The jewel of the Red Sea
Farasan Islands are an archipelago of 84 islands made of corral reefs located about 40 kilometers offshore from the city of Jizan, which breaks all stereotypes about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Indeed, with its pristine beaches, its crystal clear waters, and its rich land and underwater wildlife, Farasan is miles away from the images of sand dunes one would think of when mentioning the typical landscape of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
A long coveted place
Since the first millennium BCE till modern times a unique place in today's Jizan Province has attracted people from Arabia, Africa, Europe, and now from all around the world: the Farasan Islands. The archipelago was first sought for the control it offered not only on the northern access to the straight of Bab Al-Mandel but also on the maritime way between the ancient African kingdoms of Aksum and Arabian kingdoms of Sheeba (Saba') and Himyar.
For this reason the Sabean people as early as the beginning of the 1st millennium BCE occupied the archipelago and settled there as testifies to by remains of their constructions and inscriptions in their Sabean script in the Wadi Matar on the eastern side of the main island. In the 2nd century BCE the Romans, who needed to secure the maritime road to India, sent to Farasan a permanent military detachment who left a trace of their presence with a nowadays famous Latin inscription. Throughout centuries many people left evidence of their presence in Farasan, such as the Aksumites, the Arabs, and the Ottomans.
There is particularly spectacular house located on the main island dating back to the journey through Farasan to the Al-Rifa'ai . It was built with coral stones covered with plaster on both interior and exterior walls, and adorned with decorative arabesque-like patterns. The main gate is decorated with colored glass known as Kamaryat and the wooden ceilings are painted with a natural blue color.
The strategic location of Jizan Province and especially Farasan Islands proved to be still of interest in the 20th century as during World War 2 the Germans built a fort on one of the islands of the archipelago.
The latest inhabitants of Farasan are Arabs who have built several traditional villages such as the one of Al-Qassar that was restored and can be visited. It still has a palm tree oasis and is located close to a much older site, Al-Kedmi where ancient stone structures can be found.
In the early 20th century some European adventurers explored Farasan like the French sailor Henry de Monfreid who even settled in Dumsuq island. Even at that time the strategic location of Farasan played a role in World War 2 with the German building a fort to control the Red Sea access.
Nowadays, invaders have been replaced by tourists who take the daily shuttle or one of the speed boats departing from Jizan seaport and leading them to the harbor on the main island of the archipelago.
Every year more visitors make the journey to Farasan, in order to sail on its clear blue seas from one desert island to another, to relax on one of its countless white beaches, to swim in its pristine waters, to admire its abundant submarine and land life, or to discover the archipelago's historical sites.
A unique wildlife diversity in Saudi Arabia
Thanks to its exceptionally rich wildlife for a small territory in the Arabian Peninsula the Saudi Wildlife Authority declared the Farasan Islands a protected area in 1996, especially for its seabird life.
The uninhabited islands serve as breeding sites for large numbers of birds and the adjacent marine feeding grounds attract varieties such as Osprey, Sooty Falcon, Pink-Backed Pelican, Red-Billed Tropic Bird, White-Eyed Gull, Saunders Little Tern, Crab Plover, Flamingos and others.
The waters surrounding the islands are equally important for marine life thanks to the incredible density and variety of corals. Indeed, the first striking aspect when diving in Farasan waters is the profusion of colors and shapes covering the sea bed. They attract thousands of fish which double the richness of the palette of the crystal clear waters.
Farasan is particularly famous for its Parrot-fish (called locally 'hareed') which is even celebrated by a festival every year in April-May when schools of this pretty fish appear in the shallow waters of the Al-Hasis gulf. During the same period some impressive, but harmless, whale sharks coming from the Indian Ocean can be spotted at the mouth of the archipelago.
Farasan waters also host many kinds of dugongs, sea turtles, lobsters, manta rays, lion fish, eels, etc...
The land reserve has a very special feature with the Farasan Islands Gazelle whose elegant silhouettes can be seen furtively within bushes of the main island of the archipelago. According to the Saudi Wildlife Authority Farasan's gazelle population may possibly be the largest one left in Saudi Arabia.
The jewel of the Red Sea (author: Florent Egal, with inputs from Villeneuve François. Une inscription latine sur l’archipel Farasân, Arabie Séoudite, sud de la mer Rouge (note d’information. In: Comtes rendus des séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 148e année, N. 1, 2004. pp. 419-429)