Rijal Alma: set in stone

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Updated 25 July 2012

Rijal Alma: set in stone

What has happened is unchangeable, a fact of history, and rather than metaphorically it is quite literally in the case of Rijal Alma in the Aseer province: It is set in stone. The stone-built village, stern guardian to a trade route that has long disused in a valley at the foot of the Souda Mountain, was hewn and dressed and built with relatively crude tools out of the local rock. It required a huge amount of human effort to build. Eventually it fell into disrepair and became part of history.
It has been restored and preserved by the local community and won the Prince Sultan bin Salman Prize for Preservation of Urban Heritage in 2006. The question is why? What is the point of keeping this pile of stones and going to all the trouble of keeping it, let alone restoring it? This is the 21st century, not the 10th. These old houses are history. Move on, keep up, get a life!
In an interview in the Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1916, the industrialist Henry Ford was quoted as saying, “History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker's dam is the history we made today.”
If that were true, he would not have been able to tie his shoelaces. The historical act of tying his shoelaces he learned some time in his past. Should he have forgotten he could have consulted a historical document or a verbal record, perhaps his mother, to remind or reeducate himself.
Even at this very simple level, history is clearly not “bunk” — unless you always wear slip-on shoes. It is a source of wisdom and custom that informs the present, and by consulting it as a storehouse of ideas and practices that helped form our current world, it has the potential to guide the actions of today with experiences of the past.
History is a repository of information about how people and societies behave. To understand how people and societies work is difficult. If we relied solely on current data and did not use what we know about past experiences, this would limit our understanding of, for example, the influence of technological innovation, or the role that beliefs play in shaping family life. It would, for example, be impossible to answer the question, “Why Islam?”
A second reason following hard on the first is continuity. What we do now is tomorrow’s history, so we are the past of the future. The “footprints in the sands of time” we leave behind us might lead to a cliff edge or a new idea. Either way, that information will be useful to future generations who might be able to avoid mistakes we make and comprehend how they arrived at their situation. Reference to the past prevents the need to reinvent the wheel on a daily basis. Mr. Ford clearly didn’t recognize this, although he obviously drew on historical experience.
Where this becomes serious is in international diplomacy. If you understand the history of people you deal with on a national basis, then, just as with individuals, offence might be avoided and relations prove easier to build.
So how does this all work with the reconstruction of a stone village? It has been around a long time and was once was the capital of the principality of Hala during the reign of Mossa Al-Kenani in 732 Hijri (1331-1332 AD).
It is an ancient Aseeri village set in the bend of an extensive valley on the trade route between Yemen, Makkah and the Red Sea. Significantly, Aseer translates as “difficult” — and describes both the geography of the area and some say the stubborn and tough character of the mountain people of the area. They certainly put those characteristics to good use a couple of decades ago, when the inhabitants of the village decided to keep and restore their ancestral home and not abandon it to the temptations of glittering modernity.
"Rijal Alma village has introduced itself independently. The residents initiated the rehabilitation works a long time ago to attract tourists to the area and benefit from its economic potentials,” Prince Sultan observed on presenting their prize in 2011.
Easily accessible from the cable car that extends from the Souda National Park complex, it is a place redolent with history and tradition, well preserved and clearly oriented to tourism. It has taken on the appearance of a living museum, but, in its restoration and development, gathered to itself some of the more invasive clutter of development.
The dressed stone square towers, patterned with gleaming lumps of sugar-white quartz, that comprise the original village are typical of the culture of the area. They tell the story of a culture with ingenuity and skills that allowed them to capitalize of the materials to hand and were surprisingly sophisticated in their use of dressed stone to make complex structures.
Clinging to the side of a steep hill and overlooking a sinuous road that once brought the fruits of the spice and incense trade into the interior of the peninsula, the well thought out plans of the builders and planners becomes plain. The hillsides are dotted with defensive watchtowers at points that maximize fields of view and arcs of fire. The solidly built houses double as mini-fortresses and comfortable habitation. They speak of items of great value passing through, a culture immersed in trade, one that picked up trade goods and elements of foreign culture from travelers as they passed through.
Wooden screened balconies, made from sticks gathered from the few trees that grow on the hills, cling to the houses and form extemporary shower rooms. It is a scene that might have been current nearly a thousand years ago when the village was founded.
Restoration and conservation is admirable; preserving historical sites gives the opportunity of succeeding generations to have a datum point in the past to measure their progress and peg a waypoint on their cultural development. Herein lies the invisible but nonetheless real value of sites such as this.
The only way we can understand who we are and how we got to be that way is by studying the past. Similarly, the only way we can understand others is by studying their past. If we don't understand what made them who they are — in terms of how they think and act — we will make all sorts of mistakes in our interactions with them. Equally importantly, to stand before what is by historical standards a considerable architectural achievement and even today a remarkable piece of work fills one with a sense of awe.
The Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) is determined to encourage developing sites such as Rijal Alma. SCTA Chairman Prince Sultan’s avowed purpose in this is to connect modern Saudi and the younger generation in particular with their history. Some of the projects, such as Al-Ghat in the Qassim district, are complete working villages with accommodation in restored houses equipped with few conveniences.
To experience and physically interact with peninsula history from a time centuries before the Saudi state ever came into existence will hopefully, in a world full of virtual truths in cyber space, ground the Saudi visitor on the foundations of his culture. His ancestors were handling the same problems as the visitor has today: Finding food, shelter, fending off aggression, and building a family. Sure, the targets were easier to see and the challenges perhaps clearer, but they used the best technology of their day, the best thinking, astounding ingenuity and sheer muscle to survive and achieve what they did. Succeeding generations built on their achievements through time to bring the culture to where we are today. No one had to reinvent the wheel, so to speak.
Now as then, culture and technology was both locally invented and imported: Principals the same, technology different.
Understanding all this gives the thoughtful witness a sense of continuity, a connection with his origins, and a sense of pride at being part of a culture that has progressed so far — in a word, an identity.
And rather than be the unthinking target market for someone else’s culture, to understand one’s own historical roots and realize that one is unique and always has been delivers the lesson that you can and must learn from history and the accumulated wisdom of previous generations to guide events and inform decisions in the future — and never have to reinvent anything.
It’s true: At Rijal Alma, it is set in stone.

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Irresistible Istanbul: Turkey’s cultural capital

Updated 22 April 2019

Irresistible Istanbul: Turkey’s cultural capital

  • The historic city — part European, part Asian — still has the power to capture hearts

DUBAI: Although the bulk of Istanbul’s historic sites lie across the Golden Horn in Sultanahmet, there’s something magnetic about Beyoğlu. It personifies Istanbul’s confidence and economic energy, is at the heart of the city’s most exciting nightlife, and has acted as a battleground for Istanbul’s modern cultural identity.

It is also home to the city’s main commercial artery — Istiklal Avenue, a wide pedestrianized thoroughfare that stretches from the steep cobbled gradients of Galata to the vast open space of Taksim Square. For most of the year it is populated by an endless sea of people either wrapped up against the onset of winter or basking in the glory of spring and summer.

Beyoğlu is where you’ll find much that relates to the world of art and culture. Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish Nobel laureate and author of novels including “My Name Is Red” and “Snow,” lives and breathes the district’s neighborhoods. You can follow in his footsteps if you like, tracing your way from Sahaflar Carsisi, the used-book bazaar that he used to frequent as a child, to the The Museum of Innocence and its quirky minutiae of 20th-century Istanbul life. The latter was created by the author as a companion to his novel of the same name and is located in a 19th-century timber house in Cukurcuma.

Then there’s the food. Take Ficcin as an example. Spread across a number of venues on either side of Kallavi Street, this wonderful restaurant serves both classic Turkish cuisine and Circassian specialties. That means kofta, artichokes, grilled chicken and an aubergine salad with yoghurt and garlic, and specials such as manti (Turkish dumplings) and the dish that the restaurant is named after — a meat-filled savory pastry baked like a pizza.

If you’re looking to stay in the Beyoğlu area, not far from Ficcin is the Pera Palace Hotel, a late 19th-century masterpiece designed by the French-Ottoman architect Alexandre Vallaury. Renovated and refurbished just under a decade ago, its grand, high-ceilinged interiors are awash with dark reds, velvet and gold, while the colors of the lobby, tea lounge and library are deeper and richer than when Agatha Christie and a cavalcade of early 20th-century celebrities made it their hotel of choice.

A short stroll from the Pera Palace is the former medieval Genoese citadel of Galata, now known as Karaköy and lying at the southern end of Istiklal. Its central, striking feature is the Galata Tower, built by the Genoese in 1348 and a reminder of the wonder of Istanbul’s pre-Ottoman past. Karaköy’s steep cobblestone streets are sprinkled generously with cafés and boutiques selling everything from Orientalist soap tins to Turkish towels and there’s a relaxed, laid-back kind of vibe.

From Galata you can walk down to the shores of the Golden Horn, crossing the Galata Bridge towards Sultanahmet and the district of Fatih (once the Byzantine city of Constantinople). It is here that you’ll realize the full impact of Istanbul’s allure. In peak holiday seasons it will be almost impossible to move within the maze of alleys that make up the Grand Bazaar, a colossal covered market that covers 64 streets and has 22 separate entrances. It’s easy to get lost, which is part of the appeal, but with up to half a million people visiting every day it can get extremely claustrophobic.

For a more sedate experience (although expect queues), Sultanahmet is a UNESCO world heritage site and home to both the Hagia Sophia and The Blue Mosque. At the latter you can sit beneath the continuous vaulted arcade that surrounds the mosque’s great courtyard, or marvel at the grandeur of its interiors, while the former’s magnificent giant dome and stunning mosaics remind you of Istanbul’s Byzantine past.

All of Sultanahmet’s main historic attractions are within easy walking distance of each other, including the Topkapi Palace, with its lavish courts and holy relics, and the underground delights of the Basilica Cistern. The sites are also within 10 minutes’ walk or so of the Ajwa Hotel Sultanahmet, a fully halal luxury boutique hotel that first opened just under two years ago.

If you find the time, head to Pandeli. First opened in 1901, the restaurant is reached via a steep set of stairs near the entrance to the Spice Bazaar and is defined as much by its shimmering blue iznik tiles as it is by its traditional Turkish food. Expect views of Eminonu Square and delights such as lamb stew served on a bed of mashed roasted aubergine.

One thing’s for sure, visitors to Istanbul will not be bored. The many delights of this city straddling two continents could keep anyone busy for months. As the French poet and politician Alphonse de Lamartine wrote in the 19th Century, “If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.”