Thursday, March 15, 2012

How Sweet It Is

One of the most difficult things about the Foreign Service is missing what's going on at home with family and friends.  I've been pretty lucky in my short career-this-far to get back for many milestones, but I've already missed the wedding of one of my best friends.  And that really sucks.  It's something you just don't get back.

So when it does work out, it's that much sweeter.  Yesterday one of my best friends (the wonderful L from many of my previous blog posts) told me about a special day coming up for her in London.  I already missed her graduation for her DPhil, and I really, really, really didn't want to miss this.  So I asked my supervisor for a few days of leave, which was granted.  Then I did a quick flight search - which was disappointing.  For some reason it's quite expensive to fly to London from Jeddah.  But I managed to find a direct flight for a price that didn't scare me too much.  So I bought the ticket.  Then I found a reasonably-priced hotel around the corner from her flat.  I booked a room.  And then I jumped up and down for the rest of the day!  As did L when I told her I was coming. 

The timing is perfect - right in between big projects at work - and the weather should be decent in London.  London is one of my favorite cities, even though I've spent comparatively little time there.  So this will be a wonderful time to soak up all things English for a true Anglophile.  And spend an incredibly special day with an incredibly special friend.


Sunday, March 11, 2012

Madain Saleh & the Hejaz Railway

Before I left the U.S. the second time this winter, I had the foresight to load a bunch of photos from a trip I made in December so that I could eventually get around to blogging about it.  So no more procrastinating!

In December I had the good fortune to visit one of Saudi Arabia's most treasured historic sites - Madain Saleh - as part of an official work trip.  This came right on the heels of my visit to Petra, which made it that much more relevant. 

Madain Saleh is considered the second city of the Nabataeans in size and stature, after Petra, their capital.  It is a very different site in terms of geography and landscape in addition to being five hundred kilometers south of Petra.  It is also much less visited and much less well known (though similarly impressive).

We started our day flying to al-Wejh, a coastal city that is the closest airport to Madain Saleh.  From there we drove about two hours east and reached the town of al-Ula.  On the way we stopped at an Ottoman-era fort a few km off the road.  The fort site was in relatively good shape and entirely deserted.  We had a great time traipsing around the ruins, though we did frighten off the camels grazing nearby with our entourage. 

al-Ula has been home to several important Kingdoms over several thousand years and was an important stop on the incense trade route as well as the Hejaz Railway.  al-Ula hosts ruins dating to at least the first century BCE.  The most prominent ruins in the city, though, date to the thirteenth century CE

We stopped for lunch at a kebsa restaurant (a true Saudi specialty of meat on rice).  Then we toured the Medieval city of al-Ula, wandering through the winding alleyways and climbing to the highest lookout tower.  The surrounding mountains were absolutely stunning, and it was a perfect early winter day.  The photos below show the old city juxtaposed against the new, quite an interesting vision.

After a brief rest stop, we headed to Madain Saleh itself, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Entry is controlled; one must apply in advance for visit permits, which we had done.  Whereas Petra houses modest tourist facilities (rest rooms, souvenir shops, food/drink kiosks), Madain Saleh is still developing and does not currently have these resources.  However, there is significant interest in developing the site for tourism, and there was evidence of road construction while we were there.

Geographically, Madain Saleh differs from Petra significantly.  It consists of several clusters of tombs and monuments across a large plain, whereas Petra is contained within a secluded valley.  The Madain Saleh carvings are found at naturally-occurring sandstone outcrops.  Instead of walking or riding livestock, the major points of interest in Madain Saleh can be reached via car.  It's possible to drive right up to some of the tombs, though the desert sands can plague even 4XD, as we discovered. 

In terms of style of carvings, there are many similarities between the two Nabataean sites.  This site was an important stop on the spice trade route; the Nabataeans were well-versed in trade and commerce.  There are no large building facades like the Treasury or Monastery from Petra at Madain Saleh.  The tomb clusters, though, are similarly impressive to their counterparts in Jordan. 

There's a well-preserved Hejaz Railway station within the Madain Saleh site.  The Hejaz Railway was built in Ottoman times to connect Constantinople with Medina and Mecca to ease the Hajj pilgrimage for Muslims.  While parts of the railway in Jordan and Syria are still functional, it has been abandoned in Saudi Arabia.  It never reached very far south of Medina - still 400 km from Mecca.  The station near Madain Saleh has been well-preserved as a museum and features numerous buildings and several train segments. 

Madain Saleh was beautiful and fascinating and much less exhausting than Petra.  I am so, so glad I made it there - it was at the very top of my Saudi to-do list. 

That's all the history and factoids I'm going to dig up, but feel free to look up more on your own, and enjoy the photos below!

As the day wound down, we began our trip north to Tabuk, our next stop.  It happened to be the night of a total lunar eclipse, and I convinced our delegation to stop at the estimated peak and look for the moon.  So at 17:20, our driver got on the radio and asked the lead car to pull over "so Sadie can look at the moon."  So everyone did, though not everyone really understood why.  As luck would have it, the moon was not visible on the horizon yet (we weren't at the best coordinates to see the total eclipse.  Disappointed, we continued on our way.  A while later we made a stop at a local police station for tea and conversation with some of our escorts.  As we sat, one of the drivers came in to get me from the majlis room to tell me the eclipse was visible.  I walked outside and was greeted with the stunning view of the eclipse, now partial but no less beautiful.  The entire delegation oohed and aahed and watched the sky, and those who thought I was crazy an hour or so earlier now understood why!  I considered it particularly poignant as I had enjoyed the full moon the previous month from Wadi Rum in Jordan.  Two gorgeous desert moonscapes in a month!

Our police hosts showed us to one more Ottoman fort as we continued on to Tabuk, but it was now completely dark, and the only light we had was from car headlights and the headlamp I had put in my bag at the last minute that morning.  (Once a Girl Scout, always a Girl Scout!)  Luckily nobody fell into one of the wells or holes in the floor.  The rest of our journey to Tabuk was uneventful, and we had a fun dinner at our hotel retelling stories of the day's adventures.

All in all, what a wonderful day of work! 

Ottoman-era fort

The fruits are popular camel food

I adore the phrase "Neolithic Moist Phase"

Alleyways in al-Ula's Medieval-era town

Old and new cities, side by side

The old city of al-Ula

The camouflage of the lookout is quite impressive

First glimpses of Madain Saleh

Size comparison :-)

See the lone tomb?

Some are simpler than others

Unfinished tomb - the bottom half is still rock.

Mushroom tomb

Hejaz Railway Station

This was my favorite freestanding stone structure

Mini Siq!

Majlis room!

Mini siq

Stunning rocky outcrops!

Amazing detail on many of the tombs!

The largest and most impressive tomb

Possibly my favorite photo of the day - what a vista!

Oh, dunes, how I love you!