Yemen’s Socotra archipelago awaits ecotourists

Yemen’s Socotra archipelago awaits ecotourists
A view of desert rose (Adenium socotranum) plants growing on Di-Hamri mountain in the Yemeni island of Socotra. (AFP)
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Updated 24 March 2021

Yemen’s Socotra archipelago awaits ecotourists

Yemen’s Socotra archipelago awaits ecotourists
  • Socotra is located just 250 kilometers (155 miles) from the Horn of Africa, and 1,000 kilometers from the southern city of Aden where Yemen’s government is based

SOCOTRA, Yemen: With its lush landscape, distinctive trees, unique animals and turquoise waters home to dolphins, Yemen is hoping its Socotra archipelago will become a dream destination despite the country’s nightmarish conflict.
Lying in the Indian Ocean some 200 kilometers (120 miles) off the Yemeni coast, the four islands and two rocky islets are home to some 50,000 people and have remained relatively untouched by the war that has devastated the mainland.
While most of Yemen is embroiled in a conflict that erupted in 2014 between Houthi militia and the government — plus the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic — adventurous travelers are showing a growing interest in visiting Socotra.Many set off from the wealthy United Arab Emirates, which is close to the authorities that control the islands.
“Fortunately, Socotra has never been affected by the war dynamics of the Yemeni mainland,” local travel agency Welcome to Socotra told AFP.
“No tensions or fights have ever been reported, hence there is no reason for tourists to worry.”
Since flights resumed with a chartered Air Arabia aircraft once a week from Abu Dhabi, the agency has received “hundreds” of requests, it said.
Yemen, already the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula even before the war, has for years been trying to develop the archipelago into a hub for ecotourism.
But despite the reassuring words and the lure of the pure white beaches, Socotra hit the headlines in June 2020 when Yemen’s UAE-trained southern separatists seized it from the government.
The two sides have since established a power-sharing deal, substantially dialing down tensions in the south.
Socotra is located just 250 kilometers (155 miles) from the Horn of Africa, and 1,000 kilometers from the southern city of Aden where Yemen’s government is based.
It is famed for its unique biodiversity: Nearly one-third of its 825 plants and 90 percent of its reptile species are considered unique to the island, according to the UN’s cultural agency UNESCO.
The unique and spectacular vegetation, such as the Dragon’s Blood Tree with its distinctive umbrella-shaped canopy and red sap, has earned it a listing as a World Heritage Site.
“Socotra is of particular importance to the Horn of Africa’s biodiversity hotspot,” UNESCO says on its website.
“As one of the most biodiversity rich and distinct islands in the world, (it) has been termed the ‘Galapagos of the Indian Ocean’.”


Saudi Arabia’s Diriyah celebrates International Day for Monuments and Sites 

Saudi Arabia’s Diriyah celebrates International Day for Monuments and Sites 
Diriyah holds a number of historic sites that bore witness to the development of the Saudi state. (SPA)
Updated 18 April 2021

Saudi Arabia’s Diriyah celebrates International Day for Monuments and Sites 

Saudi Arabia’s Diriyah celebrates International Day for Monuments and Sites 
  • Salwa Palace is a symbol of the rise of the Al-Saud family to unify the present-day Saudi Arabia

JEDDAH: In celebration of UNESCO’s International Day for Monuments and Sites on April 18, Arab News highlights one of the Kingdom’s oldest and most cherished sites: Diriyah, capital of the first Saudi state and birthplace of the ruling family.
The Diriyah Gate Development Authority (DGDA) is racing to finalize its plans to make the site the “Jewel of the Kingdom.”
Restoration of historic Diriyah will reflect Saudi Arabia’s remarkable past, maintain the area’s landmarks and highlight its history.
The Diriyah Gate giga-project was launched in November 2019 by King Salman, who has regarded it as special since he was governor of the region.

HIGHLIGHT

The Diriyah Gate giga-project was launched in November 2019 by King Salman, who has regarded it as special since he was governor of the region. Restoration of historic Diriyah will reflect Saudi Arabia’s remarkable past, maintain the area’s landmarks and highlight its history. 

“Diriyah holds a number of historic sites that bore witness to the development of the Saudi state,” said DGDA spokesman Thamer Al-Sudairi. He described Diriyah as “a symbol of unity of the land.”
Nestled between the bend of Wadi Hanifa and considered one of Diriyah’s oldest neighborhoods, At-Turaif holds prominence with over 300 years of history etched on the mud-brick walls that dot the area. Salwa Palace is a symbol of the rise of the Al-Saud family to unify the present-day Kingdom.


Saudi Arabia’s historic Hail mosque reopens to worshippers

Saudi Arabia’s historic Hail mosque reopens to worshippers
The building’s unique style originates in its construction from mud and stone. (SPA)
Updated 18 April 2021

Saudi Arabia’s historic Hail mosque reopens to worshippers

Saudi Arabia’s historic Hail mosque reopens to worshippers
  • The mosque used to host Friday prayers when worshippers traveled from neighboring villages to pray

HAIL: Several famous mosques in the Hail region, including the Qafar Mosque, have been rehabilitated as part of the Mohammed bin Salman Project for Historical Mosques Renovation, through which 30 religious sites in 10 regions will be restored.

The construction of the Qafar Mosque dates back to between 1334 AH and 1445 AH when Ruqayya bint Abdullah founded the site following the death of her husband. It was renovated in 1385 AH, according to the pillar of the mihrab.

The mosque used to host Friday prayers when worshippers traveled from neighboring villages to pray. A modern prayer house was built inside the mosque’s campus in 1412 AH. Today, the mosque is open to worshippers for the five daily prayers and Friday prayer.

Qafar Mosque is located in the old town of Qafar near the road linking Hail and AlUla, about 20 kilometers southwest of Hail.

The building’s unique style originates in its construction from mud and stone, with a wooden roof built from tamarix and palm fronds.

Qafar mosque covers an area of 687 square meters and can accommodate 170 worshippers.

The mosque features the Al-Saha courtyard, which houses two depots and a rectangular eight-meter minaret.

After the mosque’s restoration, it now contains a prayer house, the upgraded Al-Saha courtyard, a prayer area for women, toilets and ablution facilities for both men and women. It can now house more than 400 worshippers.


Expert reveals details of astonishing archaeological find

Expert reveals details of astonishing archaeological find
Large quantities of items, including semi-precious stones, were found at the site and it is expected that the discoveries in the city will cover an area of more than 3 kilometers. (AFP)
Updated 12 April 2021

Expert reveals details of astonishing archaeological find

Expert reveals details of astonishing archaeological find
  • Large quantities of semi-precious stones were found and it is expected that the discoveries in the city will cover an area of more than 3 km

CAIRO: Zahi Hawass, the former Egyptian minister of antiquities, said that the discovery of a lost city in Luxor is the most important and greatest archaeological discovery for him.
Hawass believes that the extension of the city belongs to Tutankhamun, and said that the recent discovery shook the world.
The Egyptian archaeological mission, headed by Hawass, discovered the lost city under the sands of Luxor, called Ascension of Aton, which dates back to the reign of King Amenhotep III. The city continued to be used by Tutankhamun 3,000 years ago, and it may even pre-date pharaonic history and add to the archaeological discoveries that Egypt has discovered during recent years.
Hawass said during televised statements that many industrial places were discovered in the lost city, including places for the manufacture of clothes, linen and fishing rods, and 100 molds were discovered for the manufacture of amulets used in the palace.
Large quantities of semi-precious stones were also found and it is expected that the discoveries in the city will cover an area of more than 3 km.
“We found three main areas — one for management, one for workers to sleep (in) and a third for industry — as well as an area for dried meat,” Hawass said.

HIGHLIGHT

Expert believes that the extension of the city belongs to Tutankhamun, and says that the recent discovery shook the world.

He explained that it is the largest ancient city found so far, noting that the discovery was carried out by an Egyptian team.
Hawass said that Betsy Bryan, an archaeologist specializing in the golden age, had praised the discovery of the lost city, describing it as the second most important discovery after the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Hawass said that the process of restoring the city will begin next month. The pottery found in the city dates back 3,000 years, confirming that the discovered pots were used for storing meat.
He said that they had also discovered three kilos of dried meat as well as other significant finds.
“A cemetery dating back to the 26th dynasty, 500 BC, was discovered, and these graves are complete and untouched and are supported because they are made of mud bricks,” Hawass said.
He said that work to discover the lost city began in September 2020.
Hawass said that he had not expected to discover the city. Archaeologists believed that it had disappeared, so the discovery of the first house in the city had astonished scientists, he said.


Historic Hima Well reveals the journeys of Arabia’s ancient caravans

Historic Hima Well reveals the journeys of Arabia’s ancient caravans
The site is made out of a series of seven fresh water wells, which includes more than 200 sites containing rock inscriptions, graves and stone circles. (Supplied)
Updated 10 April 2021

Historic Hima Well reveals the journeys of Arabia’s ancient caravans

Historic Hima Well reveals the journeys of Arabia’s ancient caravans
  • Archaeological excavations carried out by SCTH discovered that the city of Najran is among the oldest inhabited places
  • The site contains numerous rock inscriptions and drawings that date back to before 3000 BC

MAKKAH: Hima Well, one of the most ancient and significant stops along the ancient trade routes of Arabia, untouched and unaltered, continues to fascinate researchers and archaeologists.

The site, about 140 km north of the city of Najran, is well preserved, and with its largely intact rock art depicting humans, animals, hunting tools, bows and spears and more, shows a picture of what was once an ancient route for caravans traveling from the southern regions of the Arabian Peninsula to its north.

Saleh Al-Muraih, a historical researcher specializing in the tourism and archaeology of Najran, told Arab News: “Hima Well is one of the most important historical sites in the Kingdom and contains numerous rock inscriptions and drawings that date back to before 3000 BC.”

“The site is made out of a series of seven fresh water wells covering an area of 30 km, which includes more than 200 sites containing rock inscriptions and drawings, graves, stone circles and historical wells,” he said.

Al-Muraih added: “Hima was the starting point for commercial caravans that gathered at the wells before taking one of two main roads. The firsts of these roads used to lead to Mesopotamia after passing through Al-Faw (also known as Qariah, an ancient city on the outskirts of the Empty Quarter), which is the archaeological site of the Kindah and Al-Yamama regions, known today as Najd. The second road used to lead to the Levant and Egypt after passing through the Hijaz region.”

FASTFACT

To date, 1,293 human drawings, 5,121 animal drawings, 3,616 Thamudic inscriptions, 2,775 Ancient South Arabian script inscriptions and three Nabataean inscriptions have been found in the region, while search and excavation operations are continuing in the Kingdom in general, and the region in particular, to uncover more monuments and historical cultural heritage.

Its dense rock art engravings are the legacy of the hundreds of caravans, departing from Al-Okhdood in the south, that passed by the well over the years. Ancient South Arabian script (Musnad), the South Arabian language or the Thamudic language can be found on these engravings alongside depictions of flora and fauna.

“The Saudi government took care of Hima Well, and there are fantastic fencing works taking place. This is coupled with continuous scientific research that has studied the site and we hope for the completion of the procedures that would see the addition of the site to UNESCO’s World Heritage List,” Al-Muraih said.

“There has been numerous land surveys and protection efforts exerted in the area. Fortunately, Hima does not have any violations or anything that could harm these monuments, while the people of the region are highly cultured when it comes to protecting these sites and therefore preserving these significant historical monuments,” he said.

As one of Najran’s 86 historical sites, Hima Well combines heritage and tourism in one area. Tour guides, a cooperative local community and cooperative government bodies are all on hand to speak about the historic significance of the well.

Dr. Salma Hawsawi, professor of ancient history at King Saud University, told Arab News: “The Kingdom has a great deal of archaeological sites and historical cities that have witnessed construction works over the course of thousands of years. They are truly worthy of preservation and development so that they can cope with the current requirements.”

She added: “Historical cities, regardless of their history and origins, are many. Among those worth mentioning is the southwestern city of Najran, which was mentioned by numerous classical historians such as Strabo, in his book ‘Geography,’ where he called it Negrana, as he talked about the Roman campaigns in the Arabian Peninsula in the years 24-25 BC, and Ptolemy, who referred to it as Negara Metropolis.”

“In his book, Yaqut Al-Hamawi, a Muslim historian, said that the city was named after the first person that inhabited it, Najran bin Zaydan bin Sabaa. What also confirms how old this city was is the mention of its name in the inscriptions of Sabaean rulers such as Karib’il, Samah Ali Yanuf and Yitha’amar Bayyin,” she said.

According to Dr. Hawsawi, the geographical importance of the Kingdom’s southwestern region stems from its location between Africa and Asia. This is coupled with the importance of the coastal region in terms of migration, and some settlements are found to date back from the first century BC to the Islamic era.

“Archaeological excavations carried out by SCTH discovered that the city of Najran is among the oldest inhabited places. It did so through archaeological evidence found at various sites belonging to different periods in history, starting with the ancient Stone Age to the Islamic era,” she said.

Hawsawi said: “Rock art and inscriptions are the elements that most distinguish the region’s monuments, as they provided us with a lot of information regarding clothes, accessories, weapons, stone stoves, rectangular and conical structures and tanks, especially around the Hima Well area.”

Most of the region’s rock drawings showcase camels, cows, goats and geese, along with some predatory animals such as lions and wolves, Dr. Hawsawi said. “Ostriches were given special attention in terms of their decoration and size, in addition to them being drawn in various positions, highlighting the significance of this animal.”

The drawings show horse battles, where knights used spears, and limited hunting scenes, where dogs were used to hunt goats, she said, noting that “there are drawings of humans that are larger than the normal size, while some of them had their heads covered. Men’s beards were shown clearly. Humans wore necklaces and collars, while some men wore anklets to produce sounds that suit the dance moves and music. Outfits were made out of short gowns that were wrapped around the middle. Other drawings showed people dancing with musical instruments that resemble the rebab.”

Dr. Hawsawi said: “Thamudic writings were found in the region in large quantities, followed by the Ancient South Arabian script and the Kufic script, which dates back to the Islamic era. The multiplicity of scripts found in the region sheds light on the succession of civilizations. In addition, Ancient South Arabian script inscriptions found engraved on top of Thamudic inscriptions highlights how old the Thamudic script really is.”

“Most of the inscriptions consist of names such as ‘Saad,’ ‘Awathat’ and ‘Rafadat,’ and of deities such as ‘Al’ and ‘Kahl,’ while inscriptions were usually found next to drawings of animals,” she said.

Dr. Hawsawi said that “among the long inscriptions is a 12-line one belonging to King ‘Dhu Nuwas,’ in which he described his victory over the Ethiopians in 512.”

To date, 1,293 human drawings, 5,121 animal drawings, 3,616 Thamudic inscriptions, 2,775 Ancient South Arabian script inscriptions and three Nabataean inscriptions have been found in the region, while search and excavation operations are continuing in the Kingdom in general, and the region in particular, to uncover more monuments and historical cultural heritage.


The Maldives: A pandemic travel haven

The Maldives: A pandemic travel haven
Updated 08 April 2021

The Maldives: A pandemic travel haven

The Maldives: A pandemic travel haven
  • Get your negative test and enjoy a pre-COVID vacation throwback at the Soneva Jani resort

DUBAI: Being greeted with a handshake shouldn’t be such a jarring experience. But stepping into the restaurant at the Soneva Jani resort in the Maldives’ Noonu Atoll, this is how you’ll be welcomed. And in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it feels, well, strange.

Strange but safe: Masks are cast aside. Open buffets exist. Hands are shaken. On this island, at least momentarily, the pandemic does not exist. 

The Maldives reopened to all international travellers on June 15, 2020, with the exception of the capital, Male, which remains largely off limits, due to COVID cases often emanating from there. 

The overwater villas at Soneva Jani are some of the largest in the world. (Supplied)

At the time of writing, the Maldives had recorded about 24,000 cases of COVID-19 and 66 deaths, from a population of roughly 531,000 people. It has administered around 233,000 doses of the coronavirus vaccine. The country also has strict regulations and guidelines in place for managing resorts and guesthouse facilities, should an outbreak take place — so be prepared to pay (in most cases) for two weeks of quarantine in your luxury overwater villa if you do test positive.

Due to this perception of being a safe travel destination during the pandemic, tourists have been flocking to the island archipelago. In March, about 110,000 tourists arrived at Velana International Airport, compared to 59,630 in March 2020 and 156,553 in March 2019. Currently, around 3,550 people are arriving every day. Staff at Soneva say the resort is perhaps even busier now than it was over the 2019/2020 festive period.

Clearly, it’s vital to them that the Maldives continues to be a safe destination — and that their resort, especially, stays COVID-free. So safety (theirs and yours) is paramount.

On this island, at least momentarily, the pandemic does not exist. (Supplied)

While Velana is thronging with arrivals from all corners of the globe and your seaplane to Soneva will likely be full, there’s no chanting crowd awaiting your arrival to offer refreshments and a change to mingle . Instead, you’re picked up by speedboat and whisked off to your villa in isolation, where you’ll need to stay for most of that day, since Soneva requires you to take another PCR test on arrival, separate from the one you’ve already taken to board your international flight. 

Fortunately, indoor quarantine here is luxurious. The overwater villas at Soneva Jani are some of the largest in the world. The island’s newest set of bungalows, its 27 ‘Chapter Two’ villas, are bigger than most Dubai apartments. There’s enough seating to comfortably host a football team, freshwater infinity pool, kitchen, retractable roof for stargazing, rooftop dining area and in some, a slide that will transport you from the villa’s rooftop to the azure waters below. Frankly, you’ll struggle to fit it all in during your 12-hour quarantine.

In-villa dining, courtesy of a team of cautious staff, is dropped off while you wile away your quarantine by the pool or in the ocean. (Supplied)

In-villa dining, courtesy of a team of cautious staff, is dropped off while you wile away your quarantine by the pool or in the ocean. 

Once your results are through (between six to 12 hours), life goes back to normal. As in, pre-COVID normal. Staff and guests alike are free to go about their days without masks. High-fiving and handshakes are common. Physical distancing isn’t imposed  — but is easy to achieve if you’d prefer to be extra-cautious.

Soneva Jani is based on a large island, and despite being home to 51 overwater villas and three island villas, most of which are full during our stay, it is blissfully quiet. The restaurants never seem to have more than a few other families or couples in at a time, and as most of the options are outdoors (Cinema Paradiso, the overwater, open-air theatre, being a very 2021 way to take in a movie), you’ll never feel cramped.

Soneva Jani has outdoor cinema. (Supplied)

Excursions on the island are just as pandemic-friendly. The boats that provide dolphin cruises or snorkelling trips are huge, and the water is the perfect place to social distance.

At Soneva, the pre-pandemic holiday still exists. For a few nights, at least, you won’t be rushing back to your room to retrieve a forgotten mask, or feel the need to stare down anyone who accidentally gets a little too close.

The resort’s extra PCR test is imposed for this reason. If you do test positive, your quarantine is free. If you don’t, then the anxiety of travel in 2021 is relieved. For that reason alone, if you’re in need of a holiday at a time when safety is key, Soneva is a great option.