Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Road to Madinah

E arly December marked the time here in Saudi Arabia when millions of Muslims from around the world came to perform what is called the annual Hajj - a requirement of the faith stipulating that all able bodied Muslims must visit the holy city of Mecca at least once during their lifetime. Since most of the pilgrims arrive via airplane nowadays and Jeddah is the largest and closest airport to Makkah, most of the pilgrims travel into and out of Jeddah during the Hajj time. Because of this influx of people, many Jeddans have taken to leaving the city themselves during this time. Many of them go to Madinah, which is about 400 kilometers (about 250 miles) north of Jeddah.

Madinah is also a holy city for the Islamic faith. It is home to the beautiful Prophet's Mosque, where Mohammed's tomb is located. This would be my first trip outside of the Jeddah area since my arrival in the country over a year ago. We caravanned with my husband's brother and his family for the drive up to Madinah. The trip should have taken less than four hours, but ended up taking about six hours. My jolly brother-in-law (BIL) decided to pull off at almost every exit for various wants and needs, like coffee or snacks or restrooms. My dramatic hubby feigned impatience, acting as though he was at the end of his rope, and it all became quite a hilarious joke and a much more memorable trip than if we had just driven straight through.

Not far outside of Jeddah, the terrain began to change. It became much more hilly, then rocky and mountainous with more vegetation than the Jeddah area. I'm no expert, but along the way, there appeared to be large deposits of untapped ores and minerals in the rich looking earth, which ranged in color from red to almost black in some places. The further we got, the more beautiful and interesting the mountains became, with layer after layer of mountain ranges becoming lighter and lighter off in the distance. It reminded me of how the gorgeous and graceful San Juan Islands loom in the hazy mist off the coast of Washington State, for those of you who are familiar with that lovely part of America. We also began to notice an enormous amount of traffic going the opposite direction - bus after bus, car after car, most of them probably headed from Madinah to Makkah. At one of the police checkpoints, vehicles seemed to be backed up for miles. Luckily there was not much traffic going our direction, so it was smooth sailing for us.

About halfway there, we saw several cars pulled off on the side of the road. BIL, who was leading our tiny caravan, pulled over and we followed suit. Much to my surprise and delight, there on the large area off the road were a couple of dozen wild baboons, which I found out are native to this habitat. This was the first of two families of Hamadryas baboons that we saw during the trip. I also learned that baboons live in large family groups called clans consisting of one male or father and several adult female mates and their kids. Some harems can have as many as ten female wives to the one lone male leader, considerably more than the four wives Islam allows for Muslim men!

The male of the group that I managed to get a few photos of was a magnificent looking creature. Males have longer fur which can appear to have been crimped with a crimping iron, a result of the painstakingly loving attention and grooming by the female mates. Their fur is mainly a silvery color but can look almost white to dark brown in certain places on the body. The male is also the largest member of the clan, weighing up to 45 pounds. The females are smaller at around 25 pounds, with shorter hair which is a usually a drab brown color. Both males and females are quite distinctive with their bright pink hairless padded rumps. Baboons' faces resemble a very long drawn out doggie face. They are mostly vegetarians, but they also eat insects and sometimes meat. The only native primate on the Arabian peninsula aside from humans, the baboon was considered as somewhat sacred by the ancient Egyptians, featured in the drawings on temple walls and even mummified in tombs.

I also read that earlier this year back in April, because of severe drought conditions these wild baboons attacked nearby homes and farms in search of food and water. They have been known to attack humans and are considered quite dangerous with their powerful jaws and teeth and strength. Indeed all the cars that were stopped there on the side of the road kept their windows rolled up and no one dared to step out of their cars.

Baboons weren't the only native animals we saw that day. Even though I have seen camels here before herded together at various spots just outside of Jeddah, I still got excited when I saw many loose camels along the way. I even spotted a rare white camel. There were also many herds of sheep and goats dotting the hills, as well as numerous birds. And I was equally excited when we were treated to the second family of baboons we spied later on, who seemingly lived in some abandoned ramshackle hovels.

Another thing that struck me on this drive was the sheer number of mosques we passed along the way. I know that in Jeddah, there seems to be mosques every few blocks in every direction. But out in the middle of nowhere, it felt that even in extremely remote and sparsely populated areas, mosques stood every couple of miles or so. Some were very minimalist, with a floor, walls, a roof, and of course a minaret, and just bare openings without actual doors or windows affixed. Even very small villages seemed to have numerous mosques within their boundaries. When Muslims are traveling, they can delay saying their prayers until they arrive at their destination, but with mosques conveniently located every few miles, delaying prayer times is not really necessary.

When we finally reached Madinah, the sun was starting to go down and I felt immediately at home there. Stay tuned for my next post about the time we spent in the holy city of Madinah.


  1. The color of the mountains and your trip is fun to follow!Have fun as I see you do.Greetings from a northerner!

  2. Lovely pictures and information. Take good care Susy, wishing you a happy holiday season.

  3. Hey Susy...dont know about you but when I went to Umrah a few years back...most of the small mosques we stopped at (a bus load of pilgrims) had some of the most disgusting bathrooms I have ever had the misfortune of really needing to use. We are talking...smell it from out in the parking lot bad...along with human waste everywhere... used personal hygiene products and just general trash. I couldnt believe the state of Beit Allah..or Gods House...and it wasnt just one or two...but everyone of them along the road from Bahrain to Mecca. I cant imagine there isnt some authority or something that ensures mosques are taken care of and kept clean and useable. That was such a blight on the Saudi image in my opinion.

    Just warning to future pilgrims...I suggest you bring something to ensure you have a clean place to take care of business...and some shots to keep you healthy....ugh!

  4. I was shocked to see bus after bus, and the empty roads and baboons. What a mixture. Thanks for the photos.

  5. Hi Alette - Welcome to my blog!

    Hi Yoli - Thanks, and Happy Holidays to you too.

    Hi CoolRed - Luckily I didn't need the restroom along the way - but I have heard all the horror stories about how totally disgusting the restrooms are. Although we stopped at mosques fro prayer, I stayed in the car.

    Hi Gutsy - Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Glad to hear you found it interesting.

  6. Hi Susie,

    I am an expat living here in Jeddah and I've been reading your blog for a long while now. I just wanted to stop by to say hi and to congratulate you on the great job you're doing informing people about the city and the culture.

    Keep up the good work!
    Take care,

  7. hi Susy, i love this blog and yet another great post, i love the pictures of the baboons, and camels... looking forward to our posssible move to Jeddah this coming year..

    take care
    Umm Hasan

  8. Hi Susie! Thanks so much for sharing your experiences in Saudi! You write so well and keep it interesting. I enjoy reading your blogs! Hope you have a wonderful holiday season/Merry Christmas! Terri from Arizona

  9. Never would have thought baboons could survive in the desert.Was it safe to take pictures?I know when we visit the smoky mountains there are warnings about the brown bears.

  10. Great post. Am very interested in the life of a woman in a culture where feminism can only exist behind a veil. Keep up the wonderful tales of your adventures

  11. Hi Sabaa -
    What a nice compliment! You made my day! Thanks so much.

    Hi Umm Hasan -
    So glad you are finding my blog useful in contemplating your possible move!

    Hi Terri -
    Great to hear from you - thanks so much for taking the time to comment. Happy Holidays to you too!

    Hi Always -
    I wasn't expecting to see those baboons either! We stayed in the car with the windows rolled up and so did everyone else who stopped. Animals like that are strong and can be unpredictable.

    Hi Mo -
    It was so nice of you to stop by and comment. Thank yo for the words of encouragement.

  12. Great colours in that second shot.