Saudi Arabia’s mysterious stone structures seen from the air

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Archaeologist David Kennedy during an air expedition to explore Saudi Arabia’s desert plains. (AN photo)
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A helicopter view of the ancient stone structure used to trap animals. (AN photo)
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Kennedy photographs stone gates and graves. (AN photo)
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Kennedy examines the terrain ... a date with history
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A helicopter view of the ancient stone structure used to trap animals. (AN photo)
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Updated 06 January 2018

Saudi Arabia’s mysterious stone structures seen from the air

RIYADH: As the helicopter hovered above the Saudi desert, David Kennedy’s eyes lit up as he glimpsed what he had been searching for: A series of ancient, mysterious stone structures atop the desolate mountains.
The archaeologist had been using Google Earth for years to explore Saudi Arabia’s vast desert plains, but it was not until last month that he visited the Kingdom in person.
“Seeing it from 500 feet is so much better” than on Google Earth, Kennedy told Arab News, which accompanied him for an exclusive view of the discoveries.
Online satellite images revealed 400 stone gates — thought to be used for trapping animals — and graves scattered across the lava fields known as Harrat Khaybar and Harrat Uwayrid.
The Royal Commission for Al-Ula invited the Australian archaeologist to Riyadh, from where he flew to Al-Ula and took aerial photographs.
“I was astonished and delighted when I got the invitation … They spoke to me on Saturday and here we are (in Saudi Arabia) on Thursday,” he told Arab News last month.
Arab News accompanied him on helicopter trips over three days, alongside Don Boyer, an Australian geologist who now works in archaeology; Eid Al-Yahya, Saudi anthropological researcher in the civilizational and humanitarian history of the Arabian Peninsula; and a representative of the Royal Commission for Al-Ula.
Kennedy was frequently seen hanging from the helicopter door while wearing a harness suit, with a camera in his hands.
There were also land tours as he was keen to land on one of the lava fields and see the structures on the ground.
“I’ve seen lava fields before and plenty of graves, but I’ve never seen ones like these. Absolutely amazing,” he said.
There are “so many wonderful sites. When we go back after refueling we’ll visit the best place,” he said, referring to Harrat Uwayrid. “The graves in this lava field are seen overlapping, which is very unusual.”

On Sunday, the third and last day of the tour, a helicopter flew with eight people on board to Harrat Uwayrid, then to Mada’in Salih to see the site from above after taking a land tour the day before.
In 2008, Abdullah Al-Saeed, a Saudi medical doctor, wrote to Kennedy asking him to check out sites in the Kingdom that he had spotted.
“I was stunned because I hadn’t thought of looking up Saudi Arabia (on Google Earth) before, as I thought the quality of the imagery for most of the Middle East was poor,” said Kennedy.
He described the images he found as “absolutely astonishing,” similar to sites he had seen in Jordan but with different designs. “So most people with the same idea executing it in a different way,” is how he described it. Kennedy and Al-Saeed co-wrote an article about it for Saudi Aramco World Magazine.
While searching for more high-resolution imagery on Google Earth, Kennedy said he was particularly interested in Harrat Khaybar.
“There’s just so much there. I’ve been used to the lava field in Jordan, which is very rich, but Harrat Khaybar I think is richer. It’s an absolutely wonderful place.”
Kennedy has written a few articles about what he has seen in Saudi Arabia on Google Earth. “When I started looking at Harrat Khaybar, I found more and more good imagery there, and I was able to interpret the whole area,” he said.
It took him months to systematically analyze and catalogue the imagery, but “at the end of that process, we found almost 400 of these very strange structures that we’ve called gates,” he added.
“That gave us the opportunity to start an analysis or some sort of interpretation of the findings.”
Al-Yahya argued that he and his team found more than the 400 desert structures. “My team, consisting of two, and I started counting the graves on Google Earth, but we stopped at 1 million.”
The gates are among different stone structures in the lava fields. Some could be up to 9,000 years old, Kennedy said, adding: “They’re huge, and there are so many of them.” Al-Yahya said the densest concentration of such structures in the world is in Harrat Khaybar.
Kennedy said he has never been especially excited by grandiose sites. “They’re great to visit. Mada’in Salih is an amazing place. I like places like that, but I’m more interested in small sites of everyday life, not the great things that kings and emperors made,” he added. “There’s a lot of Roman material around Al-Ula. I’m excited about that.”
Kennedy said people do not often hear much about the archaeology of the Kingdom. “When people think of Saudi Arabia, they probably think of mountains and great sandy deserts. People are surprised when you tell them there’s a population of over 30 million people. They think it’s a desert and only 1 or 2 million people live there, riding camels.” That is probably why Saudi Arabia has caught people’s attention, he added.
Kennedy explored the lava field of Harrat Uwayrid during his three-day stay in Al-Ula. Visiting Mada’in Salih, he was able to see the Hijaz railway, part of which he photographed in Jordan last year and the year before. “It’s fascinating,” he said.
There is a big project in southern Jordan called the Great Arab Revolt Project, which is about the Arab revolt against the Ottomans during World War I, and those involved in it would love to come to Saudi Arabia, Kennedy added.
Google Earth is “hugely important because there’s so much high-resolution imagery and you can zoom in and look at sites,” but it will never replace aerial photography and archaeology, he said, adding that they complement each other.
“If you have Google Earth and aerial archaeology, you should also go on the ground. You really have to explore as many of these places as possible.”
Kennedy’s most recent paper is entirely about the stone gates. He has published other work about what he has seen on Google Earth over Saudi Arabia, including one on sites near Jeddah.
A paper in which he contrasts what he has seen in Jordan and Saudi Arabia could be published early next year.
“Everything (in Saudi Arabia) seems very clean, tidy and organized,” Kennedy said, laughing at how he has only just visited the Kingdom despite two of his brothers having worked there for decades, one as a flying instructor on contract with the Royal Saudi Air Force, and the other as a dentist.
“It’s been an eye-opening experience,” Kennedy said, adding that the Kingdom is developing rapidly.
“I went to an exhibition about five years ago called ‘Roads of Arabia’ in Washington, and I found it absolutely fabulous. The presentation was amazing. Such things are giving people a different impression of Saudi Arabia from just desert and camels,” he said, referring to an exhibition on ancient civilizations and cultures.
“Then there was a conference in Oxford about three years ago called ‘Green Arabia,’ which again surprised people as it contradicted the typical image of deserts.”
Tourism in the Kingdom could be boosted by heritage-oriented adventure holidays, he said, citing Mada’in Salih as an alternative to Petra in Jordan. “People would be astonished to discover this remarkable place (Mada’in Salih).”
Kennedy, who visited Syria long ago, expressed his wish to go back there. “It was wonderful visiting sites in Syria. I think it’s going to be a long, long time before I can do that again.”
His passion for archaeology started at the age of 10, when he was given a book as a Christmas present on sites in Britain.

Fantastic four: Saudi women fly the flag for cycling

Updated 19 July 2018

Fantastic four: Saudi women fly the flag for cycling

  • Saudi Arabia’s first women-only 10-kilometer cycling race was held in April 2018 at the King Abdullah City for Sports in Jeddah
  • More than 70 Saudi cyclists took part in the tour, including the four HerRide members

JEDDAH: Before Saudi Arabia’s women drivers there were Saudi women cyclists. Thousands of women around the Kingdom have taken to two wheels in the past few years, and groups of female cyclists are a common sight on city streets.

Now four young women have taken cycling to a new level by becoming the first Saudi female cycling team to join the Global Biking Initiative (GBI) European tour, an annual seven-day ride that highlights the sport and raises money for a range of charitable causes.

Sisters Fatimah and Yasa Al-Bloushi, Dina Al-Nasser and Anoud Aljuraid — founder members of the HerRide cycling group — joined hundreds of cyclists from all over the world earlier this month when the tour kicked off from Gothenburg in Sweden before heading through Denmark and on to the port of Hamburg in northern Germany.

More than 70 Saudi cyclists took part in the tour, including the four HerRide members. 

The dynamic HerRide team shares a passion for adventure, and a love of outdoor activities and sports. Fatimah Al-Bloushi, the team captain, told Arab News that when she started the group in July, 2017, “we were a group of amateur cycling enthusiasts and our idea was to train to be the first Saudi female team to participate in GBI Europe 2018.” 

This year was Fatimah’s second time in the GBI tour. Last year she was the first and only Saudi woman to take part in the event. 

“I want to empower Saudi women and encourage cycling,” she said.

Fatimah also enjoys skydiving, surfing, abseiling and climbing, and is also the first woman member of the Saudi Cycling Federation. In her hometown of Alkhobar, she organizes women’s gatherings twice a week to cycle together along the beachfront. She also volunteers to teach cycling for beginners. 

Like all sports events and tours, training plays a crucial role in preparing for the GBI tour. Team member Anoud Aljuraid, an accomplished hiker and technical climber, met Fatimah two years ago while climbing the Ol Doinyo Lengai, or “Mountain of God,” volcano in Tanzania.

“For me the challenge was sitting on the bike for up to eight hours while riding up to 100 kilometers a day,” Aljuraid said. “It was also hard to maintain a certain speed to reach the next destination or nutrition point on time, but my training helped me get over those challenges.”

Although the number of women cyclists on the streets of Saudi Arabia is growing, challenges remain for those joining the sport.

Team member Dina Al-Nasser lives in Riyadh and enjoys long-distance cycling as well as hiking and boxing. Her biggest challenge during the GBI tour was cycling alongside cars.

“I mostly trained at home, but it’s hard for me to train in areas where men usually train, such as Wadi Hanifa and Ammariyah,” she said. “However, I was able to get over my fear and by the third day on the tour I was riding alongside trucks and didn’t even notice.”

Al-Nasser said that cycling is challenging not only for women in Saudi Arabia but for professional cyclists in general.

“We hope that the streets will be more bike friendly, and that people can adopt the same infrastructure for cyclists that we have seen on the tour — such as special paved paths and traffic lights — here in the Kingdom,” she said. 

“Hopefully, cycling will become a lifestyle in Saudi Arabia and we will see people cycling to work one day.” 

The Saudi HerRide women’s team celebrate a challenging stage finish on the GBI European tour. (Supplied photo)

Despite the challenges, the HerRide team say they are hoping to join the next GBI tour. “It was a great experience to cross three countries by bicycle,” Yasa Al-Bloushi said. “Of course, we got some bruises and had falls here and there, but I look at that as a sign of accomplishment.”

The team members gained valuable skills from watching other riders during the tour. “I learned how to be a part of a team and to look out for each other. It was important to listen to my team-mates and focus on their needs,” said Dina Al-Nasser.

 Fatima Al-Bloushi said that the support of her team made her second tour more special than the first. “We knew each other’s weaknesses from day one and we always had each other’s back. If our energy levels were low, someone would provide nutrition. When our spirits were down, we had music to give us a boost, and when someone was nervous, we reminded each other to have fun,” she said.

“I experienced GBI twice. The first time I went alone and came back with a family of friends. The second time I went with friends and came back with family.”

The woman said the spirit of cooperation among cyclists on the tour was empowering. “What made this experience even more amazing, besides the beautiful scenery, was the quality of people we met,” said Fatima. “If we were struggling, they would pass by with a smile, give you a pat on the back and tell you that you were strong enough to push through — it really did make us feel stronger.”

 In future, the group plans to hire a professional trainer and offer cycling workshops for Saudi women. They also hope long-distance cycling events, such as the GBI, will one day be held in Saudi Arabia. 

“Under Vision 2030, I’m sure there will be a lot of local events for cyclists in the Kingdom, including women,” said Al-Nasser.

The four cyclists have some words of encouragement for Saudi women hoping to fulfil their dreams. “You will always find people who will give you negative comments, but as long as you are doing what you love and are not hurting anyone, just keep going,” said Al-Nasser. 

Fatimah said: “Two years ago I was looking to join a cycling team, but as a woman in Saudi Arabia I was unable to — now things have changed. My advice to all women out there is never say ‘no,’ always say ‘yes’ to opportunities.”