Having traveled all over KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), I have been to many places and seen many things but none of the regions that I have been to quite matches the combination of history, religion, heritage, genealogy, nature, wildlife, and modern infrastructure as the region of Al Jouf.
“Al Jouf” for those of you who do not know is one of the counties of Saudi Arabia and the name roughly translates as “hollow”. It is located in the North just outside the Jordanian Border and according to the locals used to be part of the Levantine region –which comprises Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine. It consists of three main cities including the capital Sakaka, Dumat Al Jandal, and Qurayyat which is a border city. Not only are they close to the region geographically, but they also share a similar history and culture.
One of the most famous landmarks in Jordan is the entrance to the ancient city of “Petra”, which has also been popularized by movies such as “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”. It was built by the Nabateans who also built things elsewhere including the “Sisra Well”, an impressive 2,000 year old well carved into the ground in the city of Sakaka. This also happens to lie near “Zaabal Castle”, an ancient castle built on top of the hill nearby. There are even “Rajajil (Standing men) Columns”, which are large standing stones in the middle of the desert in Sakaka. It is an ancient and mysterious place that has been dubbed the “Stonehenge of the Middle East”.
Much history and heritage of different time periods exists and is scattered across the region, which includes but is not limited to, “Shuwahtiya”, which is one of the oldest cities in the world as well as various examples of ancient rock art. One of the most interesting cities here is the city of “Dumat Al Jandal” (“Dumah of the Stone” or “Dumah” for short) nearby, which according to locals was named after one the twelve sons of Prophet Yaqub (Jacob), PBUH (Peace Be Upon Him). Because of this, they say that the region contained a large Jewish community. Being an ancient city however, it contained the more famous “Marid Castle”, which has a history that relates to ancient Arab tribes and folklore.
It is said that the castle had been attacked by Queen Zunnubiya, an Arab Queen, who could not defeat it and hence recited some lines of poetry meaning that the place could not be defeated, giving the place its name, Marid –i.e.: the place that could not be defeated.
Enclosed within this is the “Omar ibn Al Khattab Mosque”, which is one of the oldest mosques in the world dating back to the time of the second Caliph of Islam and is named after him. According to some narrations it was built by him on his way back from Jerusalem. While it may not be anywhere near as large or decorative as many mosques today, there is beauty in its simplicity. It serves its purpose as a place of worship, learning centre and a place of gathering. With its simple walls and roof built of palm trees, it gives a valuable insight into the lives of its individuals and it shows that they were far from materialistic. The mosque may not have regular prayers nowadays or Athan (call to prayer) but visitors can still easily walk down the steps taking them underground into the separate prayer areas for both men and women. They can even stand on the roof and get a good view of the surroundings.
With such historic significance in close proximity including such an old mosque, an ancient castle and old markets, one may wonder why there is no crowd of tourists in sight. However, the absence of such tourists helps to preserve the place making it less spoilt and allows the visitor to enjoy a more fulfilling experience and to ponder upon how life must have been back then.
One can keep talking about the vast history and religious significance in the region but there is more to the city than that.
Being close to the Levantine, there are many colourful flowers and plants around the region including bamboo and olive oil. In fact, there is an annual olive oil festival for locally grown olive oil, which can be purchased from the local markets. There is no shortage of natural beauty to enjoy however as the land is flat but there are gardens, a lake in the city of Dumah and even an inactive volcano in the “Harrat Al Harrah Nature Reserve” near the city of Qurayyat. There are also a few mountains such as in the Qara District near the outside of Sakaka, which provides a beautiful landscape to see while walking along the quiet streets and enjoying the cool breeze.
There may not be many Westerners in the region but the region is fairly multicultural with people from other parts of the world including Egyptians, Jordanians, Filipinos, Indians (largely from South India), Pakistanis, Sudanese and others. Although there are many Saudis, their origins vary as they are descended from different tribes, which can be seen from their surnames. For example, “Al Ghamdi” and “Al Zahrani” are from the Baha region in the South; “Al Shammari” are from Iraq and many “Al Rashidi” are from the city of Hail. In Al Jouf however, they are mostly “Al Ruwaili” and “Al Sharrari”. As I found out, there are also a small minority in the region, “Al Ali”, some of whom I am told are descendants from Khalid bin Al Waleed, a companion of the Prophet Mohammed PBUH, as he was buried in the city of Homs, Syria. He also lead the “Battle of Dumah” when he was there.
“Al Jouf” might not be a place that many people would think of visiting (or even a place that most people have even heard of) but if you are fortunate enough to go there, it is definitely worth the visit.
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