Photographer Anna Aiko captures beauty of Arabian Peninsula on camelback

Photographer Anna Aiko captures beauty of Arabian Peninsula on camelback
Anna Aiko was invited to the celebration of the 91st National Day of Saudi Arabia. She was chosen to experience 91 km of the ancient trail of Darb Zubaydah on camelback. (Supplied by Abdullatif Al-Obaida)
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Updated 18 November 2021

Photographer Anna Aiko captures beauty of Arabian Peninsula on camelback

Photographer Anna Aiko captures beauty of Arabian Peninsula on camelback
  • ‘I love to travel by camel while capturing the authentic life along the ancient caravan trails’

RIYADH: Crossing the Empty Quarter in Saudi Arabia is a feat in and of itself but crossing it by camelback in the 21st century is extraordinary, and photographer Anna Aiko is in for the whole experience as she travels across the Kingdom, the UAE, Yemen, and the Silk Road this way.

“My dream was to explore the region on camelback, but the question was how?” Aiko said.

When asked how she would describe herself, Aiko told Arab News: “An iPhone photographer with a passion for traveling on camelback.” 




In the mid-1970s, Aiko’s parents lived in Saudi Arabia. Throughout her childhood, she listened to their stories about the region and came to love it. (Supplied by Abdullatif Al-Obaida)

Aiko was born and raised between two cultures.

“I was born in Tokyo and raised between Japan and France. I later moved to Paris for 20 years as an art director in the fashion and luxury industries.”

In the mid-1970s, Aiko’s parents lived in Saudi Arabia. Throughout her childhood, she listened to their stories about the region and came to love it.

“The Arab world became like a fairy tale,” she said. “With this mix of cultures, I could see the world with a vision.” 

Aiko has had a lifelong passion for traveling, and one of the major trips she took saw her follow the ancient path of the Silk Road in 2015. During the trip, she captured photos with her iPhone, which led her to win, among other awards, the iPhone Photography Awards.

The year 2019, when she crossed the Empty Quarter, known as Rub Al-Khali in Arabic, was a turning point in her life.

“A friend told me that he was looking for a man who wanted to cross the Empty Quarter on camelback,” she said. “Although I didn’t know how to ride a camel, I told him that I wanted to be the one to do it, and 72 hours later, I was flying to Saudi Arabia to join the Rakayib Camel Caravan to cross the vast desert.”

Even though her trip started with a sandstorm, she was thrilled, and it was in that moment that her love story with the Arabian Peninsula began.

“I cried tears of joy because something impossible was becoming a reality. I was living my dream.” 

Her passion for traveling on camelback only grew, and today Aiko owns two beautiful camels.

“Exploring the beauty of the Arabian Peninsula this way never ceases to amaze me,” she said.

The trip covered a total of 2,400 km. In the UAE, she traveled with the Hamdan bin Mohammed Heritage Center, while to the island of Socotra, in Yemen, she traveled with the support of the Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan Foundation. 

Recently, Aiko was invited to the celebration of the 91st National Day of Saudi Arabia. She was chosen to experience 91 km of the ancient trail of Darb Zubaydah on camelback.

Darb Zubaydah, or the Zubaydah Trail, is one of the Islamic civilization’s most significant humanitarian and social projects. It stretches from Kufa in Iraq to Makkah, covering 420 km inside the Kingdom alone, and was once known as a route for pilgrims and traders.

The trail was named after Zubaydah bin Jafar, wife of Caliph Harun Al-Rashid, who contributed to its construction and revival for convoys and passersby.

“The region of Hail, since ancient times, was the heart of travelers, and the generosity of its people was renowned. Discovering this new part of Saudi, I had tears in my eyes. The area’s landscapes, sand dunes, desert, mountains, and rock art are remarkable.” 

She mentioned that she is planning for a few trips in the future. “I’m trusting how life will guide me to the next step, to create a new link between its histories, like a puzzle.”

One of Aiko’s goals is to transmit the beauty of the Arabian Peninsula through her trips.

“I’ve been passionate about the beauty of the Arab world for as long as I can remember. I love to travel by camel while capturing the authentic life along the ancient caravan trails.”

She remarked how surprised she was by the “hidden beauty” of the countries within the region.

“As a woman traveling by camel, I’ve always been welcomed like a family member. That allowed me to participate in the culture, which deserves to be better known. I hope that my experience as an art director will allow me to translate the stories through my photography and to preserve the region’s beauty as the 21st century continues to unfold.”


Arab states express solidarity with Saudi Arabia over suicide bomb blast

Arab states express solidarity with Saudi Arabia over suicide bomb blast
Updated 8 sec ago

Arab states express solidarity with Saudi Arabia over suicide bomb blast

Arab states express solidarity with Saudi Arabia over suicide bomb blast
  • Abdullah Al-Shehri detonated a suicide vest when authorities attempted to arrest him in Jeddah, injuring four
  • Arab world praised the Kingdom's effort to maintain security and safeguard lives

Dubai: Arab nations have expressed solidarity with Saudi Arabia on Saturday in the wake of the death of a suicide bomber in Jeddah.

Abdullah Al-Shehri detonated a suicide vest when authorities attempted to arrest him in Jeddah, injuring a Pakistani resident and three security men.

In a statement, the UAE condemned the blast, reiterating its stance against “all threats to the Kingdom’s security and stability.”

The country’s ministry of foreign affairs commended the diligence of the Saudi security forces and measures taken to maintain public safety, conveying wishes for a speedy recovery of those injured in the blast.

Jordan conveyed support to the Kingdom “in every step taken to protect its security.”
Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Haitham Abu Alfoul praised efforts of Saudi security forces in addressing threats to the Kingdom’s stability and safety.

In a statement published by the state news agency (BNA), Bahrain reaffirmed “unwavering solidarity” with Saudi Arabia and commended relentless efforts to maintain security.

Bahrain also praised the vigilance of security forces in dealing with the wanted man who detonated an explosive belt during his arrest, injuring four.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) condemned the bombing and praised the Kingdom’s firm action against any threat that undermines its safety and security.

Meanwhile, Arab Parliament Speaker Adel Al-Asoumi stressed on his confidence in the Kingdom’s vigilance to protect its vital facilities, combat terrorism, and ensure the safety of its citizens and expats.

On Friday, the Saudi security state announced the operation of tracking down and arresting Al-Shehri, who was among nine wanted individuals involved in a 2015 terrorist operation that targeted a mosque in Saudi Arabia. He has been listed as a wanted person by authorities in the Kingdom for the past seven years, according to the statement.


Saudi authorities arrest resident with 50kgs of hashish in Asir’s Rijal Alma’a

Saudi authorities arrest resident with 50kgs of hashish in Asir’s Rijal Alma’a
Updated 16 min 1 sec ago

Saudi authorities arrest resident with 50kgs of hashish in Asir’s Rijal Alma’a

Saudi authorities arrest resident with 50kgs of hashish in Asir’s Rijal Alma’a
  • The Yemeni resident had hidden the narcotics in the vehicle he was driving when authorities discovered drugs, according to SPA

Authorities in Saudi Arabia arrested a resident who was in possession of 50 kilograms of hashish in the Rijal Alma’a governorate in the Asir region, the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported on Saturday. 

The Yemeni resident had hidden the narcotics in the vehicle he was driving when authorities discovered drugs, according to SPA. 

Saudi Arabia will continue on attempts to import and export drugs to preserve public security and protection, the Zakat, Tax and Customs Authority said in a statement on Friday, after more than one million contraband pills were found hidden in a consignment that came into the Kingdom through the port of Jeddah.

The authority called on citizens and residents to report any smuggling-related crimes and violations of the provisions of the unified customs system in complete secrecy.


Saudi Arabia expands Umrah with visa allowance

Saudi Arabia expands Umrah with visa allowance
Updated 13 August 2022

Saudi Arabia expands Umrah with visa allowance

Saudi Arabia expands Umrah with visa allowance
  • The Visit Saudi platform provides e-services, including the issuance of electronic visas and purchasing of Umrah bundles. The service is available at visitsaudi.com/ar.
  • Move targets Vision 2030 goal of 30m pilgrims per year

JEDDAH: All Saudi visa holders are now permitted to perform Umrah in the wake of a decision by the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah.

The move aims to ease bureaucracy and open the pilgrimage to more visitors — a target of Vision 2030.

It comes in conjunction with the start of this year’s Umrah season and as part of efforts to facilitate rituals, provide high-quality services and enrich the religious experiences of pilgrims.

The Maqam platform connects pilgrims with authorized tourism companies and agencies. Users from outside the Kingdom can also apply for an Umrah visa, as well as choose service bundles. The platform is available at maqam.gds.haj.gov.sa.

The Visit Saudi platform provides e-services, including the issuance of electronic visas and purchasing of Umrah bundles. The service is available at visitsaudi.com/ar.

Holders of on-arrival visas, among countries eligible for electronic visas, as well as US, UK and Schengen visa holders, can carry out Umrah rituals with ease, provided that the visas are used for one time only and carry the issuing country’s seal.

Family visit and personal visit visa holders can also perform the pilgrimage by booking an appointment through the Eatmarna application during their visits to relatives and friends in the Kingdom, and by applying to the Unified National Visa Platform.

To carry out Umrah rituals, visitors must have comprehensive medical insurance that covers — among other things — the treatment costs of COVID-19, personal incidents resulting in death and disability, and flight delays or cancellations.


Saudi FM holds talks with Maltese counterpart on bilateral relations

Saudi FM holds talks with Maltese counterpart on bilateral relations
Updated 13 August 2022

Saudi FM holds talks with Maltese counterpart on bilateral relations

Saudi FM holds talks with Maltese counterpart on bilateral relations

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan met with his Maltese counterpart Ian Borg during his visit to Malta.
The two ministers held a session of talks, during which they reviewed aspects of relations between the Kingdom and Malta and ways to strengthen and develop them in various fields, in addition to discussing the most prominent issues of common interest.
The meeting and the talks were attended by the Deputy to Italy, Faisal bin Hanif Al-Qahtani, and the director-general of the Office of the foreign minister’s Abdul Rahman Al-Daoud.


How archaeological discoveries in AlUla and Khayba are unearthing Saudi Arabia’s prehistoric past

How archaeological discoveries in AlUla and Khayba are unearthing Saudi Arabia’s prehistoric past
Updated 13 August 2022

How archaeological discoveries in AlUla and Khayba are unearthing Saudi Arabia’s prehistoric past

How archaeological discoveries in AlUla and Khayba are unearthing Saudi Arabia’s prehistoric past
  • Thousands of structures, most between 4,000-7,000 years old, have been found in the Kingdom’s northwest
  • The discoveries are the key to a radical rethinking of the prehistory of the Arabian Peninsula

LONDON: To the bedouin, the mysterious structures of uncertain age and unknown origin scattered across the harsh and dramatic landscapes of northwestern Saudi Arabia have always been simply the works of “the old men.”

To the archaeologists who have just completed a four-year project to catalogue all the visible archaeology of AlUla County and the nearby Harrat Khaybar volcanic field, the tens of thousands of structures they have found, most between 4,000 and 7,000 years old, are the key to a radical rethinking of the prehistory of the Arabian Peninsula.

“A lot of the archaeological focus in the region in the past has been on the Fertile Crescent, running through Jordan, Israel and up into Syria and beyond, and little archaeological attention has been paid to this early material of Saudi Arabia,” said archaeologist Dr. Hugh Thomas, a senior research fellow at the University of Western Australia.

“But as we do more and more research, we’re realizing that there was so much more here than small, independent, communities living on nothing much and not doing much in an arid area.

“The reality in that in the Neolithic period these areas were significantly greener, and there would have been really sizeable populations of people and herds of animals moving across these landscapes.”

In the near future, he believes, “I think we are going to make massive discoveries that are going to change how we view the Middle East completely.”

Dr. Thomas is co-director of the Aerial Archaeology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia project, set up in 2018 by the Royal Commission for AlUla, as part of the Identification and Documentation of the Immovable Heritage Assets of AlUla program. The following year the project was expanded to include the neighboring, heritage-rich region of Khaybar.

A “core” area of AlUla of 3,300 sq. m was surveyed separately by UK-based Oxford Archaeology. Working with staff and students of King Saud University in Riyadh, they identified more than 16,000 archaeological sites.

Setting out initially to survey the AlUla hinterland, an area of more than 22,500 square kilometers, Dr. Thomas and his colleagues faced a daunting task, which they broke down into three stages.

A remote preliminary survey of the entire area, using satellite imagery, was followed by aerial photography of selected sites and, finally, excavation of a small number of the most promising structures.

The first stage lasted more than a year, with team members poring painstakingly over Google Earth and other satellite imagery and pinning every structure they spotted.

For the University of Western Australia team back in Perth, it meant “hour after hour of patiently scrolling through,” Dr. Thomas said.

“Sometimes it was in areas where there was absolutely nothing, just endless kilometers of remote desert. But then at other times you’d find structures all over the place, and you would get through only a few kilometers in a session, because you were constantly finding and pinning new archaeological sites.”

The hard work paid off handsomely.

By the end, they had identified 13,000 sites in AlUla and an extraordinary 130,000 in Khaybar county, dating from the Stone Age to the 20th century. They logged everything they saw, including some of the remains of the Hejaz railway, built by the Ottomans before World War I, but the vast majority of the sites dated from prehistory.

Each site consisted of anything from one structure to clusters of 30 or more, and they have now catalogued more than 150,000 individual structures of archaeological interest, especially in the Khaybar region, where there is “a really dense, significant concentration of archaeological remains.”

After the remote sensing came the really fun part — flying low over the spectacular landscapes of AlUla and Khaybar in helicopters, using open-door photography to record sites previously identified by the satellite survey as being of particular interest.

The pilots, from the Saudi-based The Helicopter Company, flew from site to site along flight paths created by the archaeologists.

Archaeological discoveries in AlUla and Khaybar are the key to unlocking the secrets of prehistoric Saudi Arabia. (Moath Alofi)

“They were commercial pilots who at first had no idea about the archaeology,” Dr. Thomas said. “But they were very keen, and also pretty good at interpreting and spotting things.

“They ended up having a really great understanding, and that was so beneficial to the project. I could say, ‘I’m after three funerary pendants up on an outcrop’, and the pilot would say, ‘Oh, I can see them, in front of us,’ and they’d steer the helicopter round to give you the best photographic angle.”

By the end, he said, “some of the pilots would have seen more archaeology up close than the majority of archaeologists.”

The last aerial photography was carried out in March this year and, by then, the team had captured more than a quarter of a million images across AlUla and Khaybar.

Among the structures they photographed were more than 350 examples of one of the most extraordinary types of large-scale structures scattered across Saudi Arabia’s prehistoric landscape — the mysterious mustatil.

Mustatil is the Arabic word for rectangle, and these often huge, rectangular structures, built by an unknown people more than 8,000 years ago, may be unique to the Arabian peninsula.

More than 1,600 are now known to exist across 300,000 sq. km of northwestern Saudi Arabia, concentrated mainly in the vicinity of AlUla and Khaybar.

Mustatils vary in type — some are more complex than others — but usually they consist of two parallel walls, or occasionally more, joined at either end by shorter walls to create a rectangle. They range in length from 20 to 620 meters and often they are clustered together, in groups numbering anything from two to 19.

Of the 1,600 mustatils identified via satellite imagery and the 350 photographed from the air, 39 were selected for ground survey by Thomas’ team. (Rebecca Repper)

In some places, mustatils have been “overbuilt” by subsequent generations who have constructed circular ringed tombs, or so-called pendant tombs, on or very near them.

Building some of the mustatils would have been a big commitment for a considerable number of people. The largest structure ground-surveyed by the AAKSA team, situated on the Harrat Khaybar lava field 50 km south of Khaybar town, was built from basalt boulders and measures 525m in length.

It is estimated that the structure weighs about 12,000 tons, with individual stones weighing between 6 and 500 kg.

Extrapolating from experimental studies carried out on Mayan structures in Guatemala, the archaeologists have estimated that it would have taken a group of 10 people two or three weeks to build a mustatil more than 150m long. Larger structures, up to 500m, could have been constructed by a group of 50 people in about two months.

As Dr. Thomas and his colleagues wrote in a paper published recently in the journal “Antiquity,” not only are mustatils “an important component of the ancient Arabian cultural landscape,” they are also among the earliest stone monuments in Arabia, and “globally one of the oldest monumental building traditions yet identified.”

Of the 1,600 mustatils identified via satellite imagery and the 350 photographed from the air, 39 were selected for ground survey by Thomas’ team. Of these, just a handful were excavated, and these have revealed a wealth of previously unknown information.

In late 2018 and 2019, for example, archaeologists from both the UWA and Oxford teams began excavating undisturbed mustatils east of AlUla valley, and discovered evidence that the structures had served a ritual purpose. Collections of horns and other cranial bone fragments, from animals including cattle, goat and gazelle, were found in chambers in the structures, which could suggest offerings had been made to some long-forgotten deity.

“These are ritual structures, I’d bet my house on it,” Dr. Thomas said.

“We have now excavated five of them, the Oxford Archaeology team has excavated three, and other teams are excavating others too. With the artefacts that are inside, and also the construction techniques that are involved in creating them, there is no practical function for these structures, other than ritual, that would make any sense.”

There are an estimated 917 kites around Khaybar built in varying shapes and sizes and some dating back to between the fifth and seventh centuries B.C. They resemble gates, triangles, kites, bull’s eyes, and keyholes. (Moath Alofi)

There is no roofing, the walls are too low for them to have been used for keeping animals in them, and some of them are built on the slopes of mountains that are incredibly steep and difficult to walk up.

Organic remains can be carbon-dated, and the animal bones revealed that the site was late Neolithic – about 7,000 years old. In the past season, however, in a collaboration with the archaeology department at Durham University in the UK, the team has been employing another sophisticated dating technique called Optically Stimulated Luminescence.

This, Dr. Thomas said, “basically allows you to date the last time that sand had light fall directly upon it, which is a really useful technique for dating structures that don’t have any kind of organic deposits within them.”

So far, nothing has been unearthed to suggest why the mustatils were built where they were.

“In some of the locations where we find them we just can’t understand why they were built there,” Dr. Thomas said.

“They might be in a random valley with seemingly not much happening around them. It suggests that people are coming to that spot, creating them, then moving on and probably coming back periodically.”

That, of course, poses the question: what was so special about these sites to these people?

Another, possibly connected, mystery is that the mustatils and even the later Bronze Age burial structures in the region were clearly built to be appreciated not from ground level, but from up above, in the sky.

“What’s fascinating is when you see them from the ground, they’re not that spectacular, just a series of walls,” Dr. Thomas said.

“But as soon as you get in a helicopter, or you look at it on satellite imagery, these things just come to life.”

One theory is that the structures might have been built to be viewed from above by the dead. Another possibility is that they were ritual structures constructed for the benefit of some deity in the sky.

But, as the structures were built long before human beings developed writing, the truth is likely to remain a mystery.

Equally mysterious is where the people came from who built the mustatils — and where they ended up. As yet, no Neolithic burial sites from the same period have been found.

Archaeologist Don Boyer measures a tower of stones next to a 525m long Mustatil in Khaybar. (David Kennedy)

“The hope is that, in the future, we might identify some Neolithic burials,” Dr. Thomas said. “But the reality now is that we’re not sure where the people of the Neolithic are.”

They could have been buried in unmarked graves at random sites, which would make it very hard to find any of them.

“Alternatively, there may be other things that they did to their bodies, which means that we will never find them.”

However, a series of finds in some mustatils has hinted at a perhaps macabre practice in about the mid-fifth millennium BC. Some human remains have been found — but only fragments.

“In one, we found part of a foot and five vertebrae and a couple of long bones. We can tell that while there was still soft tissue attached and holding the bones together, fragments of that body were taken and placed within this mustatil, or next to it.”

There are, however, multiple burial sites in the region — and sometimes close to mustatils — from the Bronze Age, dating from about 2,500 years later. 

“There are thousands upon thousands of tombs, pendant burials and larger monumental tombs in the region, indicating that there were large, thriving populations here,” Dr. Thomas said.

The most dramatic examples are located in Khaybar county, to the southeast of AlUla.

“Projecting out of Bronze Age oases are these long pathways, funerary avenues, flanked by thousands of tombs, creating a really significant funerary landscape.”

The next objective for the team is “to focus on this shifting idea of monumentality. In the Neolithic period, for whatever reason, something occurred that meant that people started creating these absolutely massive ritual structures, over a 300 to 500-year period.

“Then it stopped. Archaeologically, from about 4,800 down to about 2600 BC, we find very little — some domestic structures, but not many graves.

The kites were geometric shapes that may be connected or unconnected to each other. They may be part of a building or separate, or stone piles. (Duhim Alduhim)

“Then suddenly these monumental burials start appearing across the landscape. Why this shift from the mustatil, monumental ritual structures, to the focus 2,000 years later on the individual, or family groups, that were being buried in these structures?

“What happened in those few thousand years?”

Whatever the answer, the vast number of mustatils identified — about 1,600 in an area roughly the size of Poland — not only puts Saudi Arabia’s ancient past in a Neolithic class of its own, but has global repercussions.

“When we look at Neolithic landscapes across the world, often you’re only finding a handful of structures, less than a dozen,” Dr. Thomas said.

“So to have something like the mustatil, where you’ve got well over 1,000, covering such a significant area, really changes how we have to view the Neolithic.

“It indicates that the Neolithic is much more complex than we originally thought.

“And, as more research comes out about the mustatil, I think that will completely revolutionize how we view Neolithic societies, not just in Arabia but across the rest of the world.”

There will be 12 archaeological teams at work in the field this autumn, exploring the past cultures of AlUla and Khaybar from prehistory to the early 20th century. Stone structures of the late prehistoric period will remain a key focus.