataean empire, Mada'in Saleh was the secondary, southern capital at what was a fork in their trade routes. One route led to Petra and the other led toward Mesopotamia. The ancient name for Mada'in Saleh was Al Hijra.

Note that Mada'in Saleh is closed to the public until 2020, at the earliest, as the government tries to build tourist infrastructure around the region. We were given royal permission to access the site.

The site has been settled for thousands of years, but it is famous for the Nabataean era because they were the ones that did the stone carvings of tombs into the surrounding rock formations. The most famous tomb and image is this one of the lone temple...

courtesy Mike Miller
This is Al Qusr Al Fareed, the most recognized of the Saudi tombs because it is the largest and it is in its own rock formation. All other tombs share rock formations, some times over a dozen on one. At the top picture you can see two that are side by side on with others (off screen) around them. Although the largest, Al Qusr Al Fareed is actually unfinished, like many of the tombs that were left behind. 

There are over 130 tombs located so far. In 2017 the first intact tomb was found with skeletons still inside. This tomb is, of course, off limits as its contents are studied. 

Tomb carving was influenced by several factors. Bigger tombs were for richer families. Poor families had just a hole carved in the rock or were placed on carved niches exposed to the elements. The background of the family and era also influenced what was carved on the front. Some have Egyptian elements, some have Greek, Roman, Assyrian, etc. The direction or side of the rock they were carved on also made a difference. Richer folk purchased the side that was facing away from the wind so that the tomb would not be eroded by wind and sand storms. Poor folk took the wind sides. 

In general, the tombs surrounded a large residential area that occupied a central flat area. This area is currently fenced off for archaeological digging/research. At the time, the area was more fertile and boasted 130 wells.

Unlike any at Petra, the tombs here actually had 'plaques' at the top with inscriptions of owner, their positions, the carver, and other details. Many held military ranks, leading to theories that this served as a military center for protecting trade routes. 

Inside you might find a room or two, body niches, or some platforms. The guide told us that while the family was still alive and burying generations, they would use a wood door to close off the tomb. Once the last member of the family died, the tomb would be sealed off with a carved stone to fit the entrance and lime. 

In 2008, UNESCO's World Heritage Committee (WHC) agreed on Madain Saleh site to join the World Heritage List. Thus, the site has become the first archeological site in Saudi Arabia to be enlisted by the WHC of the UNESCO.

The Nabataean wealth and influence came from trade of spices, frankincense, and myrrh along their trade routes. The fall of their empire came at the hands of the Romans, who conquered the region and started to trade via water (Red and Arabian Seas) versus over land. The city declined and was eventually pretty much abandoned. 

original Ottoman fort

The Ottomans took over the region in the 1500s and built a fort with a well. It still served as a waystation for pilgrims going on Hajj. Eventually, in the early 1900s, a railroad was built to reach Mecca and the station became one of the stops. More buildings were added to the site. During World War I, the railway was blown up farther north by revolting Arabs and Lawrence of Arabia.

I fell in love with the rocky formations of the region. 

 Not historical bones and perhaps not even human.

 We ended this portion of our trip with a lunch at the Sahary Resort. As I mentioned, Mada'in Saleh is closed while infrastructure is being built to cope with the anticipated tourism. The road through the ruins was a dirt one and there are limited facilities at the train station. The government has plans for more hotels, restaurants, museums, and facilities. If you read my post about Al Diriyah, then the plans call for similar buildings as they have already accomplished in Riyadh. 

Sahary Resort is one of the first completed with more expansion underway. They have bedouin tent bungalows (think yurt) to reserve and the dining is in this luxurious dining tent.

Up next, our afternoon of four-wheeling through the desert!