Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Date Farms and Deserted Villages: a Visit to Al Ula

Near Madain Saleh is the small town of Al Ula. It’s set among an oasis of palm trees and tall red sandstone cliffs. 

On the day we visited we had a picnic lunch on a traditional date farm. Hot, spicy Yemeni chicken, tabbouleh, Arabic flat bread, and then pistachio baklava. It was delivered in the back of a small farm van and had been freshly cooked for us by the farmer's wife. It's a funny thing how food like this, eaten outside - this time under green date palms and a blue sky - always smells and tastes so good. 

Of all the places we visited in Al Ula, the old village was my favourite spot. We parked on the busy main road, then took a winding path past its crumbling homes up to a restored fort.

Perched on a high rocky promontory, this fort must once have been an excellent defence post for the village below.

Ahmed, our tall, quietly spoken Arabic guide, told us that until relatively recently the village had been a bustling close-knit community. He said that his brother had been born here, only thirty years ago. His mother, like the other inhabitants had been relocated, but she’d never really settled.

Then, dropping his voice and speaking quite slowly, he added that when she came back to visit,she cried. She’d loved it here, he said.

We walked down quiet, narrow alleyways. Houses were so closely packed together that they met above our heads.

Beside one derelict home, a signpost led to an open, sunlit area: the souk, or market place. I imagined the once noisy voices, the bartering and the exchanging of goods. Now it all just felt lonely, empty, and somehow – thinking of Ahmed’s mother – sad.

Signs over doorways named owners and their occupations. We also saw inscriptions and reliefs on walls that dated back to pre-Islamic times.

A house behind the souk, had a large oven set into a corner. This owner had made their living by baking bread for the village.

Each house had internal stairs leading to an upper storey with roof courtyards. Ceilings and upper floors were made of palm trees and tamarisk rafters, topped with palm trees and beaten mud.

I thought of the illustrated Bible story-books that I’d read as a child.  In particular I remembered a picture of the house of Jairus, and J**** healing his daughter with the words, "Rise up and walk."

It must have happened, I realised, in a house just like these.

With this thought I followed the others into the bright sunlight, putting old Al Ula with its mud-baked homes and hilltop fort behind me.

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