Saudi Arabia: Tabuk Province
The sun was finally beginning to rise as we started our descent from the upper valley region down through the rocky, red and almond-colored cliffs of the Hejaz mountains of Tabuk province in northwestern Saudi Arabia. The narrow mountain pass, mostly denuded of vegetation, still wistfully reminded me of family trips during my childhood back in East Tennessee and North Carolina down similarly tortuous, twisting mountain roads, distinctly adorned with their lush Appalachian foliage.
I now found myself in an extraordinary and mythic place. The alkaline granite peak of nearby Jebel Al-Lawz, whose name means the almond mountain in Arabic, and is believed by some to be Moses’ own Mountain of God, receives regular snowfall in winter, and features archeological sites like an ancient quarry and rock art of human and animal figures which spans 10,000 years of history.
The once-vast Hejaz Railway, begun in 1900, ran through these mountains. It was originally conceived to provide a link between Constantinople and Saudi Arabia and to take Muslim pilgrims from Damascus, Syria to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
Archaeologist and British Army officer Thomas Edward “T.E.” Lawrence served here during World War I on behalf of the short-lived northwestern Arab Kingdom of Hejaz in their war for independence from the Ottoman Empire. In 1916, “Lawrence of Arabia,” as he later became known, came right to this region on intelligence missions and quickly became involved with the Arab Revolt against the Turks on behalf of this small Arab kingdom. Together, they attacked sections of the railway, and by the end of the war in 1918, the line lay in ruins, with only a few relic stations and rusted locomotives remaining today in the desert.