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My incredible trip to Riyadh and drive back through the desert

My visit with friends in Riyadh

Sam (in schmag) with Suzan and Hossam Malallah and sons Abdulrahmen and young Beide on the observation deck of the famous Faisaliah Tower in Riyadh. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

I just got back from a visit to the capital of Saudi Arabia–Riyadh (Pronounced Ree-yaad; Arabic: الرياض‎). The name in English means “the gardens.” A buinessman there got me a ticket to fly to Riyadh. I stayed with Hossam Malallah and his wonderful family for a week. We had numerous business appointments, and then we drove back to Jeddah through the desert via Al Taif and Mecca.

I thank my friend Hossam and his family for their warm hospitality and for arranging several very important appointments with business people including a Saudi Sheikh Ry-an Al-Monsoul. For the occasion, I was outfitted with a brand new custom-tailored thobe and schmag!

The history of Riyadh is centuries-old and interesting

Riyadh is the largest city of Saudi Arabia. It is situated in the center of the Arabian Peninsula on a large plateau, and is home to nearly 6 million people. The greater Riyadh area is nearly 7 million people. Riyadh is home to the world’s largest female university, the Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University.

During the pre-Islamic era, the settlement at the current city site was called Hajr (Arabic: حجر‎), and was reportedly founded by the tribe of Banu Hanifa. Hajr served as the capital of the province of Al Yamamah, whose governors were responsible for most of central and eastern Arabia during the Umayyad and Abbasid eras. Al-Yamamah broke away from the Abbasid Empire in 866 and the area fell under the rule of the Ukhaydhirites, who moved the capital from Hajr to nearby Al Kharj. The city then went into a long period of decline. In the 14th century North African traveller Ibn Battuta wrote of his visit to Hajr, describing it as “the main city of Al-Yamamah, and its name is Hajr”. Ibn Battuta goes on to describe it as a city of canals and trees with most of its inhabitants belonging to Bani Hanifa, and reports that he continued on with their leader to Mecca to perform the Hajj. (No canals were visible during my visit! I’m trying to find out what happened to them. It hasn’t rained in Saudi Arabia during the past 3 years.)

Riyadh’s 100-story Kingdom Tower skyscraper and city lights at night as seen from the Faisaliah Tower observation deck.

Later, we are told, the area of Hajr broke up into several separate settlements and estates. The most notable of these were Migrin (or Muqrin) and Mi’kal, though the name Hajr continued to appear in local folk poetry.

The earliest known reference to the area by the name Riyadh comes from a 17th-century chronicler reporting on an event from the year 1590. In 1737, Deham ibn Dawwas, a refugee from neighboring Manfuha, took control of Riyadh. Ibn Dawwas built a single wall to encircle the various quarters of Riyadh, making them effectively a single town.

In 1744, Muhammad ibn Abdel Wahhab formed an alliance with Muhammad ibn Saud, the ruler of the nearby town of Diriyah. Ibn Saud then set out to conquer the surrounding region with the goal of bringing it under the rule of a single Islamic state. Ibn Dawwas of Riyadh led the most determined resistance, allied with forces from Al Kharj, Al Ahsa, and the Banu Yam clan of Najran.

However, Ibn Dawwas fled and Riyadh capitulated to the Saudis in 1774, ending long years of wars, and leading to the declaration of the first Saudi State.

The first Saudi State was destroyed by forces sent by Muhammad Ali of Egypt, acting on behalf of the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman forces destroyed the Saudi capital Diriyah in 1818. In 1823, Turki ibn Abdallah, the founder of the second Saudi State, revived the rule and chose Riyadh as the new capital. Internecine struggles between Turki’s grandsons led to the fall of the second Saudi State in 1891 at the hand of the rival Al Rashid clan, who ruled from the northern city of Ha’il. Riyadh itself fell under the rule of Al Rashid in 1865.

The city was recaptured in 1902 from the Al Rashid family by King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud. He went on to establish the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, with Riyadh as the capital.

The Climate

Summer temperatures are very hot, sometimes reaching 130 degrees Fahrenheit! It got to 123 Fahrenheit while I was in Riyadh. Since the weather there is very arid or dry, the temperatures were more tolerable.

Winters are mild with cold, windy nights. There has been practically no rainfall during recent years, but in better times the city receives a fair amount of rain in March and April. Riyadh is known to have many dust storms (not to be confused with Haboobs or sand storms). The dust is sometimes so thick that visibility is less than 30 feet.

Sam and friends were hosted by Sheikh Rayan who presented Sam and guests with a formal Bedouin-style dinner of baked lamb, rice, vegetables and fresh camel milk. Sam’s stomach passed the test! He walked away with none of the consequences some foreigners suffer from their first attempt at camel milk.

Why the visit? Our current work…

My purpose for visiting Riyadh was to look for funding sources to underwrite our work in producing a modern, everyday English version of the Qur’an that is cross-referenced with the Old and New Testaments of the Bible which the Qur’an refers to as “the Book.” Surprisingly, even though the Bible is given status in the Qur’an and was respected by the Prophet Mohammad, few Muslims are familiar with the Bible, and even far fewer Jews and Christians have any knowledge of the Qur’an. In addition to cross-referencing similar verses and passages in each of these Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy books, our new, everyday-English version of the Qur’an will include a glossary of terminology along with footnotes explaining commonalities between these holy texts.

Our second project we are proposing is a North American ad campaign over US and Canadian TV, radio, and the internet. The paid ads will use professional teen and young adult actors in various settings (e.g. having coffee in a Starbucks, lunch in a high school cafeteria, a classroom setting, etc.). Each ad will include Muslim, Christian and Jewish youth involved in a conversation about what they believe. They find out they have many things in common. Each ad ends with one of the youth begging the question, “Why can’t we just live together in peace?”

Yes, it’s true, we do have so much positive in common, but often, due to political pressures, profound ignorance, half-truths and blatant bigotry; confusion and outright hate win out. And those minority extremists who speak out of ignorance, be they Christian, Muslim or Jew, usually get major headlines. We’re hoping our work will shatter much of the disinformation and myths being propagated.

Compound all of the ignorance and bigotry with the need by many greedy individuals for a type of “new cold war” to keep profits from the international arms industry up and going, and you have a catalyst for disaster both in the US and abroad.

In addition to meeting with Sheikh Rayan, I met with the president of MedGulf, Saudi Arabia’s largest insurance company, and two other major players in the Saudi economy. We are establishing relationships that we hope will result in future assistance to our programs.

This elderly male baboon smacked down a banana tossed to him by Hossam as younger baboons approached. It was obviously a really bad hair day for grandpa baboon!

Since our project is producing beneficial results for the three major Abrahamic faiths, we hope that we will be able to see the burden of our work equally shared by concerned Muslims, Christians and Jews.

Our visit to Taif in the Al Sarawat Mountains

 

Departing Riyadh, this time by car, what unbelievable sights we beheld! Ten-hours of staring out the car windows at awesome desert scenery, Bedouin camp sights, camels and sheep!

And then the desert freeway wound its way up a high escarpment to city of Al Taif (pronounced Al Tah-ehf and more commonly known as just “Taif”), a mountain top metropolis tucked far up on the highest slopes of the Al Sarawat Mountains. It is in the Province of Mecca and is more than 6000 feet above sea level. Taif has a population of just over a half million.

The city is the center of an agricultural area known for its fresh fruits, roses and honey. It tends to be much cooler in the summer than the rest of Saudi Arabia. We got out at a local fruit stand, and it was a pleasant 70 degrees. We saw many people wearing jackets to keep warm while working in the shaded areas. Thousands of Saudis, along with most of the Saudi federal government, head to Taif during July and August, the two hottest months, when sea-level temperatures reach between 120 and 130 degrees in many places. Combine those awfully hot temperatures with the high humidity of the Red Sea port Jeddah, and it’s going to be quite a first-time experience for me this summer!

Fresh Taif fruit! We loaded up on just-harvested plums, peaches and figs–incredible treats after such a long desert drive.

The more moderate Taif climate is also attractive to a breed of wild Arabian baboons that scavenge the countryside looking for food from passing tourists. You get out of your car for a peak, and they come running at you from all directions!

After leaving Taif we took a modern, hair-pin, four-lane freeway down the steep mountainside. Here we had breathtaking views of the surrounding solid gray-pink granite mountains and pink desert sands. The new freeway connecting Taif with Mecca is along one of the busiest routes in Saudi Arabia’s West-to-East network. It’s both fast and safe, barring sudden major encounters with the baboons crossing the highway. We must have taken a hundred photos as we descended 6000 feet down the mountainsides. (For a short view of the freeway see the video at the end of this post.)

Once again in the low desert, we came to a herd of  60 or more camels feeding on the lower branches of desert trees. I had to stop and say hello! So Hossem put his SUV in 4-wheel drive, and we took off through the desert.

I don’t know what it is, but camels must be getting positive vibes from me. When I get out of a car where camels are nearby, they come running and crowd around me. They are the friendliest animals I’ve ever met. (If you don’t know much about these very intelligent animals, read my previous post.)

We got back to Jeddah about noon on June 12 just in time for a major traffic jam. As we neared our offices on Corniche Road, just two blocks from the Red Sea, we confronted the sweltering humidity. I felt a sense of being home again because I knew, despite the heat, I would be greeted by Safi and Eman Kaskas and numerous other friends.

Here in humid Jeddah, where summer high temperatures remain over 100 degrees for days at a time, you find that walking just a few feet outside leaves your clothes soaked with sweat and perspiration. That’s why the traditional Saudi dress is becoming more accustomed to me. Wearing loose fitting, white clothing and sandals certainly beats wearing a dark, tight-fitting business suit, necktie and dress shoes! I’m learning many traditional concepts for staying cool and comfortable. Fortunately, just about all buildings and homes here are well air-conditioned.

Here’s a short video of the Taif Freeway we took down the mountainsides. The road is an engineering marvel. It’s literally carved out of solid pinkish-gray granite.

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June 16, 2012 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. It’s always good to hear from you, Sam. We will miss you at Dudes next week. Thank you for the good work you are doing and your report on it.
    Peace, Margaret Candler

    Comment by Margaret Candler | June 16, 2012 | Reply

  2. Thank you, Margaret. I miss you all and think about the many times God blessed me and encouraged me in your home!

    Comment by Sam Shropshire | June 17, 2012 | Reply


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