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History in the sounds of silence

If you turn left instead of right out of the mosque in the ancient village of Al-Habala, the next thing you will meet is your Maker. It is a salutary (if only once in a lifetime) way of reminding you to keep to the right path. The left path leads in a few steps to a vertiginous precipice some hundreds of meters high, giving you just enough time before shrugging off the woes of the world to breathe a short, final prayer.
The residents of Al-Habala must have got used to it by a process of attrition; those that did not swiftly became ex-residents.
The mosque in Al-Habala is built on the very edge of a 300-meter drop into a rocky valley. Now a dilapidated cleaved-stone building with part of the north wall and most of the roof in tatters, only the mud-plastered mihrab (prayer niche) indicates its former use. Perched at the northern end of a faint track leading from the cable car station, it shows, like most of the rest of this unique site, little sign of preservation.
Al-Habala, named after the ropes generally needed to reach it before the advent of the cable car, is built on a series of ledges two thirds of the way up a sheer escarpment about a 90-minute drive south of Abha. The location, purposely chosen for its inaccessibility to marauding Turks and other enemies, is unique in the Kingdom and one of its more intriguing archaeological sites.
Its isolation, the harsh grandeur of the vast barren valley below, sheer rock walls above, and the evidence of cataclysmic cleavage of huge slabs of sedimentary rock laced with iron-like veins littered about the site attest to the fear-fuelled ingenuity of its builders. Evidence of terraced gardens and the still trickling sweet-water springs that nourish the lush growth of trees and bushes — including wild coffee — hint at the complete self-sufficiency of the inhabitants.
With agricultural space at a premium, the dead could not be interred in the soil, but instead were slipped into cliff wall crevices, which were sealed with closely packed stones. The wall is oriented such that interment there allowed the bodies to be oriented head toward Makkah in the Islamic tradition.
Seventy or so people once occupied Al-Habala, and the only practical way to the village was down the vertical mountain wall. Cattle and the paraphernalia of daily life had to be lowered down on ropes, although there is a long and precipitous track that could be used in an emergency by the villagers. The rewards were a well protected home and a lush cool garden village nestling in the shade of the mountain for much of the day. The last of the villagers were encouraged to resettle about 25 years ago. The only wildlife in evidence today are murders of crows wheeling idly in fast rising thermals and the occasional lizard basking on a rock.
Such is the history and the attraction of this unique site; it is still possible to get a feel for the place if you wander away from the relatively huge “refreshment and relaxation area.”
Access to the village is via cable car. A restaurant and relaxation area sprawls along the cliff top next to the Ferris wheel and fairground amusements littering the paved and asphalted amusement area. Escape by cable car down to the village and you arrive in another café and rest and relaxation area, paved terraces and concrete walkways. From
the lower cable station, the village is just not visible.
The only sight of a stone building the majority of visitors get is from walking along a well defined track to a restored building, roofed in corrugated iron with a dendritic infestation of plastic pipes, water tanks and some dreadful metal steps resembling a fire escape. There is some consolation for this architectural misfit as within, a charming local serves tea and dates.
The Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities shows a reluctance to open up all of the Kingdom’s rich heritage of archaeological sites to the general public. They have a point, as when a site becomes popular, it attracts commercial development that could, and in Al-Habala’s case does, run counter to the generally isolated and quiet setting of the site.
One might for an example ponder on the Rajajal standing stones in Al-Jouf, which, by there very isolation, retain the mystery of their origins.
However, once the “bodily comfort” Gestapo become dominant, the sites run the risk of turning into a minor theme park pandering to the sticky drink fraternity.
Courteous little notices hopefully ask the visitor to keep the place tidy and not cut the trees. It is a sad fact that visitors need reminding, but perhaps it is the inevitable consequence of development. Quantum theory holds that by observing something, it changes; modern tourist theory apparently echoes this. By making the remote and harsh beauty of Al-Habala indiscriminately accessible to all comers, the very features that make it a magical place have been largely disappeared.
To the north and past the tacky teahouse, over steeply shelving tracks covered with loose stones, the mosque stands isolated over its precipice, a stamped dirt forecourt just outside. Enter and peek through the cracks at the escarpment wall and behold the view.
To the south of the “easement complex,” it is possible to access some of the remoter parts of the village. A few of the still standing stone houses retain their original beam and palm-frond roofs, some even partially covered with slabs of rock and shale filler. There, the sense of peace, isolation and that special feeling of safely “being” that comes from standing on high promontories over huge hazy vistas rolling into the blue distance hangs in the cool air.
Early on weekday morning is the time to visit; then it is still possible to sit quietly on the edge of a sheer drop unhindered by vendors and contemplate the eternal verities much in the manner that the early residents of the village must have done.
There is something uplifting about height and being able to gaze down on soaring crows and the occasional hawk from above. The magic is still there in the quiet hours when the unique silence bestowed on high lonely places is augmented by the gentle susurrations of springs that have been bringing life to this harsh and difficult place for centuries.
It is in the sounds of its silence that the spirit of Habala still lives.