The iconic traditional village of Saudi Arabia
The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is famous for its typical Arabian traditional architecture that can be found throughout the whole country, each region having its own specificities. But when it comes to Saudi traditional architecture the first image that comes to mind is the charming and colorful houses of Rijal Alma’. The fame of this village isn’t only due to the stunning sceneries it offers but also to the important role it played in the history of the region.
It is an ancient Aseeri village located just 20 kilometers flying distance west of Abha, the capital of Aseer Province. It is set in the bend of an extensive valley on the ancient trade route between Yemen and the rest of the Arabian Peninsula and the Red Sea. If the name Aseer translates as “difficult” to describe the geography of the area, it doesn’t apply to the climate which much more pleasant than in the rest of the country with cooler temperature and more humid climate.
For its exceptional features Rijal Alma’ is today on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage.
The scenery around Rijal Alma’ is made steep hills overlooking a sinuous road that once brought the fruits of the spice and incense trade into the interior of the Arabian Peninsula and a valley running towards the Tihama plain. The hillsides appear to be dotted with defensive watchtowers at points that maximize fields of view and arcs of fire, revealing the well thought out plans of the builders.
A traveler reaching Rijal Alma’ will find there a place redolent with history and tradition, and clearly oriented to tourism. It has taken on the appearance of a living museum, but, in its restoration and development, gathered to itself some of the more invasive clutter of development.
The dressed stone square towers, patterned with gleaming lumps of sugar-white quartz, that comprise the original village are typical of the culture of the area. They tell the story of a culture with ingenuity and skills that allowed them to capitalize of the materials to hand and were surprisingly sophisticated in their use of dressed stone to make complex structures.
The solidly built houses double as mini-fortresses and comfortable habitation. They speak of items of great value passing through, a culture immersed in trade, one that picked up trade goods and elements of foreign culture from travelers as they passed through.
But the most striking surprise of Rijal is hidden inside its walls. After penetrating through the sculpted doors, each dark stone building turns out to be the jewelry box containing of a treasure of painted by skilled and patient artesans. Today the vibrant colors of these fascinating patchworks still decorates the walls of Rijal Alma'.
Some pieces of the good old days of Rijal Alma' are kept alive in a museum that occupies one of the six storey stone buildings of Rijal Alma'.
Part of the village was restored and preserved by the local community and won the Prince Sultan bin Salman Prize for Preservation of Urban Heritage in 2006.
Rijal Alma village has introduced itself independently. The residents initiated the rehabilitation works a long time ago to attract tourists to the area and benefit from its economic potentials
There are two ways to reach the village:
- By the cable car that extends from the Souda National Park complex,
- By road from Abha (55 kilometers) or from Jizan (170 kilometers)
Rijal Almaa is also known for the involvement of its people in decisive events, especially battles, that shaped the religious and political landscape of the Arabian Peninsula as we know it today.
During the Muslim conquests people of Rihal Alma’ played major roles at least twice. The Muslim historian Al-Tabari mentioned that in 636 CE (14 H) some 700 soldiers of the Bariq tribe from Rijal Alma’ along with Al-Ghamd from Al-Bahah joined the battle of Al-Qadisiyah where the Arab Muslim troops defeated the Sassanid army. In the same period people of Rijal Alma’ also participated in the protection of Madinah as a stationed garrison there.
in 1331 CE (732 H) the importance of Rijal Alma’ made it the capital of the principality of Hala during the reign of Mossa Al-Kenani.
Later in the 18th century CE (12th H) the Aseeri men showed courage (among them Rijal Alma’) at the Battle of Besel near Taif against the forces of Muhammad Ali Pasha, and remained in the battlefield till they died after their associates fled. The Swiss explorer Burckhardt mentions that they tied their legs together when they saw some of their associates escape.
In 1822 CE (1238 H) Rijal Alma’ and Bani Mghaid decided the overthrown of the Sharif who worked for the Ottomans in Aseer, the coup succeeded, which was led by Saeed bin Maslat and thus became governor of Aseer.
The Ottomans realized the seriousness of those active political movements in Rijal Alma’ during its reign over the region, and gathered a huge army of 50 000 solders led by Ahmed Pasha to eliminate them. Ahmed Pasha managed to occupy Al-Khamis, Abha and Al-Saqa but was defeated in Rijal Alma’, and then the Aseeri tribes forced the signing of the independence of Aseer from the Ottoman Empire, this was on the 28th of August 1825 CE (11 Muharram 1241 H), and the Convention was the first of its kind in the Arabian Peninsula.
Rijal Alma’ armies were able to defeat Ibrahim Pasha when he decided to discipline them to accept the Ottoman rule in 1835 CE (1251 H), and it is worth mentioning that Ibrahim Pasha is the one who annihilated the first Saudi state that extended its territory to most parts of the Arabian Peninsula and some parts of Syria.
Rijal Alma’ participated with large numbers of their troops in Prince Ayed ibn Mer’i Army (who took Mekkah and Taif of the Ottoman) during the reign of his son Mohammed, and participated in the annexation of parts of Yemen to Aseer, including Sanaa.
Because of all these militaries exploits where people of Rijal Alma’ proved their bravery some say that the name “Asee” which stands for “difficult” refers not only to the uneven relief of the region but also for the toughness of its people.
This article contains extracts of the following:
- Rijal Alma: set in stone by Roger Harrison: http://www.arabnews.com/rijal-alma-set-stone
- UNESCO website - Rijal Almaa Heritage village in Assir Region: http://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/6030/
The iconic traditional village of Saudi Arabia (author: Florent Egal)