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!

I had already had quite a fun filled 10 days with all the activities we had for the ARAMCO reunion. One more was added at the last minute and it was a freebie - quick trip to Riyadh to have dinner with Princess Reema, the newly appointed ambassador to the United States. Only Americans were invited, of course. I jumped at the chance and was so glad I did because it included much more than just dinner!

After flying the Saudi Aramco jet to Riyadh, we were given a police escort to the site of the dinner - the historic ruins of Al Diriyah. 

I had been to Al Diriyah as a child, but have the very faintest of memories. I just know we went. At the time, it was just the ruins off to themselves like this...

courtesy of Saudi Tourism
Since then there has not only been much restoration, but all sorts of facilities built next to it. Such things as a museum, conference center, etc. 

Upon arrival there were the welcoming things we had been having at so many events during the reunion.  The cultural drummers and dancers, the coffee and tea offerings, and the dates to nibble on. 

Al Diriyah is in an oasis area known as Wadi Hanifa in central Arabia that has been occupied for thousands of years. In 1446 the city was founded by Mani' Al-Muraydi, an ancestor of the Saudi royal family. It is therefore considered the rooted home of the royal Saud family. It became the capital of the Nejd region of Arabia and through tribal wars, increased in size. It lasted through a long siege by the Ottoman Empire after which it was largely vacated after the Ottomans broke through and destroyed the palm groves and city.

What was an exciting and thoroughly enjoyable experience was the light show that was projected onto the walls of the ruins. It depicted the history of Al Diriyah and the Saud family. Please watch it all, because it is most impressive. I liken it to those at Luxor or the Pyramids, but I think this one is much more current technology-wise.

We were broken into small groups to go on tours through the ruins. Each group was led by a team of two to three women tour guides. Our tours were probably considerably briefer than day tours, but still enjoyable.

In one area they were depicting daily life showing the types of arts and crafts that Saudis might practice. There were also children playing games and singing Saudi children's songs. 

showing the original bricks and the layers

projections on walls inside as well

the school area was two stories

a well

Where the imam leads the prayers (like pulpit)

it was a full moon, but the cell phone camera isn't sharp enough

After our tours we sat down to a dinner under the stars. We were blessed with perfect weather - no wind or cold like we had on some nights. There were many other VIPs in attendance from the government. I'm pretty sure the US Ambassador was there since it was in honor of the Princess. Also in attendance was the visiting Minister from Nigeria.

The Minister of Energy, Khalid bin Abdulaziz Al-Falih, gave a very nice speech on how much past Aramco employees are appreciated and honored. After all, we were the foundation that created the company that they took over in the 80s. 

He then introduced the Princess. Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is the daughter of a former ambassador to the US.  She gave a lovely speech about how she can relate to us. After all, she lived from age 7 to 37 in the United States. She understands what it is is to have a second country and a second family in those citizens. 

Everyone was thoroughly impressed by her and tried desperately to have their pictures taken with her. After so many issues of late in regards to Saudi global affairs, she seems to be a breath of fresh air and likely to do well to smooth relations with the West.