History in the sounds of silence

Updated 22 May 2012
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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.


First space tourist flights could come in 2019

Updated 13 July 2018
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First space tourist flights could come in 2019

WASHINGTON: The two companies leading the pack in the pursuit of space tourism say they are just months away from their first out-of-this-world passenger flights — though neither has set a firm date.
Virgin Galactic, founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, and Blue Origin, by Amazon creator Jeff Bezos, are racing to be the first to finish their tests — with both companies using radically different technology.
Neither Virgin nor Blue Origin’s passengers will find themselves orbiting the Earth: instead, their weightless experience will last just minutes. It’s an offering far different from the first space tourists, who paid tens of millions of dollars to travel to the International Space Station (ISS) in the 2000s.
Having paid for a much cheaper ticket — costing $250,000 with Virgin, as yet unknown with Blue Origin — the new round of space tourists will be propelled dozens of miles into the atmosphere, before coming back down to Earth. By comparison, the ISS is in orbit 250 miles (400 kilometers) from our planet.
The goal is to approach or pass through the imaginary line marking where space begins — either the Karman line, at 100 kilometers or 62 miles, or the 50-mile boundary recognized by the US Air Force.
At this altitude, the sky looks dark and the curvature of the earth can be seen clearly.
With Virgin Galactic, six passengers and two pilots are boarded onto SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity, which resembles a private jet.
The VSS Unity will be attached to a carrier spacecraft — the WhiteKnightTwo — from which it will then detach at around 49,000 feet (15,000 meters.) Once released, the spaceship will fire up its rocket, and head for the sky.
Then, the passengers will float in zero-gravity for several minutes, before coming back to Earth.
The descent is slowed down by a “feathering” system that sees the spacecraft’s tail pivot, as if arching, before returning to normal and gliding to land at Virgin’s “spaceport” in the New Mexico desert.
In total, the mission lasts between 90 minutes and two hours. During a May 29 test in California’s Mojave desert, the spaceship reached an altitude of 21 miles, heading for space.
In October 2014, the Virgin spaceship broke down in flight due to a piloting error, killing one of two pilots on board. The tests later resumed with a new craft.
The company has now also reached a deal to open a second “spaceport” at Italy’s Tarente-Grottaglie airport, in the south of the country.
Branson in May told BBC Radio 4 that he hoped to himself be one of the first passengers in the next 12 months. About 650 people make up the rest of the waiting list, Virgin said.
Blue Origin, meanwhile, has developed a system closer to the traditional rocket: the New Shepard.
On this journey, six passengers take their place in a “capsule” fixed to the top of a 60-foot-long rocket. After launching, it detaches and continues its trajectory several miles toward the sky. During an April 29 test, the capsule made it 66 miles.
After a few minutes of weightlessness, during which passengers can take in the view through large windows, the capsule gradually falls back to earth with three large parachutes and retrorockets used to slow the spacecraft.
From take-off to landing, the flight took 10 minutes during the latest test.
Until now, tests have only been carried out using dummies at Blue Origin’s West Texas site.
But one of its directors, Rob Meyerson, said in June the first human tests would come “soon.”
Meanwhile, another company official, Yu Matsutomi, said during a conference Wednesday that the first tests with passengers would take place “at the end of this year,” according to Space News.
SpaceX and Boeing are developing their own capsules to transport NASA astronauts, most likely in 2020, after delays — a significant investment that the companies will likely make up for by offering private passenger flights.
“If you’re looking to go to space, you’ll have quadruple the menu of options that you ever had before,” Phil Larson, assistant dean at the University of Colorado, Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, said.
Longer term, the Russian firm that manufactures Soyuz rockets is studying the possibility of taking tourists back to the ISS. And a US start-up called Orion Span announced earlier this year it hopes to place a luxury space hotel into orbit within a few years — but the project is still in its early stages.