The volcanic miracle of Arabia
There is a place in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia which is like no other in the world. Whereas it is not well-known Saudi Arabia has volcanoes, even plenty of volcanoes including active ones. Volcanic activity is related to hot spot activity on the Arabian Plate which was uplifted on the eastern side of the Red Sea rift.
The basaltic lava fields in the western part of the country are called harrat. They cover about 180 000 square km and extend from Turkey to Yemen in the south.
One of the largest volcanic fields is known as Harrat Khaybar, named after the city which lays on its western side. Its ancient and recent lava flows spread between the provinces of Madinah and Ha’il, on the northwest of the city of Madinah, and cover more than 14 000 square kilometers. It contains a 100-kilometer-long north-south oriented line of volcanic vents including scoria cones, lava domes, maars, basalt lava flows, and the only stratovolcano (built up by many layers (strata) of hardened lava) in the Harrat of western Arabia, the Jebel Qidr.
The Harrat Khaybar is still active as testified at least eight eruptions that took place during Islamic era (less than 1500 years old). These include the prominent 55-kilometer-long Habir lava flow and flows from Jabal Qidr which present lava flows that have till today a fluid aspect. However, only one eruption is recorded in historic memory from early Islamic times during the 7th century CE (1st century H).
But the jewel of the Harrat Khaybar is to be found in its center where lay a very rare kind of volcanoes made of silica-rich called comendite which give them a whitish color. The two largest are the Jebel Abiadh and the Jebel Bayda whose grandiose majesty revealed by satellite images is even more stunning once on site.
Jebel Abiadh (literally “white mount”) is the highest crater of the harra with 2093 meters of altitude and the Jebel Bayda (in Arabic the feminine of “white mount”) is the largest with 1,5 kilometers of diameter.
As shown on the satellite images the center of the Harrat Khaybar is not only about the clear colors of the white volcanoes as other volcanic formations brought with many shades of other types of lava, ranging from creamy ocher of Jebel Bayda, to shades of red and brown of Jebel Al-'Aqir, until the deep dark lava flows of Jebel Qidr. The subsequent mixing lava flows created fantastic patterns of shades on the ground in between the craters.
The contrast is the most striking where the whitish creamy lava of the Jebel Bayda meets the deep dark one of the Jebel Qidr. A track leads to the edge of both lava flows where it is possible to stand on this volcanic border having one foot on each type of lava.
The creativity of nature is not limited to a wide range of colors but also marvelously attested by the incredible variety of volcanoes shapes that can be found in the Harrat Khaybar. From a high viewpoint it is possible to admire the elegantly spread silhouette of Jebel Bayda, the Fujiyama-like volcanic cone of Jebel Qidr, and the fancy hat-shaped of Jebel Al-'Aqir.
It is possible to reach safely some of the craters by foot in order to take the most of the out-of-this-world sights this place offers. Local Bedouins drive up the sides of the Jebel Bayda with theirs pickups but it is rather advisable to go for a short hike uphill instead.
The sides of Jebel Abiadh are definitely to steep for car but the southern slope of the volcanic cone is just about gentle enough to allow a relatively safe (although slippery) climb up to the crater.
And the viewpoint from the summit of Jebel Abiadh is absolutely worth the effort. This volcano being the highest one peaking up at 2093 meters of altitude its offers stunning sights on the surrounding landscapes that seem to be from another world.
It is very important to note that reaching the white volcanoes by car implies driving through 50 kilometers of lava fields where Bedouins have dig deep tracks that are the only option since the ground in between tracks is covered with sharp basalt rocks that would shred any tire after few kilometers or even damage the bottom of the car. Moreover, many tracks led to dead-ends so proper and accurate planning has to be done before any trip there and guidance from locals have to be taken into account seriously.
Given the difficulties to reach the center of the Harrat Khaybar the while volcanoes used to be a desert place for long but nowadays some Bedouins leave there and visitors are not uncommon. As a reminder of this no-longer-so-far human presence, camels are even found all around the area.
The volcanic miracle of Arabia (author: Florent Egal)