Area: 2,149,690 square kilometers
Population: approx. 25,2 million
Currency: Saudi Riyal (SAR)
Saudi Arabia is a huge country, stretching across most of the Arabian Peninsula, from the Red Sea in the west to the Arabian Gulf in the east.
Although mostly famous for its oil resources and being the land of Islam’s holy cities, Saudi Arabia also features a range of captivating natural sceneries, like the green mountains of Asir and the sand seas of the Empty Quarter.
The Asir is a range of lofty, coastal mountains bordering on Yemen. The region abounds in mountains, valleys and fertile plains. Mountain peaks rise to 3,000 meters and this is one of the few regions in the country with ample rainfall. This makes the Asir region abound in natural vegetation and cultivation.
Asir has a rich fauna. Baboons are common, and can often be seen in groups alongside the roads. Gazelle, leopard, honey badger and mongoose inhabit remoter areas of the region.
Abha is the capital of the Asir and a popular local tourism resort. It is also the most suitable starting point for excursions into the Asir region.
The huge Asir National Park stretches from the Red Sea to the desert east of the mountains. It actually consists of a number of smaller parks, each one having its own camping ground and picnic area.
The Abha area has many recreational facilities, and the cable car rides are strongly recommended.
Najran, southeast of Abha and close to the Yemeni border, has a history that goes back about 4,000 years. Najran used to be an important trading centre.
Najran, which in ancient times was called Al Ukhdood, was at its height of prosperity during the first and second centuries BC. Around 250 BC, the population of Najran became Christians, until the 7th century AD, when they embraced Islam.
Places of interest include the Fort, which is not ancient at all (from the 1940’s), but known for its decorative architecture. There is a good museum, beside the ancient site of Al Ukhdood, which was inhabited from 500 BC to around 900 AD. The story of Al Ukhdood is mentioned in the Qur’an, where the monotheistic believers were forced to choose between relinquishing their faith or being thrown into a fire.
Najran has several souks, among them the Balad souk, where Bedouin women sell their crafts.
Jizan is a hot and humid fishing port on the Red Sea, and it has a traditional souk.
Sharourah & The Empty Quarter
This is a desert region covering roughly one quarter of the Arabian Peninsula. The oasis town of Sharourah, 380 km east of Najran, is situated on the edge of The Empty Quarter. After this town, there is nothing but sand for more than a thousand kilometres.
Sharourah itself doesn’t have much to offer, but the trip there offers spectacular views of unspoilt desert scenery, with mighty sand dunes gradually building up along the road from Najran.
The Hijaz (The Western Province)
Taif is a mountain city, on the slopes of the Sarawat Mountains, at an elevation of 1700 m. Because of its elevated location, Taif enjoys a milder climate than much of the country, and the Saudi government moves here from Riyadh during the summer months.
Taif is noted for its palaces and for the Corniche road that winds down the cliffs of the Taif escarpment. Like in other mountainous parts of western Saudi Arabia, Taif has its fair share of baboons. They remain a popular tourist attraction, as long as you keep your car doors and windows shut!
Jeddah is a blend of old and new. The downtown area, called Al Balad, has retained some very interesting examples of traditional architecture. Modern Jeddah boasts ever-increasing numbers of mega malls and shopping centres. As a shopper’s paradise, Jeddah has few competitors.
Jeddah is famous for its seafront, the palm-fringed Corniche, where families and friends gather on weekends to relax and socialize. The Corniche has plenty of leisure facilities for the young ones.
Scuba diving is a popular sport in Jeddah, and the Red Sea coast offers some of the best scuba diving opportunities in the world.
Makkah is the holiest city in Islam, and the spiritual centre of the Muslim world. In the centre of Makkah is the Grand Mosque, housing the Kaaba, a square-shaped building forming the axis from which the Muslim prayer directions radiate. Muslims all over the world pray according to the "Qibla" - the direction to the Kaaba. The Kaaba, which according to Muslim belief was built by the prophet Abraham, is not an object of worship, but a symbol of unity of the faith.
During Ramadan, the month of fasting, huge numbers of Muslims come to Makkah to perform prayers in the Grand Mosque. During the last ten days of Ramadan, Makkah becomes home to around 2 million worshippers from all over the world. Millions of pilgrims also come to Makkah annually to perform the pilgrimage, called Hajj. The main event of the Hajj is the Day of Arafah, when the pilgrims spend the day at the plains of Arafat, just outside Makkah. The remaining Hajj rituals are completed at other adjacent locations, and also at the Grand Mosque.
Access to Makkah is only permitted to Muslims. Non-Muslims traveling by road from Jeddah to Taif or Riyadh use a highway that passes outside the boundaries of Makkah.
Madinah is the second holiest city in Islam. It is the city to which the Prophet Muhammad fled together with his close companion Abu Bakr, away from the persecution in Makkah. This is where he built the first Islamic society and statehood.
Madinah is dominated by the Prophet's Mosque, situated in the very centre of the city. The mosque houses the graves of the Prophet Muhammad, the caliph Abu Bakr, and the caliph Omar. However, the graves are not the object of any worship.
Muslims visit Madinah throughout the year, to offer prayers at the Prophet's Mosque. During the fasting month of Ramadan, and the Hajj pilgrimage, the mosque and its surroundings get very crowded, as millions of worshippers come to Madinah. Like Makkah, access to Madinah is only permitted to Muslims.
This is an ancient Nabatean site, some 22 km west of the town of Al-Oula, in the Madinah Governorate. Madain Saleh, also called Al-Hijr, is the 2nd most important Nabatean site in the world, after Petra in Jordan. Madain Saleh was an important post along the trading routes between northern and southern Arabia. Its architectural elements date to the Nabatean civilization between the 2nd century BC and the 2nd century AD. 95% of the remains are made up of burial grounds, with 131 tombs spread over a large area. Many of these have inscriptions describing who built the tomb and who is buried there. The city and story of the people of Al-Hijr is mentioned in the Quran.
Just to the north of Madain Saleh is the remnant of one of stations along the defunct Hejaz Railway. Originally built by the Ottomans, with the purpose of transporting Muslim pilgrims from Damascus to Madinah, the railway was officially opened on 1 September 1908. Although used by large numbers of pilgrims, the railway also came to be used for transportation of Turkish troops and army supplies. For this reason, the railway became a target during the First World War, and this marked the beginning of its decline. The station area near Madain Saleh contains an engine house and several old steam locomotives.
Najd (The Central Plateau)
Riyadh is the capital of Saudi Arabia, on the central plateau called Najd. It is a sprawling modern city of some 4 million people, in the middle of the desert. Riyadh has grown tremendously during the last decade, and has become the leading business city in the country.
Riyadh has very few historical landmarks left, the Masmak fort in the downtown area being the most prominent. This is the fort which Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud stormed in 1902, creating a turning point in the history of both Riyadh and the Arabian Peninsula. Among other landmarks are a few traditional Najdi palaces near Deera Square.