– Originally posted 15th June 2014.
On our last visit to Najran, we missed out on two things – Al Ukhdood Ruins and Al Raoum Castle. We only have a couple of weeks left round here so headed back down to see some friends and finish what we started.
Al Ukhdood (The Trench/Ditch) is an ancient settlement, 3,000+ years old. It was a Christian Aksumite town (obviously not always…) on the old Arabian trade route, that the Jewish warlord Dhu Nuwas laid siege to in the 6th century. It was the old “convert or die” job, and thousands of Christians were made martyrs, being thrown into the burning trench. It’s rumoured that refugees from Najran got as far as the Roman Emperor to tell their tale. The Abyssinians (Aksumites) later came and took revenge, conquering the region. One legend says that Dhu Nuwas committed suicide by riding his horse into the Red Sea…
The first point of note is that it was a Christian town in what was then Yemen. It’s easy to forget about pre-Islamic days when you’re here. A second point is the link with Ethiopia. Having been to Aksum and read a bit about their empire, it’s the first time I’ve seen evidence of it in Saudi Arabia.
The site itself was a little difficult to get into at first. After a web of lies and begging we managed to get in without the “required” permit for westerners, promising to leave our cameras behind. It seems to be hit and miss whether they let you in or not. Anyway, we got in…
There appeared to be some half-hearted attempts at rebuilding going on, but most of it was just scattered rocks, ruins and the occasional wall with pictures and Thamudic inscriptions on. Seeing ancient sites here is always welcome, even if they aren’t taken care of very well. Cue the theories about treatment and resources given (or not) to the Yami tribe.
In the evening we watched the football, Mexico to begin with. This reminded me that I made a promise to a Mexican friend in Korea (Hi Ruben!) that I’d next meet him in Brazil for the World Cup. Instead I was sat on the Yemeni border unaware that eyes were watching us…
In the morning we climbed up a little mound to get to Al Raoum Castle, another thing we missed last time, an old castle of a Yemeni king.
We also had a couple of other firsts on this trip. I mentioned in my previous post about Najran that it straddles the border with Yemen – the border that the Houthi Rebels control, and that the Yami tribe are from this region, who are Ismaeli – not in the dominant Sunni sect. So security and loyalty to the King are a bit questionable at times. Needless to say, this means several more checkpoints on the road down and around the town. Last time, we had no fuss whatsoever. This time however, they stopped us just outside of Najran and took our IDs for a few minutes after some questioning. Nothing too out of the ordinary there, but just unusual for us since normally they leave westerners be in our experience. They might be wary of the fact that the US Embassy explicitly tells US citizens to stay at least 50km away from the Yemeni border without permission and a military escort (pretty hard for us since we’re actually pretty close to another section of the border where we live). The British Embassy prefers simply to say, “take care.” Also, Khamis is quite a conservative town, but not once have I been told to go and pray by anyone except well meaning regular folk. Shortly after we arrived in Najran a mutawa pulled up, tooted his horn and told us to go and pray. He visited our apartments the next day, asked me in Arabic if I was staying here, I smiled and said I only speak English (the truth, but also the regular way to get people off your back). He pulled up and went inside for a snoop. I suspect he knew that we knew he had no business asking us for anything, so was polite and went straight for the IDs and phone number at the desk when we weren’t there to stop him. There was probably a mix of our details being taken by the checkpoint, and this lovely fella having a nosy, but the next day in college we got a phone call from their MI5 equivalent asking where we’d gotten to, because they were watching us in Najran but didn’t know where we’d gone. Detective work at its finest. They were directed to speak to our embassies and so hopefully that’s the last we hear from them. Positive discrimination is alive and well here. Having embassies that have a bit of umpf is a little reassuring for us, but makes you wonder about nationalities that come from lands with weaker representation.
I like Najran for its ruggedness and contrasting ideologies, even if Big Brother was a bit more active than we’d have liked. That isn’t so common in the Asir, but this wasn’t the Asir, this was Najran.